Kids suffer from anxiety. They do. The type of things they worry about might not be a ‘biggy’ to us adults, but to them, from their perspective, they are definitely things to worry about!
The first job for us to do as parents is not to dismiss them!
Keeping their perspective in mind is a big key to helping them manage their anxiety.
When anxiety moves into their little bodies, they are basically experiencing the fear response. While we might have an understanding of what anxiety feels like, we sometimes forget that children haven’t had as long as us to get used to experiencing it, nor to managing it.
From their viewpoint, they get very tired from having catastrophes running through their heads as well as from the corresponding bodily reactions. They get frustrated and irritable by their worries and concerns that they are not able to do things like other kids seem to be able to do. They aren’t able to make all the links yet to say “I’m feeling irritable because I’ve been worrying all day and it’s really taking its toll on me,” so they are more likely to ‘express’ their anxiety through their behaviour.
What we see on the outside can easily be misconstrued as something else if we aren’t considering that they might be anxious. It is easy to get caught up in their behaviour and react to that, instead of the real problem. Of course we have to put boundaries around their behaviour, but we can take it further by attending to their emotions as well.
So what can we do if our kids are anxious?
1. Acknowledge that they aren’t feeling the best
- This requires us to be ‘observers’ and take notice of them rather than being in that ‘knee-jerk’ response mode. It can be something as simple as “I notice that you aren’t feeling the best. I wonder what is happening for you to feel this way.”
- Accompany it with sitting beside them or bringing them in for a hug if they are that sort of a kid.
- Sometimes they’ll offer something, sometimes not. Taking this stance is the most helpful one though because it is more likely to lead to them talking about things, even if it is down the track.
2. Understanding just what anxiety is
- Knowing what is going on for them in their body, and understanding the physiology of anxiety, leads you to understanding what you can do to help.
- Anxiety is the body’s response to fear. The feeling of anxiety is the feeling of the body protecting itself. The way the body protects itself is to either ‘fight’ the danger or ‘flee’ it. So blood is rushed to our arms and legs because that is where it needs to be, if we have to fight or run away. The protection system ‘overrides’ other body systems because it can’t do a good job of protecting us and digest food/ think about the weather/ solve maths problems and make good decisions (for example).
- The problem with anxiety is that the body is reacting like there is real danger around even if there isn’t any. Our thoughts create danger and our body responds in exactly the same way as if those thoughts are real.
- A good way to think of anxiety is like this: The brain has a part in it that is like a smoke alarm. Anxious chatter is the smoke. Just like the smoke alarm’s job is to go BEEEP, BEEEP and alert us to potential danger, our brain does the same thing.
- When it comes to anxiety, the big problem is the smoke (aka anxious chatter/thoughts) being sent, and the body getting all worked up unnecessarily.
3. Guide them to feel calmer
- Helping your child to calm down is always the first step in managing anxiety because it is unrealistic to expect much from them when their body is in that ‘worked up’ state’.
- Slow, deep breathing is a simple way. Always breathing in through the nose and getting the breath right down to the bottom of the lungs, which is key to breathing in a way that calms the body. Combine this with saying ‘soothing’ or ‘non-smoke’ statements like: you are fine; this will pass; focus on your breathing.
- This is to calm their body and get through the anxious state.
- Once calm, it is a good time to talk about it (if they will let you!).
4. Help them to become aware of what is happening; to make the links themselves
- Talking gently about things helps kids increase their awareness of their body, what leads them to become anxious, and how to manage it. Talk to them about:
- What their anxious chatter was saying,
- What happened in their body due to their chatter,
- What they did to calm down, and
- What would they like to do next time they start to hear their anxious chatter/feel anxious
By doing all this as regularly as we can, we are helping them to manage their anxiety. The ultimate aim!