How to support children with anxiety

children with anxiety

There has been a lot going on for children of late, and perhaps you are reading this recognising that your child has been experiencing anxiety recently. As a parent, it’s tempting to want to swoop in and solve or fix things – but the reality is that it’s more about helping children with anxiety manage their anxious thoughts or feelings. We’ve teamed up with Dr Malie Coyne – author of Love In, Love Out – in this guide to supporting children with anxiety.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

Anxiety becomes a problem when it affects a child’s sense of who they are, their relationships and their engagement with school and other activities. Anxiety becomes a problem when a child’s worries – whether their thoughts, feelings or physical sensations – are making them avoid situations, which in turn restricts their learning and enjoyment of life.

If your child has been struggling with one or more of these symptoms more days than not for the past six months, it may be time to talk to your GP, who can advise you about reputable local support services.

  • Excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events or activities
  • Worry that is hard to control
  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Becoming easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems: difficulty falling or staying asleep, unsatisfying sleep
  • Trouble in school, in social settings, dealing with other

What causes children to feel anxious?

Common reasons for difficulty coping with anxiety range from:

  • A child’s unique temperament or personality, where 15% of children have a more ‘anxious’ temperament.
  • What a child has gleaned from observing their parents and key adults in their lives. Because anxiety is contagious, children with anxiety often have anxious parents.
  • The presence of any traumatic events or ‘anxiety triggers’ in their lives, such as an accident, a significant loss, or something which really shakes a child’s sense of safety.
  • A wider societal factor which I call the ‘perfect storm’ which is a combination of the pressures of our ‘busy, always on’ modern day lives meeting our ancient brains which are attuned to threat.

Regardless of the specific reason or reasons for your child’s anxiety, the experience of anxiety itself is quite similar in everyone. This is simply because as human beings we all share the same survival response to threatening situations, which negatively impacts our thoughts, feelings, body sensations and behaviour.

Whilst the intensity of this response can vary between humans, the feeling of anxiety is universal.  For that reason the techniques I introduce in my book apply to any child of any age, irrespective of the reasons they may be anxious.

Is it normal for children to have anxiety?

Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Anxiety is the body’s alarm system that has always helped human beings to survive. It works so well that it kicks in even when it’s not needed, like when we believe there is danger when there is none, or when we start to ask ourselves ‘What if’ something terrible happens.

People who are feeling anxious are scanning for danger, and are mega alert to the body’s alarm signals. That’s why anxiety can feel so exhausting! Anxiety is not a sign of anything being wrong or of being weak.It’s a sign that your strong, healthy brain is doing exactly what it’s meant to do to protect you from danger. Anxiety doesn’t care if the threat is real or imagined, because our brain would rather keep us safe than be sorry.

How to support children with anxiety #parenting #parentingtips #anxiety #mentalhealth

How can parents manage anxiety in children?

The ‘SAFE’ way to help an anxious child

In times of stress, you play a crucial role in containing your child’s anxiety, finding the tricky balance between helping them to feel safe and empowering them to test their fears and solve problems. To find this balance, I have developed the four steps of the SAFE chain of resilience to support you in navigating your child’s anxiety:

Self-care: First explore any discomfort that is provoked in you by your child’s anxiety and work on calming yourself. This involves reflecting on your feelings and bringing kindness to them.

Anchoring:  Recognize the crucial stabilizing role you can play to help your child feel safe and secure, knowing that you are there for them.

Feeling felt: Connect to your child to unpack the messages behind the anxiety, to help them feel validated and understood.

Empowerment: Once you explore your own responses and your child feels safe and connected, problem-solving strategies can then emerge and be explored together.

Should parents avoid certain things just because they make their child anxious?

As parents, we have a natural instinct to want to protect our children from any harm. Given that a child’s anxiety causes them significant distress when faced with the feared object or situation, it follows that parents would do anything to protect their child from such distress.

Whilst the parent may be well meaning by for example keeping their child away from what the child fears, avoidance of the feared object only serves to strengthen the fear and fuel its power over your child going forward. The irony is that the only way to help your child is by doing something which feels counter-intuitive to your protective instinct as their parent, which is gradual exposure to what they fear with support from you or a professional.

How can parents validate but not amplify their anxieties?

  • Talking to your child about anxiety will not make them more anxious. Helping your child to understand what’s happening inside their bodies helps them feel less alone and more empowered.
  • Unpacking, or exploring your child’s fears, helps you to pinpoint what it is exactly about a situation that is scary for them which also helps you to see the situation from their point of view, facilitating your empathy.

And how can we help children with anxiety “make friends” with their anxiety, as it were?

Once you’ve identified your child as anxious, helping them to understand how anxiety works and the many ways it affects them can help to make it more ‘normal’ for them – and therefore not as frightening. To know that anxiety is a natural response to a real or perceived threat, and a sign that our strong and healthy brain is doing exactly what it’s designed to do to protect us from danger, can help, and to realise they’re not the only ones who experience anxiety can be a huge relief.

Explain to your child:

‘Anxiety is like a wave. Like any feeling, it will come and then it will go. When the wave comes in, it can feel really scary, as if it’s going to drown you. But the reality is that if you ride the wave, by yourself or with someone you love, it won’t actually harm you. Although it feels like one of the most horrible feelings in the world – I know! – it doesn’t last long and it goes away after a while, especially if you tell someone how you’re feeling, try to ride the wave, take some deep breaths or jump around a few times to let all the tension out’.

What are some do’s for parents wanting to help their child manage their anxiety?

  • When your child becomes anxious, pause, breathe in and try to exude calm; although it’s hard, you do not need to react in the moment.
  • Before you can help your child you need to help yourself. Reflecting on how you feel gives you choices in how to react. This is hard so try to be kind to yourself.
  • Be gentle on you and your child. This is hard. You are not alone. Trying to see your child’s anxiety as an opportunity to build on your connection will help you both get through and even build on their resilience going forward.

And some don’ts?

  • Because a child’s anxiety can trigger discomfort in the parent, a parent’s reaction can be to smooth it over quickly, to judge the feeling, minimise it or try to solve it like they would any other problem. Unfortunately these responses miss the mark and can increase a child’s sense of threat as they feel disconnected from the one person they relied on as their support.
  • Instead of denying or minimizing their fears, try to reflect back your understanding of what they are going through. You are their anchor and their sense of safe.

If you had to give a pep talk to our readers whose children are experiencing anxiety it would be….

The most precious gift we can give our children is to create a calm and loving environment where they feel safe to feel anxious and are accepted just as they are. Welcome and love all parts of them including their anxiety. We don’t have to fix all their problems immediately.

The parent who is compassionate to themselves (Love in) opens the opportunity to be patient with their children and to respond to them with understanding (Love out). What you’re going through is not easy, and you’re really trying your best for your little one.

Now that anxiety is present, perhaps you could even open the door and welcome it in. Given how tough your child has had it, and that you’re probably feeling lost at sea with it, I know this is a long shot. But reframing anxiety’s presence in your lives could well be a crucial opportunity for them to face a manageable threat with your calm and soothing presence by their side, building on their lifelong resilience.

We hope you found this guide to supporting children with anxiety helpful. Do you have any experience of parenting a child with anxiety? Do share in a comment below.

‘Love In, Love Out: A Compassionate Approach to Parenting Your Anxious Child by Dr Malie Coyne is available to buy at Amazon.

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Cover picture credit: Girl photo created by drobotdean – www.freepik.com

One comment

  1. Thank you for this article. It came as a blessing and I really needed to read this. It is very insightful and I have learnt so much for your post. Thank you once again!

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