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How Can I Help My Anxious Child?

Anxiety is real whether you are a child or an adult. Adults are quick to dismiss children's anxiety as being "shy" or "not confident" but the truth is anxiety can feel crippling. Adults often don't understand a child's worries and therefore they don't see it as important, but for the child, that worry is absolutely terrifying. Anxiety is rarely logical, but that doesn't make it any less real. We all have fears that don't make sense to others. Just like someone having fear of spiders, can be absolutely terrified of even a tiny harmless spider, and we seem to accept this as okay. But a child's fear of the dark or go somewhere new is just as valid.

Telling your child that "everything is okay, there is nothing to worry about" or "don't be silly" is not going to help them. They want to listen to you, they wish that they could, but their brain won't let them. When we become anxious our brain and body goes into "fight/flight/freeze" mode. Quite literally the logical thinking part of our brain switches off and the emotional part of our brain takes over. It is trying to keep us alive, so it exaggerates sounds, sights and feelings to make us hyperventilate. That's why we jump at every sound when we are scared, we are ready to do what we need to do to survive. So when we try to talk to our kids about why logically they don't need to be anxious, they can't hear us. They also feel like you don't really understand, so how can they believe you if you don't understand in the first place?

So what do we do to help?

Stop, Empathize, calm, problem-solve, and make a plan:

The most important thing you can do when your child anxious is stop with your child. Don't race ahead and try and fix it, don't give them lots of things to do or think, just stop. When we stop with our child we are putting aside everything else and just focusing on them. They feel like you are with them and that they aren't alone.

Empathize with your child. Even if you don't really understand why they anxious, just connect with the feeling. We have all been anxious, we can all relate to that feeling where your heart is racing, you have shortness of breath and there just doesn't seem like there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Connect with that, feeling. Say "I know it is hard to feel worried", let them know that you understand and that you know it isn't easy.

The only way your child is going to be able to think logically again is to be calm. When we are calm the emotional part of our brain stops taking over and the logical part can work again. The best and easiest way to calm is to do slow diaphragmatic breathing. When we breath slowly our body triggers the vagus nerve which then causes our whole body to calm. It isn't just a distraction to breathe slowly, it physically changes how our body works. There are so many great ways to do breathing activities with children. I have written blogs on fun relaxations and mindfulness activities before if you want some ideas. My favourite breathing technique is to have your child trace around their hand with their finger. As they trace up the finger breathe in, at the top of the finger hold their breath and then breathe out as they go down their finger. This will help them slow their breathing and they usually like the sensation of tracing their hand.

Picture from blog "Relaxation Pillow"

When your child is calm, then you are able to start problem-solving about what they can do. It is so important to involve your child in this. You need them to feel some control over the anxiety and this won't happen if you are just telling them what to do. Have them come up with ideas, even if they seem crazy, don't dismiss them just talk them through. Say "okay, what would happen if we did that?". Then you can work out which is the best strategy to try. Once you have come up with some ideas together, make a plan for how you will do this. You might want to try a few things out to see if they work. You may want to create a step plan where you break the worry down into smaller steps. That way the thing that seems so overwhelming can become manageable.

Anxiety isn't all Bad

When our kids are anxious, they often feel like something is wrong with them. They know that others don't seem to worry as much and can seem to do things easily. If they feel that there is something wrong, then they will only worry about this too. If we can explain what anxiety is, then we can help them to feel that what is happening is normal. Everybody gets anxious and it is something that our body is supposed to do. Explain that when there were cave men, it was really important that if there was a dangerous animal about to attack, that they had to be ready to fight, run away or freeze. This is how they stayed alive. Our body still works the same way even though it is pretty unlikely that we will be attacked by a wild animal. So their body is doing exactly what it needs to do, the problem is that their brain is working a bit too hard to keep them safe.

A great book to explain this is Hey Warrior by Psychologist Karen Young. You can buy this book on her website

Catch unhelpful Thoughts

Thoughts and worry have a cyclic relationship. We have a thought that makes us worried, then we feel anxious which triggers more thoughts and worries and so on. But if we can catch the unhelpful thought, we can change it to something more helpful. Now remember we can't think logically when we are really anxious. This is not something you can do till your are calm. But as you teach your child what unhelpful thoughts are, they will learn to catch them before they become a spiral of worry. Explain that these thoughts are any thought that makes you feel "not good". They could make you feel sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed etc.

Unhelpful thoughts usually have some common words, Always, Never, Not Fair, Will. These extreme words can really evoke intense emotions. Write out some of their common unhelpful thoughts and circle the extreme words. I usually explain to kids that these unhelpful thoughts have some truth to them but they aren't completely true. As these thoughts are exaggerated, we can then find the more helpful thought.

The helpful thoughts are not just the opposite of the unhelpful thought. If the unhelpful thought was " he always takes my stuff", the helpful thought wouldn't be "he never takes my stuff" because that wouldn't be true either. A helpful thought is not supposed to make you feel wonderful, it is just supposed to make you feel a little bit better. When we can lift our mood a little it makes the situation easier to handle. So for this example, the helpful thought could be "he takes my stuff sometimes" or "he usually asks first". They may still be a little upset but not as they were with the extreme word. Work together to pick the best helpful thought.

Often after we have come up with the helpful thoughts, kids aren't convinced that this will help. So what I do is get them to rate their mood out of 10 for the unhelpful thought and then the helpful thought. They are amazed to see the shift. Have them write what their mood would be out of 10 (10 being feeling fantastic and 0 is terrible) for each unhelpful thought and then the helpful. If there isn't a shift of at least 3 then you might need to find another helpful thought.

Learning to change our thoughts takes practice. It won't work instantly but eventually they will start to recognise that they are using those extreme words in their thinking and be able to adjust. Have them practice changing them when they are calm and then eventually it will happen more automatically.

Anxiety is hard for both children an adults, but there are things that we can do to help. When we recognise that our child is struggling and join with them to calm, that will build the connection that your child needs before they can learn strategies to manage it. It is important to teach your child how to calm, to problem-solve and to catch unhelpful thoughts, but the most important factor to help them is feeling that you understand and that you are with them every step of the way.

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