How to help an anxious child

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

One of the biggest worries of being a parent, is trying to help a child who is overwhelmed by theirs.
Sometimes it’s easy to see what’s upsetting our children and to help them move past their concerns, but at other times their behaviour can seem like a complete mystery to us – especially when it seems so different to anyone else in the family. The key to helping them, says Diane, is starting where they are at.

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Some children are hardwired to be anxious, others will have an experience that shakes – or even shatters their feeling of safety in the world. The effects will be experienced physically (what they feel in their body), mentally (the thoughts going through their mind) and behaviourally (how they act).

Explain what anxiety is

First up, it’s worth explaining to your child what anxiety is and why their mind and body are reacting in this way. “In a world of confident people, children who feel anxious can often end up blaming themselves,” says Diane. We all have a natural fight-or-flight response that helps us prepare for danger, but sometimes instead of helping us, that response can stop us having the confidence to try things. Diane says she likes  the fire alarm analogy she’s read about, and it’s a good one to use with children.

“When a fire alarm goes off when there is a fire and it warns us to get out, it is doing a very important job. But when it goes off every time the edge of the toast gets burnt, it’s not so handy. So one of the things we can do with our children is talk about whether this is a useful, or a not-so-useful worry.”

Acknowledge what they’re feeling

What’s not helpful, she adds, is to dismiss a child’s fears with a fleeting, “Don’t worry, that might never happen.” A better alternative is, “Tell me about what’s worrying you”. Diane says one of the best things we can do is display warmth and empathy all the way. “The most important thing is that mum and dad get it.”

Prepare them

One of the biggies that can make our children worry is not knowing what is going to happen. The answer to this, says Diane, is rehearsing. The best preparation for something new is experience and often that can be done at home, or organised by parents.

“If they are anxious about going to a new school, go there in the holidays and get familiar with the layout of the school and the playground equipment. Try to arrange play dates with some children in your child’s new class. If your child is still anxious, arrange to meet the teacher and look around the classroom before school starts.”

“The same goes for activities such as swimming lessons. If your child is feeling apprehensive about starting, see if you can go and watch some other children having lessons before you start.” It can help to look at things from a child’s perspective. Take swimming lessons – cold water, children you don’t know, and a new adult who is trying to make you put your head under the water. “It may be that your child isn’t lesson ready,” says Diane. “They may be ready next year. The trend is to put children into organised activities earlier and earlier – some children are fine with that, some aren’t.”

“If they aren’t quite lesson-ready, there are lots of confidence and skill-building activities you can do at home in preparation. Have fun in a pool, dance in the living room or kick a ball around at the nearest park. Make an effort to see how well they are progressing and let them know you are proud of their progress. If they can go into a new situation prepared and ready to learn, much of the fear of the unknown is taken away.”

Notice what they are doing right

Noticing what they are doing right is a real boost for an anxious child. A child is empowered, not by being told how wonderful they are, but by being told how much progress they have made. “Try saying, ‘Remember when you couldn’t do this?’,” adds Diane.

In the same way we can prepare our children to feel confident about trying something new, we can teach them confidence in general. In fact, that’s one of our jobs as parents. With some children it may take a little longer than with others – and we may have to work harder.

Which is why if you have an anxious child, you may be the only visiting adult left at a birthday party with all the other grown-ups having dropped off and gone home. Diane points out another question that may be whizzing around inside the head of anxious children is, “Who will be my mummy?” What they are wondering is, “Who will look after me?”

Stop, sit and cuddle

So although they may have been desperately looking forward to a birthday party for weeks, they suddenly lose all confidence when it comes time to get out of the car. While it’s easy to start lecturing, threatening and bribing at this point, Diane says this is the time to start where they are at and ‘stop, sit and cuddle’. “Often children find something overwhelming. It helps if you can break it down into manageable chunks for them.” In this case that looks like – “Let’s go and have a look. I won’t leave until you are ready. I can tell the mummy that you are a little bit worried and she will keep an eye on you.”

“If they keep on looking worried and unhappy, you might need to stick around. So what? You’re the one with the anxious child, you’re teaching them confidence,” says Diane. “Anxiety can be managed, we need to teach our children the coping skills.”

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