Top 10 Tips for Supporting Anxious Children by Author Anita Cleare
Anita Cleare MA AdvDip is a parenting speaker, writer, coach and director of the Positive Parenting Project which offers seminars and webinairs for working parents.
Her book The Work/Parent Switch is full of real-world tips to help working parents be the parent their child needs.
Below Anita shares her advice on how to help an anxious child.
Children have had a lot to deal with lately, what with Covid-19 and school closures earlier in the year so it’s hardly surprising that some children are feeling anxious. It can be difficultfor parents to know the best way to support their children during this period. As parents, we desperately want to make them feel better as quickly as possible, to ease their overwhelm and worry – but supporting an anxious child takes time, patience and understanding.
Here are ten tips that might help.
Reassure them it’s OK to feel worried
The temptation with an anxious child is to say, ‘Don’t worry.’ But that doesn’t always help. Try doing the opposite instead and acknowledge the validity of their worries. Listen to their anxious thoughts and reflect back what you have understood. ‘You’re worried that Grandma will catch the coronavirus bug and get sick.’ Tell your child that it’s natural to be worried, especially about people who are important to us. Anxious thoughts are less likely to escalate if children feel those thoughts are normal and manageable.
Focus on how not why
Parents can sometimes get caught up on trying to unpick where their child’s anxiety has come from. (And we are usually quick to blame ourselves in some way too!). A more helpful approach is to focus on helpingchildren learn strategies for managing their anxious thoughts in the present. After all, we all have anxious thoughts – the key is how we deal with them, so they don’t overwhelm us.
Explain the brain
Understanding what’s going on in your child’s brain can really help. Anxiety is a natural phenomenon designed to keep us safe by priming us to run, fight or hide from danger. But sometimes, that alert button gets stuck in the ‘On’ position. I like to explain this to younger children as a bit like having a ninja in their brain who jumps into action to defend them when they are scared. But sometimes that ninja can be a bit overactive and gets very jumpy for no good reason. So,we have totrain our ninja to calm down and go back to sleep.
Use a worry book
If your child is having anxious thoughts, rather than telling them not to worry, help them to park their worriesinstead. Get a special worry notebook (with tear-out pages) where your child can write or draw any worries that are on their mind.Explain that whenever they want, they can go and look at the worries in the book. But emphasise that the worries are in a safe place,so they don’t need to carry them about in their head. At the end of eachday, you can read the worry book together and see if there are any worries that they are happy to tear out and throw away.
Teach self-soothe strategies
A self-soothe strategy is great way tohelpthat ninja in their brain to stand down. There are lots of self-soothe strategies children can use. Finger breathing is brilliant for kids because it is so simple and tactile. Get your child to spread their fingers on one hand in front of them. Using the pointing finger on their other hand, show them how to trace around their fingers slowly (as if they were drawing around them with a pencil), breathing in as they go up each finger and then breathing out as they slide back down the finger towards the hand. The slower the better for nice deep calming breaths. (I do this one myself when I’m feeling a bit jittery!).
For longer term solutions, mindfulness activities can really help. There are some great guided meditation apps for children such as Chill Panda and Think Ninja. Or have a look for yoga for kids classes.
Parents naturally want to protect children from their fears. By keeping them off school, for example, if they have school anxiety. However, helping children avoid a worrying situation is likely to make them more anxious in the long run. Because the more a child avoids an anxious situation, the more their brain learns that the way to feel safe is to stay away from that situation, making it even harder for them to face their worries in the future.
Take small steps
Helping children be brave is best done by breaking things down into very small steps.For a child who is really anxious about school, for example, a first small step might be just to get comfortable wearing their school uniform around the house.
Be a calm presence
Try not to let your child’s anxious feelings overwhelm you too. Be the calm swan on the surface (no matter how fast you are paddling underneath). By staying calm ourselves, we can help our children learn to find their own calm. However big your child’s anxious thoughts, the presence of a calm parent will always be bigger.
Look after yourself too
Supporting an anxious child can be very draining. When our children are distressed, it can undermine our own confidence as parents and prey on all our deepest fears.But you will be far less help to your child if you are running on empty. So, take some time to look after yourself and replenish your resources – so you can be the calm, empathetic and consistent presence your anxious child needs.