I’ve written before about my struggles with anxiety and depression and how I believe this has impacted on my children. #MothersGuilt to the max. It’s really hard as a parent to sit back and see your kids struggle with stuff that doesn’t seem to phase other kids and while I don’t want my kids to be “like everyone else”, as a mother, I don’t want their life experiences to be quashed by the fears I know so well. An obsession with the ‘what-ifs’ of life and playing out of worst-case scenarios is no way to live.
My daughter and son are both quite anxious and at seven and five, this has some decent ramifications on them when new or unexpected things crop up, as they do. While my daughter is slowly getting better with this, my son can present as a little ball of nervous energy at times, especially with the big experience of starting school this year. I figure it can’t only be me who is going through this, so I did a bit of research for my fellow mums who may be struggling with the same issues with their children.
Psychologist Renee Jain, whose focus is on “revolutionising social and emotional learning” says there are several things parents of anxious children can do to help ease their anxiety while gently pushing them out of their comfort zones. She recommends:
- Remind them that they are safe: Using phrases like, “I love you. You are safe” to your child when they are in a new or anxiety-inducing environment is a great way of reassuring them when they are feeling frightened or scared. The kicker with anxiety is that it can make you feel like you’re in a dangerous situation even if (in my kid’s case), it’s just a dog on a leash walking by. Use these phrases as affirmations to let them know that they’re protected in an environment that makes them feel the opposite.
- Focus on breathing: Renee recommends having your child pretend they are blowing up a giant balloon to assist with the crucial element of breath to have them gain control of their emotions in certain situations. This is particularly useful if your child is in the midst of a panic attack and using wording like, “Let’s pretend we’re blowing up a giant balloon. We’ll take a deep breath and blow it up to the count of five” can give them something else to focus their attention on. Often, when you tell your child to relax and take a deep breath they might be resistant, so the balloon-blowing exercise can make it more of a game than a request. Trickery at its best.
- Mindfulness: Have your child focus on “what is” instead of “what if.” Use the breathing technique above and have your child focus on what is happening right now instead of what might happen in the future.
- Try “laddering”: This technique is a gradual exposure to a fear that spikes their anxiety. Avoiding these situations can make it more difficult for them to cope with these situations in the future, so take small steps instead of one giant leap. For example, say your child is afraid of dogs, have them observe a dog from a ‘safe space’ like behind the glass of a pet shop or inside the home of a family member or friend with a dog while the dog is outside. Once they’re comfortable, move on to the next step, which could be getting outside while the dog is inside a fenced-off area or tied somewhere, etc. Baby steps will help build up confidence in small, manageable chunks.
- Have them draw their feelings: Getting your child to put their feeling down on paper when they can’t articulate it properly is a great tool to give you some insight into how they’re feeling. Asking them to draw their feelings and frustrations can give them (and you) a more tangible way of seeing what’s going on inside their minds and possibly ease their tension or even just open up the conversation between the two of you a little further.
- Allow them some “worry time” – I did this with my daughter and it was really great. Give your child 15 minutes to discuss their worries and write them down. We used a ‘worry box’ that she decorated and keeps in her room, and she would write her worries down on paper; for example, when she had a wobbly tooth, she was scared that it would fall out and she would swallow it during the night. She wrote this down, popped it in her worry box and then later when that tooth did fall out, and she didn’t swallow it, it was a really helpful and concrete lesson to show her that often, our worries never manifest themselves in reality. Let your child write whatever they want down for their worry box and when the time is up, close it and try to ‘switch off’ from worries for the day.
- Be supportive and seek help when needed: Anxiety is a really terrible feeling, so be patient with your little ones and with yourself. Take it day by day, hour by hour if you need to, and remember that sometimes there’s only so much you can do before you need to seek the advice of a professional. Getting onto this as soon as you can is great, because little brains are much more malleable and open to change.
Do you have an anxious child? Do you have any extra tips to share with those of us with anxious children?