Noticing a child struggle with anxiety can be tough on any parent. If you care for an anxious child, or maybe a child who seems to have difficulty regulating emotions, you may notice they tend to get stuck. That anxious thought or fear seems to take hold and they just can’t see beyond. So, what can you do to help?
Anxiety is a part of life
The reality is that everyone experiences anxious or uncomfortable thoughts and emotions at times; it’s part of the human experience. However, your child may not necessarily recognise this. They may feel that theirs is a unique perspective, and perhaps suggests that something is either wrong with the situation, or possibly even with them. It’s a good chance that neither of those judgements are true. So, a good first step is to start noticing and talking about your own discomfort. You might find opportunity as you’re making conversation in the morning on the way to school. For example, you might say something like:
“I notice I’m a bit nervous going into this meeting today. I’m feeling a bit worried they won’t like my new ideas. But I worked really hard and I think it’s a good plan.”
By doing so, you’re normalising the experience, as well as modelling persistence in the face of discomfort. You’re showing them that you can be nervous and uncertain, but still engage. Never underestimate the power of modelling.
How we respond matters
It is quite natural for you to want to distract your child away from a trigger; to help them avoid that which they find distressing. You might find yourself accommodating your child’s worries by helping them avoid certain settings or situations, or to get through it as quickly as possible without allowing them to really experience the moment. While this is always very well intentioned, it might not be the most effective approach. Sometimes in our efforts to help our children, we’re actually denying them opportunities to grow and develop essential life skills. Instead, you can foster these skills by allowing them to have those experiences in reasonable doses, and of course supporting them along the way.
When you notice your child is feeling anxious or worried about something, take that as an opportunity to explore those emotions. Validate those thoughts and then broaden their awareness to the idea that experiences can be more than just scary or overwhelming.
Small changes can make a big difference… over time
Building resilience is likely going to take more than just changing some language. There are so many ways to help children get unstuck, but we can offer a few simples changes that can start you on your way, and should make a noticeable difference if you commit.
Acknowledge and name it.
Instead of responding with “you’re fine, you’ve got this,” or “you’ll feel better once you get there,” which could be interpreted as invalidating, acknowledge that thought. You might say something like “I notice you’re feeling very worried right now.”
Put space between your child and the emotion.
Notice in the example just offered that we didn’t suggest modelling you’re worried. Instead, we deliberately inserted the word feeling to avoid equating the child with the emotion. Phrasing it in this way can help them recoginse that they are separate from the emotion and do not need to be controlled or bullied by it.
Replace but with and.
When you approach them with homework or are trying to get out the door to school and their response is “but It’s too hard,” acknowledge, and then also expand that thought. You might suggest “I know it can be tough and I can help.” On that first day of school when they’re feeling quite scared, you might suggest “I know you feel scared, you can feel scared and excited about who you might meet.”
Try adding for now.
Help your child understand that feelings and emotions are temporary, and the feelings will pass. “I know it’s difficult for now, and the more you practice, the easier it will get.”
We love the magic of I wonder. This is another great way to expand your child’s thoughts and open them up to the possibility that there could be more to the situation than fear or anxiety. If they’re feeling nervous about a new class or group, you might suggest “I wonder if you’ll meet someone that likes football as much as you.” Or if they’re feeling nervous about a new child minder, for the child who loves to play games, you might suggest “I wonder if they know any new games they could teach you.”
Need more help?
Anxiety is a natural part of the human experience; everyone experiences it to some degree. However, it can take many forms and can become debilitating and life-limiting for some individuals. If you have concerns that your child’s anxiety is significantly impacting their ability to learn, develop and maintain relationships, or complete daily life activities, it is important to seek assistance from a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional who specialises in treating anxiety in children.
About the author
Shannon Eidman is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, ACT Therapist, and parent of two teen boys, one of whom is autistic. Her post-graduate qualification is in School Psychology. She has been supporting children with different learning and behaviour needs for over 20 years, particularly those identified as autistic. She’s committed to offering a compassionate and skills-based approach to behaviour change and supporting children who struggle with anxiety. She is co-founder of Reach Children’s Services, a small therapy services in Co Westmeath, Ireland.
You can learn more about the supports offered by Shannon and Reach Children’s Services at www.reachchildrens.com, or by emailing email@example.com