Children and anxiety
School aged children often display increased anxiety regarding forming and maintaining friendships, their school performance, or the well-being of their family to mention just a few. However, if their anxiety prevents them from enjoying school and family life and/or leads to academic performance decline, a help from a psychologist/counsellor is recommended.
Highly anxious children often anticipate bad things to happen and interpret neutral events in a negative manner. They often display low self-esteem and readily blame themselves for things that were out of their control.
Some suggestions how you might help your child:
Remind your child to stop contemplating about things before they happen. She/he can focus on handling them when they actually do happen. Parents can say: "By worrying about the future you are not going to change anything about it, you will only become stressed right now, at this moment. Imagine that you will spend all this time worrying, not playing, not having fun with your friends or pets, and then it actually won’t happen…? Let’s go jumping on the trampoline.'
Help them identify situations from the past when they worried about things which did not eventuate in the end. Discuss the implications with your child.
Distract your child from ruminating by completing activities she enjoys (jumping on a trampoline, drawing, reading, spending time with family pets etc.).
Create a list of strategies/activities your child can engage in when anxious. Your child can draw pictures of things she/he can do to feel better and this can be displayed on the fridge as a constant reminder of pleasurable activities.
Promote your child’s engagement in physical activities such as running, jumping, ball games, swimming etc. The more physical activity your child is able to engage in throughout the day, the more chances of her/his body producing the hormone of happiness (endorphin) which can help combat your child’s anxiety.
Encourage your child’s positive thinking and model it to them on a daily basis (“I am worried about not cooking this meal properly, but that’s ok, I’ll give it a go. What’s the worst thing that can happen?!”).
Teach your child to be a ‘Thought Detective’ by being aware of what they are thinking and how negative thoughts impact on our feelings. By being a detective, they can look for evidence and clues (e.g. “Where is the proof that no one will play with me at recess?”) and challenge the thoughts by learning to say to herself/himself mantras that will facilitate coping behaviour. Mantras could be: “Even though no one played with me yesterday, I can ask some one else today. I can also ask my teacher to help me find people to play with. I can always ask someone for help. I can do it, I can give it a go.”
Create a 'Worry time'. If your child’s worrying is excessive and prevents her from being actively involved in many age appropriate activities, suggest to her to create a worry box where she can put all her worries. Worry box, however, should be opened only once a day at a specific time, for about half an hour. During this time, your child can talk to you about their worries or just spend time alone worrying. Any other time should be worry free, with only time being spent by writing down a note about a worry and inserting it in the worry box.
On a daily basis, notice, verbally identify and underscore your child’s strengths (e.g. “I am so proud you, you helped me with the dishes. You are such a good helper.”). Focusing on things they do well will help improve your child’s self-esteem, change his/her mindset to a more positive one and therefore decrease her/his anxiety.
Often talk to your child about positive events that happened in their life and discuss its specific details to help them re-live the event. You could create a jar of gratitude where you can insert notes describing nice things that happened to your child or the whole family (e.g. went strawberry picking together, went to the pool, had a friend over for a playdate). Once a week, perhaps during a family night, you can open the jar and read together about all the nice things that happened to your individual family members or family as a whole.
Encourage your child to attempt tasks that are anxiety provoking, take baby steps approach. Reward them and praise enormously after their attempts. Avoidance of challenging and fearful tasks only leads to decreased self-esteem and heightened anxiety.
Ask your child to identify three good things that happened to them that day (do it just before sleep) and ask why they think these good things happened.
Help your child note other people being kind to them or to others. Noticing kindness and positivity leads to a more positive outlook.
Teach your child to relax and meditate, especially before sleep. You might purchase some relaxation or meditation CDs (e.g. Happy Little hearts: Health and healing meditations for children) or download apps such as Smiling Mind, Relax Melodies, Breathing Bubbles etc.
Yoga has been linked to improved well-being by calming down and grounding our minds and helping us to build a better relationship with our bodies. A good app with various yoga positions for children is for example Super Stretch or various videos of yoga for children can be found on YouTube.
The Brave Program, free online evidence-based program aimed at helping parents and children with anxiety can be found at http://braveonline.psy.uq.edu.au/
Reading age appropriate books on anxiety, for example 'Don't think about purple elephants' by Susan Whelan, 'The huge bag of worries' by Virginia Ironside, or 'What to do when you worry too much' by Dawn Huebner might help children understand their worries and that it is always good to share them with their trusted adults.
For more suggestions on how to help your anxious child, please click here.