Updated: Aug 9, 2021
The world is still in a state of heightened anxiety. It seems that there are glimmers of “normal” and then the world changes again. The problem is, when we are living in this state of “fight/flight”, we are more reactive and so are our kids. You may find that your kids are fighting more, are reluctant to do things, more aggressive or just acting out of character. Any of these changes could be anxiety. We are all living “on edge” and our kids are picking up on this. So how do we manage this state of anxiety that we are living in?
1. Acknowledge it.
We can't manage what we don't recognise. Ask your child how they are feeling about what is going on in their world. Are they in lockdowns? Is there mask wearing? How are they feeling about going to school? Or whatever is happening for them. If they are young or find it difficult to express their emotions, then name it for them. You could say "it feels a bit strange to go back to school after so long, doesn't it? It's okay to feel nervous to go back". Be careful not to jump on their worries with answers. Anxiety is rarely logical so saying what worries them is "silly" or not really an issue is not helpful, it is real to them. Acknowledge that whatever their fear is would make them feel scared. Now this isn't agreeing with the fear, it is validating the emotion. You could say "yes that does sound scary" or "I understand why you feel worried". When a child (or anyone really) feels heard then they will feel safe enough to find a solution with you.
2. Explain Anxiety
It doesn't really matter how old your child is, by explaining the basics of anxiety you are helping them to understand what their body is doing and realise that their feelings are normal.
You don't need to go into the whole brain science of anxiety but you might be surprised how much your child is able to understand. Explain that it is our brain's job to keep us safe from anything that might harm us. But sometimes our brain works too well and causes us to feel anxious when we are safe. I usually say something like, "back when there were cavemen, if a Saber Tooth Tiger came into your cave what would you have to do?" The answers usually involve a fight or flight response. Explain that when your heart beats fast, your breathing is quick, your muscles feel tight or wobbly, these are all signs that their body is getting ready to "fight" (often seen as a tantrum) or "flight" (resistance/defiance). But there are no Saber Tooth Tigers and sometimes we need to train our body and our brain to calm so that we can think clearer and feel better.
Draw out what they are feeling in their body so they can visually understand that these feeling in their body is normal. When they learn what their body is telling them, they can connect the physical reaction to the emotion. When we given them skills to calm, these physical changes become a warning of when they need to use their tools to calm.
A fantastic children's book to help explain anxiety is "Hey Warrior" by Karen Young. You can order this on her website www.heysigmund.com This beautifully illustrated book shows how our brain is trying to protect us and keep us safe but when we are anxious it is trying too hard. It explains the science in a way that children can understand and relate to.
3. Release the Anxiety
Before we can do any problem-solving or any sort of logical thinking, we need our kids to calm their body. Quite literally, when we are anxious, the logical part of the brain has been shut down. That's why we can be highly anxious about things that make absolutely no logical sense. There is no point telling your child that everything is safe they don't have to worry. They are worried, and while they are in a state of "fight" or "flight" they are not going to respond to your reasoning.
There is so much research to support that slow controlled breathing and relaxation will cause the body to calm and in doing this, the logical part of the brain will start to work again. There are so many ways to do this. I have written a blog previously with some fun ideas https://www.thetherapistparent.com/post/fun-relaxation that are easy to do at home. Casey O’Brien has also written a fantastic book with some real practical ideas for help children learn relaxation and coping skills. Casey’s book is an incredible resource for teachers, school counsellors and therapists as it has a 12-week program with handouts and reproducible workbooks for kids. However, this don’t mean that it wouldn’t be helpful for parents. The book easily explains ways to bring relaxation techniques into everyday life. Casey's website has some great resources too www.wholechildcounseling.com
4. Make a Plan
Only after we have done all the previous steps can we begin to talk about problem-solving. Once the child feels heard, they understand what they are experiencing, they are able to calm, then they are able to logically cope with the worries they have. If we try to skip these previous steps, we are likely to hit resistance and not bring any peace for our kids.
Talk about what is it that specifically worries them. If it is the germs and the threat of getting sick, help them recognise that the precautions that the schools are making are keeping them safe. Would they feel better having their own hand sanitizer? What else could they do? Work together to come up with ideas. They could be worried about friends. Role plays work so well with children. Have them practice asking someone else to play. Sometimes children are worried about their parents when they have to be apart and they find separating difficult. They might worry that something bad will happen to their parents when they aren't together. Remember that anxiety isn't logical. If your child is calm, you can try and talk logically about these fears. Ask the child, "has anything bad like that ever happened before?" "What are the chances that this would really happen?". They might just need to feel close to you while you are apart. It can help for them to take something special of yours with them to school. A necklace, scarf or anything that is yours that they can take it with them as a reminder that you aren't far away and you will be together again soon.
In this crazy changing world we need to recognise that normal is not normal anymore and what was once safe could now trigger fear. But if we work through this together, what may have caused incredible anxiety could teach our kids resilience and skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.