Understanding Anxiety in Your Child
Mention the word ‘anxiety’ and just about anyone can relate.
We live in a society where the pace of life is fast and downtime rare. Up to one in four adults will suffer from an anxiety disorder each year, and more and more children are now suffering too. Stopping anxiety in its tracks in childhood by teaching our children how to deal with it, and providing a safe place for them to learn to do that, is key to raising resilient children.
While it’s normal for all children to feel nervous now and again, it’s when this becomes a common theme in your child’s days, or when it prevents them from enjoying everyday activities, that it might signal that all is not OK. Louise Patterson of Child Therapy Ireland says that, like with most other habits - good and bad - children look to their parents, or those who care for them, as a gauge as to how to deal with anxiety-provoking situations. “If a parent tends to be anxious, the child is likely to feel anxious too. It is common to see children have the same fears as their parents. For example, a fear of spiders, dogs, etc.” Keeping this in mind before you react with fear to a situation your child is present for, would be a good step to take initially.
When dealing with your child’s anxiety, it’s important to remember that the fear is very real to them, despite the fact that to us, it might seem illogical and silly. “Fear is triggered on a neurobiological level. When fear is triggered, the logical thinking part of the brain has disengaged and the primal survival part of the brain has taken over. It is important not to express anger at a child’s anxiety, even if it doesn’t make sense to the parent. The fear a child experiences in that moment is no less real than the fears we adults feel, and can only be soothed in the same way as we can be soothed.
Take for example the fear of flying, something many adults experience. Imagine as you stood shaking and struggling to breathe before embarking on a flight, that your partner became angry at you and told you that you were being ridiculous. Would that help snap you out of the anxiety? Absolutely not. Anxiety comes from a place of feeling out of control, and lacking the ability to problem solve in the moment. To help our children overcome anxiety, we need to let them know they are not alone, and that we can figure this out together,” suggests Louise.
So the natural response of, ‘Of course you shouldn’t be afraid of the spider, playschool, going into this person’s house’, not only doesn’t make your child feel better, it actually belittles their fears, which doesn’t work wonders for their self esteem. All they will then do is hide the fear that they feel is now ‘silly’. Apart from a few thoughtful phrases when your child is feeling anxious, what else can you do to enable your child to deal with their emotions? Louise believes that being prepared for a situation where your child is likely to feel anxious is key.
“You should always prepare your child through play and age appropriate talking for visits to doctors, dentists, and hospitals. These normal life events can develop into anxiety issues for children as they are unlikely to understand why they are being poked, prodded and injected. If you arrived into a strange room where a smiling stranger took hold of your arm and injected a sharp sore thing into you, would you willingly go back? This is what it is like for a child who does not feel prepared for a medical visit. People often believe children will not remember these things...children have incredible memories.
CBT Therapist with Adult and Child Therapy Centre, Marie O’Sullivan, believes that teaching your child to understand all their different emotions is extremely helpful. “If children are taught early on in life the symptoms of anxiety and how to manage them, then our world would be a much healthier place. Children catch on very quickly once they are helped to see that the ‘pain’ in their tummy can sometimes just be anxiety and that there is nothing seriously wrong with them. The idea is to give them the tools to help overcome the feeling of anxiety and to manage it as they come upon difficult situations in their lives. It’s much easier to get it under control while they are young. It becomes much harder to control as we get older.
At the clinic, Marie uses talking therapy, teaching the child to ‘catch’ the scary thoughts and to pause for a minute. “Bringing awareness to our thoughts, in each moment, is the key to taking control of them, rather than having the thought take control of us,” she adds. How to spot anxiety in your child...signs and symptoms of anxiety (NHS)
- finding it hard to concentrate
- not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams
- not eating properly
- quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
- constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
- feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often
- always crying
- being clingy all the time (when other children are ok)
- complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell
Providing a safe, nurturing environment and leading by example will provide your child with the foundations for a healthy mind. Then teaching them how to identify and manage their emotions and feelings is probably the best gift you can give your child in order to encourage the resilience they will need to get through life. Child Therapy Ireland provides psychotherapy and play therapy services for children, teens and adults.www.childtherapyireland.com Adult and Child Therapy Centre is a multi-disciplinary team of clinical psychologists, CBT therapists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and a music therapist.