Anxiety currently affects 1 in 4 secondary school students and 1 in 7 primary school students in Australia so if your child is anxious - be rest assured you are not alone!
These statistics are alarming and as a primary school teacher, I see them first hand in the classrooms I teach in and across the schools. Believe it or not, anxiety is actually a normal feeling that was borne from our ancestor of hunters who needed it to fight or flight when under attack. We still hold this feeling although just don’t have the lion or bear trying to eat us. Most kids and even most adults experience anxiety – anxiety only really becomes a problem when it stops us from doing things or interferes with the way we live our lives.
Let me give you an example.
A little boy I know suffered terribly from separation anxiety; let’s call him Timmy. Timmy would come to school already worked up at the thought of his parents, usually mum, leaving him at school. By about 5pm the day before, his anxiety would start to escalate. He worried about having a bath by himself so his mum would supervise him. When it came to dinnertime, he was so worked up he couldn’t sit at the table to eat. Going to bed was just as bad. His parents had a routine of lying with him until he feel asleep and as soon as he woke through the night, he would come into the parents room and wake all up. They took it in turn to spend at least 30 minutes putting Timmy back to bed and this usually happened four or five times a night. Everyone woke up in the morning completely exhausted and still needed to get ready to go to school and work.
Then getting Timmy in the car to go to school took many excuses of avoidance – ‘I left my lunch inside’, ‘I can’t find my shoes’, ‘I haven’t got my library books’. After a few more attempts, Timmy was finally in the car. By this time the traffic was usually bad and it took longer to get to school. Timmy now also had the fear being late to school and not doing the usual routine. When they got to school, mum would stay with the Timmy until the bell rang and then give him to his teacher. Sometimes this would involve physically giving his hand to the teacher’s hand and her then pulling him into the room and holding the door so Timmy couldn’t get out until his mum had left.
By lunchtime, Timmy had calmed down enough to eat his lunch. At 2pm, his anxiety would escalate again at the thought of his dad not being the first parent outside the door to pick him up. Timmy’s anxiety was having a massive impact on the parents work life with mum starting work later (at 9.30am) so she could drop Timmy off and then having to stay late. Dad started work at 6am so he could be at school at 2pm to pick Timmy up. That meant that dinner times were often just Timmy and his dad when the heightening of anxiety would start again.
You can see how that this was spiralling out of control for the whole family. They were all suffering from Timmy’s separation anxiety and it was taking its toll on sleep, work, school and eating for the whole family. There was no quality time spent together, little enjoyment during the day and strict schedules had to be adhered to. His anxiety started as not wanting to go to school and was now affecting many other areas of his life, as well as his parents. Unfortunately, often once anxiety starts, it can infiltrate many areas of our kid’s lives.
So what causes anxiety?
Amazingly, 40 to 50 percent of childhood anxiety is genetic. Processing biases, avoidance behaviours, parent anxiety and parental reactions also have an impact on anxiety. These last two factors are where we, as parents, can have the biggest positive impact on our kid’s anxiety.
Here are 9 ways you can help your child with anxiety.
1. Let your kids know that all emotions are OK – including worry
Children need to know that all emotions and feelings are OK and don’t last forever. Anxiety is massive now, but will pass. I like to relate feelings to bubbles - the start off small, grow large and then pop and sometimes I even blow bubbles with the kids I work with. It is how we manage and process our feelings that has the biggest impact. Helping kids develop strategies to develop those big emotions are important including anger, disappointment, worry and sadness.
The Red/Green feelings chart helps with this and you can make this together with your child. Draw 3 columns. Using a red texta, in the left hand column brainstorm all the negative feelings you can think of and talk to your child about when you have felt them and also when your child has felt them. Using a green texta, in the right hand column brainstorm all the positive emotions and talk about times you have experienced being happy, calm, excited etc. The middle column is for kids to develop their own strategies for moving from ‘red’ feelings to ‘green’ feelings (or negative emotions to positive emotions). The strategies can be as simple as ‘have a cuddle with mum or dad’, ‘listen to some music’, ‘take ten deep breaths’ or ‘bounce on the trampoline’. The next time your child is feeling any of the negative emotions grab the chart and have them choose one of their strategies. Soon enough, it will become part of their thinking process and a ‘go to’ when they are feeling like this.
2. Seek help early
If anxiety is interfering with your usually happy child – seek help early. There are plenty of qualified counsellors and psychologists that work with children. The Cool Kids Anxiety Program is great as well as Play Based Therapy to help children. To find the best professional, ask around. Word of mouth is often the best way to find the right person. Once anxiety starts, it has the propensity to spread quickly to other areas of our kid’s lives.
3. Be consistent with routines, behaviours and expectations
All kids, especially those with a propensity towards anxiety, benefit from consistent routines, behaviours and expectations. Sure, life is not always predictable and we can’t keep them structured always but making sure you have a good morning, afternoon and bedtime routine will help. As will ensuring your kids know the ‘rules’ of the household and you are consistent with your expectations. This gives anxious kids certainty in their worried, uncertain world. This also helps in a classroom setting with the anxious child knowing the routine and following it.
4. Don’t take the easy road
The underlying factor for most forms of anxiety is fear. Kids need to be able to face these fears and the best way to do this is to expose them to it - gradually. I am not suggesting that if a child is scared of water, you throw them in and say ‘swim’! Take a gradual approach. It might look something like this. Get your child used to water by playing with them in the bath with water over their heads, play with the hose and play with buckets of water. Then take them to a pool and go into the little pool where it is not deep to play in the water. You go in too. Or take them to the beach and run through the edge of the waves. Once they are comfortable with that take them with you in the big pool – slowly, slowly. These processes take time and you need to allow a lot of it, along with patience, to help your child take the necessary steps to face their fears. Once we have faced our fears we know we can do it and it doesn’t seem so scary next time. That is the plan! There may be two steps forward and one back but that is OK too. It is meant to take time.
5. Focus on the brave behaviours
By using positive reinforcement and acknowledgment look out for the ‘brave behaviours’ your children have and praise them. In Timmy’s case, it might be that he sat at the dinner table and actually ate some of his food that night – praise him for it. The idea is to try to ignore or distract from those negative behaviours. The more effort we put into fighting and giving time to those negative behaviours, the more we are fuelling the fire for our kids to keep going with them. As tempting as it is to jump in and fix the problem, step back and just ‘be’ with your child. They are often capable of more than we give our kids credit for and allowing them to show us how ‘brave’ they are is important for anxious kids.
6. Reduce your own anxieties and worries
As a parent of an anxious child, I know how important it is to refill our own ‘love cup’. At times, generally when we are tired ourselves, our love cup becomes depleted. If it is empty, we don’t have that love and patience to share with our kids and so find your own strategies to refill it. These strategies might be to take time out to have a sleep in the day time, getting a massage, reading the paper and drinking a coffee, meeting a friend for coffee, having a date night with your partner, checking your Facebook and Instagram for a few minutes just to regroup in your own mind and don’t feel guilty about it! You will be a better parent for it. Slowing down and looking at our own patterns of behaviour and worries is also important. I have an irrational fear of being late. I must have voiced it to my child many times and now she is terrified about being late. I need to keep this in check to ensure it doesn’t cause unnecessary, ongoing worry for my child. The other day, we were late to gymnastics – I could feel my levels of worry rising and it was feeding my daughters. Afterwards she said ‘I was 3 minutes late mummy, but it was OK because they were just warming up and then I joined the group and no one really noticed.’ Phew!
7. Allow one time in the day to just listen to your kids
Whether it is when you are cooking dinner, driving in the car or putting your child to bed, have a space and time each day for your child just to talk to you and you will listen. Some days it will be mind-blowing listening to their day or what their inner thoughts are and other days will you just hear about what they did at football training or ate for lunch. Those are the sacred times we can just ‘be’ with our kids, free of judgement and free of the ‘hurry up’ culture we have created in our lives. By holding this space, your child knows you really do listen and you are creating a sense of significance, belonging and connection. Ours are at bedtime and I must confess that I may have fallen asleep once or twice while my children were talking to me, but at least I was present and knew when to nod or say ‘yep’!
‘Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.’ ~ Catherine M. Wallace
8. Break the routine every now and again and HAVE FUN!
For our kids who like life to be predictable, it is fun to break the routine every now and again with something fun. It might be that you pick your child up from school and unexpectedly stop by the ice cream shop on the way home, not because they asked but because you can. Or you might stop at the park for a play. Or you might plan to meet the rest of your family at a local restaurant for dinner. Or a play at the beach. A trip away or something totally unexpected for a long period may not work when our kids are in the throws of anxiety, but something fun and little will be good for building our relationship with our child and creating fun memories. It will also be good to break the pattern of worry and seriousness for that short time while you are doing something fun.
9. Love always wins
No matter what you are told by others, love and continuing to build the relationship with our children always wins. You know your child best and so choose what works best for you and always along the line of love. Lots of hugs, positive reinforcement and kind words will win over most other strategies. Know that anxiety is not going to last forever, however our love will always endure. You will get through this and so will your child.
Anna Partridge writes about the modern dilemmas parents face when raising confident, resilient and emotionally intelligent children. She is a Parent Educator, School Teacher, Mum to 3 and regular contributor to The Huffington Post. Anna works with parents to help them raise confident and resilient children, build strong and connected family relationships and create calm, fun and happy families and she also works in the classroom teaching 6 year olds. Anna holds a degree in Education, a degree in Communications, a degree in International Health and is studying for her Masters of Counselling. She is also a certified Positive Parenting Educator and a qualified Kids Yoga Teacher. Anna currently lives with her husband and 3 children in Canberra, Australia. Connect with Anna on Twitter @_positiveparent or Facebook here.