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What Can I Do To Help If My Child Has Anxiety?

There are growing reports of an anxiety epidemic in our children, and youth mental health charity Jigsaw claims that 38% of the 4,185 young people engaging in 2016 were seeking support for anxiety. But why is this problem spreading, and how can we support our kids both day to day, and while they're having an anxiety attack?

How bad is the problem?

According to research b the Royal College of Surgeons, an estimated 115,000 young people have a mental illness in Ireland. And in the UK, there were a total of 328,000 NHS psychiatry outpatient appointments for children in 2016/17 - a rise from 241,000 the year before. The steepest rise (31%) was among those aged nine and under, with more than 60,000 such appointments in 2016/17, the NHS Digital statistics show. Children in the UK also contacted Childline 19,481 times with suicidal thoughts, in the year 2015/ 2016.

What's 'normal' anxiety

Even in the best of situations, all children experience some anxiety in the form of worry, apprehension, dread, fear or distress. Occasional nervousness and fleeting anxieties occur when a child is first faced with an unfamiliar or especially stressful situation; and this can be particularly obvious when children have to deal with stressful events, such as a death in the family, or the break up of parent's relationships. Biologically, it can be an important protection or signal for caution in certain situations. In fact there are specific expected fears that accompany each stage of child development:

In Infancy
As babies develop their ability to differentiate between familiar, and unfamiliar faces, stranger anxiety (clinging and crying when a stranger approaches) develops around 7 to 9 months and typically resolves by end of their first year.

Early Childhood
As a healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety (crying, sadness, and a fear of abandonment upon separation) emerges around twelve months and improves over the next 3 years, resolving in most children by the time they start school. As a child's world expands, it is unsurprising that they may fear new and unfamiliar situations, or real and imagined dangers from spiders, darkness, and monsters.

School-Aged Children
Throughout school, children are being introduced to new information; some of which might be intimidating. And as well as learning about fire-drills, storms, and illnesses, they also develop a growing concern about social acceptance, school performance, and personal appearance.

When should you be concerned?

Anxiety is a disorder that’s based less on what a child is worrying about, and more on how that worry is impacting a child's ability to function. Help is needed when a child is persistently experiencing too much worry, often over apparently insignificant or mundane situations. When worry and avoidance become a child's automatic response to new situations, when they feel constantly wound up, or when coaxing or reassurance are ineffective in moving them through; it is a sign that anxiety is not protecting them. Instead, it’s preventing them from fully participating in typical activities, and stopping them from living life to the full.

Signs of Anxiety
Persistent anxiety can cause physical distress, in the form of headaches, stomach aches, nausea, sleeplessness, tantrums, and a reluctance to go to school or anywhere outside the ‘comfort zone’.

Anxiety can also interfere with a child's concentration and decision-making skills. An anxious child's thinking is typically unrealistic, catastrophic and pessimistic. They may seek excessive reassurance, and get only fleeting relief from it. Anxiety can also present itself as irritability and anger when a child becomes frustrated by the stress of worry, or worn down from sleep deprivation. For some children, feeling left out or ‘different’ from other kids can be an additional source of concern.

How can we support our children?

Switch Off

Part of the issues relates to the growth of technology and social media, which children engage with from an increasingly early age, as parenting expert Sharon Witt explained: ‘Now they are connected and having conversations, arguments and bullying well into the early hours sometimes. Anxiety in children is linked hugely to social media and even events happening in the world.' This means that it is important to switch off for both children and adults.

Children need to learn how to include downtime in their day, spending time away from screens, and with other people. Not only is the blue light from phones and computers over-stimulating, these devices also provide a constant connection to online bullying, the pressures of social media, and news of tragic world events. Alternative activities such as time spent with a colouring book can help for winding down an overactive mind.

Sharon Witt suggests that parents put a curfew of 10 to 12 hours on devices overnight. She also encourages children to have further downtime with 'screen free days' and taking time out for physical activities. But this isn’t just for children, it’s important that the whole family goes offline and spends time together.

Get down to their level

According to child psychologist Dr Cliona Carey in an interview the Irish Independent, every child should have at least ten minutes of play every day with their parents or guardians. And it’s not just beneficial for children, but for parents too.

Playtime might sometimes seem to exist only for entertainment, but it’s much more complex than that: “Play is essential for connection with others, the development of social awareness, communication and language skills, as well as emotional regulation and gross/fine motor skills” says Dr Carey. And though we may make special time for this with infants, it’s important to continue to regularly play together as your child grows:

"Through special time with parents, children learn about how they are seen through their parents’ eyes. This is crucial for the development of a sense of self and the ability to regulate emotions.”

Stop Reassuring Your Child

Children worry, but then … so do adults. Just because you know that there is nothing they need to worry about, doesn’t mean it’s as easy as saying that everything will be ok. If your little one is extremely anxious, they might desperately want to listen to you, but their brain won’t let it happen.

During periods of anxiety, there is a rapid dump of chemicals and mental transitions executed in your body for survival. This means that the prefrontal cortex (the more logical part of the brain) gets put on hold, while the more automated emotional brain takes over. In other words, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, use logic or even remember how to complete basic tasks. What should you do instead of trying to rationalize the worry away? Get back to the very basics:

  • Breathe: Wherever you are, stop and take some deep breaths together, in through the nose for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, and out through the mouth for 5 counts. Either hugging them or facing them can help them to pick up your calmer rhythm, which in turn will slow the heart rate and calm the nervous system.
    TOP TIP: To help calm breathing, why not encourage your little one to blow bubbles. As you know, it's something that can only be done with even breaths, and it gives them something external to concentrate on.

  • Empathize: Anxiety is scary, and can feel very physical, not just emotional. Be calm, listen, and let your child know that you understand.

  • Evaluate: Once your child feels calmer, you can gently find out what caused the, to panic (as long as it doesn’t agitate them again), and try to figure out possible solutions together. This can be left until later (like bedtime) if necessary.

Don’t avoid it

Of course, we don’t want to do anything that causes of child pain. But in the long wrong, it is much better to recognise our anxieties and admit that they exist, rather than denying the problem. Help your little one to understand that it’s normal to worry sometimes, and everyone does it. The key is to learn how to manage worries, not to be worry-free.

An easy way to do this is to encourage her to ‘catch’ the worry (think dream catching in the BFG), focus on it, and decide: Is this a feeling, or a fact? Anxiety is often caused by feelings (which are just the way you see something at that moment) so playing detective and sorting through worries can help children to understand what is happening.

This also relates to specific anxieties. Though it may seem preferable to avoid things that cause anxiety (such as flying, or spiders), this will only allow the fear to build and could continue into adulthood. Instead, try a method called laddering. Kids who are able to manage their worry, break it down into manageable chunks: Instead of avoiding fears, create mini-goals to get closer to the bigger goal. You can use each step until the exposure becomes too easy; that’s when you know it’s time to move to the next rung on the ladder.

Read Next: How To Be A Good Role Model For Your Kids

Bring Your Child’s Worry to Life

Since anxiety can’t be ignored, why not create a ‘worry character’ for your child? By bringing worry to life and talking about it like a real person, it can take away some of the anxiety’s power, and make it easier to talk about. The more amusing the name, the better. Personifying anxiety or creating a character has multiple benefits: It can help demystify this scary physical response children can experience when they worry. It helps to reactivate the logical brain, and it’s a tool your children can use on their own at any time.

Allow Them to Worry

Worrying could be all-encompassing if you allow it, so while allowing those thoughts to happen rather than just blocking them up, don’t give it free reign. Create a daily ritual called 'worry time' that lasts 5 -10 minutes. To encourage the process, encourage your children to release all their worries in writing or pictures to put in a worry box. And remember: During 'worry time' there are no rules on what constitutes a valid worry — anything goes. These worries can be expressed by talking to you or a trusted adult, talking to a family pet (they're great listeners,) or just writing it down. Then when the time is up, close the box and say goodbye to the worries for the day.

Need some extra help?

There’s no shame in talking to a school counsellor or child psychologist for a bit of extra help. Your GP should be able to give you advice about local services. Talking to a professional doesn’t mean that they’ll have to lie on a leather couch and reveal all their deepest darkest secrets. In fact, it involves friendly chats, drawing, and learning useful coping mechanisms. So don’t let a call for extra help make you second-guess your parenting skills. If anything, it just shows how much you care.

Does your little one have trouble with anxiety? What are your go-to coping mechanisms? We'd love to hear from you.
Read Next: How To Nurture Your Children's Mental Health


About the Author

Emily is our Digital Editor. She has three awesome nieces, and has accidentally worn the same outfit as them on at least one occasion. Emily likes making things, including hand-drawn cards, and a darn good chocolate cake. She still sounds very English, despite living in Dublin for the last nine years. More insight into the workings of her brain can be found on dancingcakesandsilence.blogspot.com.

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