Supporting Children with Anxiety
Anxiety in children can be a daunting and distressing experience that leaves both parents and their young ones feeling powerless. Defined as a feeling of worry or nervousness about something with an uncertain outcome, anxiety can manifest itself in many ways in children. From separation anxiety to social anxiety and beyond, anxiety can impact a child's daily life and emotional and psychological well-being.
The good news is that there are many ways parents can support their little ones in managing their anxiety. Various tools and strategies can help children develop the skills to build resilience and cope with stress. The key is to remain patient, supportive, and open-minded, recognising that every child's experience with anxiety is unique and requires an individualised approach.
Remember, it's normal for children to feel anxious occasionally. But suppose your child's anxiety is impacting their daily life. In that case, it may be a good idea to seek help from a healthcare professional. Children can learn to manage their anxiety and live happy, healthy lives with the proper support and strategies.
Signs of Anxiety in children
When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express their feelings. You may notice that they:
Tearful or clingy
Have difficulty sleeping
Wake in the night with bad dreams.
Increased heart rate and breathing
Sweating - Sweating is a common physical symptom of anxiety. It's normal for children to sweat when they're running around or playing outside. Still, if they're sweating profusely in everyday situations, it may be a sign of anxiety.
A clenched jaw or grinding teeth
Stomach aches and digestive issues - Anxiety can cause children to feel nauseous or experience stomach pains. It can also lead to diarrhoea or constipation and bed wetting.
Shaking or trembling
Fidgeting - Anxious children may have a hard time sitting still. They may tap their feet, wring their hands, or move around constantly.
Irritability or anger
Understanding your child's anxiety: Normal vs Problematic
Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it interferes with their daily lives. For example, if you walk into any school on the first day, you will notice that most children feel nervous, but some may be so nervous that they do not get to school that morning.
Severe anxiety like this can harm children's mental and emotional well-being, as well as their self-esteem and confidence. As a result, they may withdraw and go to great lengths to avoid situations or things that make them anxious.
One of the leading indicators of problematic anxiety is intensity and frequency. Suppose your child experiences anxiety regularly, and the symptoms are severe enough to disrupt their daily routine. In that case, it may be a cause for concern.
Some common physical symptoms of problematic anxiety include rapid heartbeat, sweating, difficulty breathing, and trembling.
Avoidance behaviours - Some children may avoid certain situations or activities that can cause stress. They may not want to attend school, go to the park or engage in other social activities with peers. This can lead to social isolation or difficulty in school.
Excessive worrying: Anxiety often manifests as constant worry about the future, past or present. You may notice your child constantly fretting over trivial things such as homework, school or social situations.
Difficulty concentrating: Anxiety can make it hard for children to concentrate, remember or process information. This may manifest as poor academic performance or needing help completing homework or tasks.
Observing your child's mood swings and behaviour patterns is vital as they teach you what is normal behaviour or not in your child.
In addition, it shows you how your little one expresses their anxiety. For example, suppose your child is experiencing anxious behaviour. In that case, they might seem irritable or be quick to cry. In contrast, others may show avoidance behaviours or lash out with aggression.
How to support your little one in managing their anxiety
There are many ways to support children who are struggling with anxiety. Here are some tips to help you:
The first step is to listen to your child and validate their feelings. Let them know that it's okay to feel anxious and that you understand how they think. Then, reassure them that you will help them overcome this.
Encourage your little ones to label their emotions daily so as they grow, they become aware of what they are feeling, making it easier to manage that emotion. For example, "I can see that you are angry, I can see your hands clenching, grandma had to go home, she will be back soon". I can see how excited you are about going on the bus. You are smiling and jumping!"
Share with your little one times when you feel nervous or anxious to empathise with their feelings; give them examples of what can make you nervous when you were little and what makes you anxious now,
Identifying triggers that cause your child's anxiety can help you prevent them from happening. Talk to your child about what triggers their anxiety, so you can work together to avoid or reduce them.
Encourage your child to focus on positive self-talk. Help them understand that their thoughts can trigger their feelings and that replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can help them feel better.
Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, and yoga can help reduce anxiety. Teach your child these techniques, so they can use them whenever they feel anxious.
Encourage your child to manage their anxiety and ask for help when needed.
Children of all ages find routines reassuring, so stick to regular daily routines where possible.
If you know a change, such as changing school, moving house, etc., is coming up, prepare your little one by talking to them about what will happen and why it is happening.
Distraction can be helpful for young children. For example, if they are anxious about going to nursery, play games there, such as seeing who can spot the most buses.
Create a worry box by getting your little one to decorate a jar, tissue box or any box that you have available. And they can use this box to draw their worries and "post" them into the container. Then you can sort through the box together at the end of the day or week.
Teaching your little one deep breathing has many benefits. It can help them manage stress, focus better, sleep well, boost immunity and improve heart health. In addition, starting this practice early can give them a valuable tool for life's challenges. So let's take a deep breath and encourage our little ones to do the same!
Begin by simply teaching your little one simple deep breathing. Ask them to practise breathing first, inhaling and exhaling; they can close their eyes if they wish; ask them to concentrate on each breath and how their body feels each time they inhale and exhale.
Breathing into your hands is a great way to practise deep breathing too. Get your little one to "catch" their breath into their hand and focus on that moment; how did their hands and mouth feel as they breathed into their hand?
Counting breaths: Get your little one to breathe in whilst counting to three, hold for three counts, and exhale while counting to three.
Balloon breathing: Ask your little one to take a deep breath, filling their belly with air like a balloon, and exhale slowly, deflating the balloon. Repeat this a few times.
Square breathing: Guide your little one to breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then pause for four counts. This can be done in a square pattern.
Blowing bubbles: Encourage your little one to take deep breaths through their nose and exhale slowly through their mouth to blow bubbles.
Teddy bear breathing: Have your little one lay down with a stuffed animal on their belly, breathing in and watching the teddy bear rise and exhaling as the bear goes down.
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