When you notice your child might be struggling with something, as a parent you pull upon the resources around you to support them; whether it’s help to address their physical health, support from school with their academic progress or input to help them develop a specific skill. When it’s emotional wellbeing they’re struggling with, it can be much harder to know where to start.
When do you need to worry?
When does worry become anxiety? All children worry. It’s normal, very common and in some senses worrying can be helpful. It’s the thing that motivates us to make sure we are prepared, the reason we plan for different outcomes and worry can keep us safe and aware. Worry is often temporary, short lived and it tends to come and go. Anxiety is when our worry becomes persistent and all consuming; it’s intense and is markedly different to worry in its inability to be controlled.
Giving our child an anxiety toolkit
As a parent of a child suffering with anxiety it can leave you feeling utterly helpless in knowing how to help them. Perhaps more helpful than ‘fixing’ the situation or preventing any anxiety is to upskill your child with tools to respond to anxious feelings.
Help them understand why anxiety happens
When your child experiences anxiety it can feel overwhelming, confusing and scary. Explaining to your child why our bodies react in this way can help them understand that anxiety is not something to fear. Explain the Fight, Flight, Freeze response to them and how a certain part of their brain (their amygdala) is on the lookout for danger. Things are often misinterpreted as dangerous, such as a forthcoming test, starting a new school, attending a swimming lesson etc. Arming them with this information helps them see that their anxiety is not about them it is simply their body trying to protect them. It’s rather clever when you stop and think about it!
What does it feel like?
Helping your child tune into how the anxiety feels in their body can be a very helpful tool for them to recognise when it begins. Anxiety manifests itself differently for differently people, if your child knows that they begin to get a funny feeling in their tummy or they begin to get angry at those around them for no reason at all, this can help them identify that something is unsettling them. By recognising it, this might help them put some strategies in place before the anxiety begins to take hold. This could include taking a break, talking to someone, writing their worries down or running round the garden.
Are the basics in place?
If your child suffers from anxiety, you may notice a pattern or certain times when these anxious thoughts flare up more than others. These can often be linked to certain variables and it’s no surprise that basics such as sleep, diet and exercise impact massively. Think about how these factors leave your child vulnerable to anxiety; if they are not getting enough sleep, not eating enough of the right things and not getting enough movement, they are more likely to be susceptible to anxious thoughts. This doesn’t mean that if these three basics are in place they are safe from anxiety but by making sure there is a good grounding in these basics we are helping to limit anxiety levels.
Help your child focus on what they can control
When anxiety takes hold, it’s very easy to feel out of control. Whatever the situation or activity your child is anxious about might be, help them begin to consider what they can control about it. For example, if they are anxious about going on a residential and list off all the unknown things they can’t influence such as which group they’ll be in, whether it will be too noisy to sleep etc help them begin to focus on what they can control such as taking something special from home, looking at the pictures of the venue online before going, telling their teacher if they feel upset/homesick, choosing something for their packed lunch on the way there. You can also help them focus on the positives about the situation as these often get overshadowed disproportionally by the anxiety.
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