You’re dropping your child off at preschool and she suddenly says, “I don’t want to go today, my tummy is sore.” In an attempt to reassure her, you remind her that her friends are waiting for her and she’s going to have a fun day.
But her worries about nobody wanting to talk to her or the teacher shouting at her take over. Logic doesn’t seem to quell her fears and neither do angry threats of, “If you don’t get out the car right now…” Eventually, she lopes into school angry, resistant and defeated – and you feel awful.
If this seems familiar, you’re not alone – it’s estimated that between 13% and 20% of children will experience anxiety. Studies show that anxiety is often the result of multiple factors such as genes, brain physiology, temperament, environment and traumatic events.
Children suffering from anxiety can be quiet and well behaved, or they can be disruptive. “Anxiety in children manifests more as an irritable mood than a quivering lip. Underlying the irritability, hostility and oppositional behaviour is an anxious child,” says educational psychologist Sheryl Cohen.
Small doses of anxiety in certain situations are useful. It triggers your “fight or flight” response, which prepares your body to react. “Anxiety is not an inappropriate behaviour,” explains clinical psychologist Jodi Hepker. “It’s normal and is experienced by everybody sometimes – especially sensitive children. It’s OK to let your child experience some anxiety.”
Worrying has a purpose. It protects us from danger by alerting us to threats and is important for reaching important goals. For example, it’s normal to feel anxious before a test at school. “Children, like parents, experience anxieties. These are often related to environmental triggers. Anxiety is part of the process – it’s the motor that drives and facilitates development. When babies move from standing to walking, a level of anxiety is involved. But success allows the baby to convert anxiety into excitement,” says Sheryl.
Anxiety is a feature of life. It isn’t something you can, or want, to eliminate completely. However, too much anxiety is a problem. “There is age-appropriate anxiety to threats in the environment, a prehistoric learning that can be useful in dangerous situations. It’s about the extent to which it paralyses,” says Jodi. If your child’s functioning is affected, ordinary life and experiences are undermined and she’s unable to engage with the world (such as avoiding school or won’t participate in activities), then anxiety is debilitating.
“The parent’s goal is to contain anxiety,” maintains Sheryl. Parents play an essential role in helping their child manage and overcome anxiety. They need to be aware that their unconscious reactions to their children’s anxiety triggers their own fears and worries. Lecturing, rationalising, controlling or shaming that arise from these worries are unproductive. Plus, trying to help your child when you are anxious is counterproductive. Only once you’re aware of your own anxiety can you deal with your child’s anxiety.
You can give your child the tools to tolerate anxiety when it occurs, and to continue living her life despite it. Be available and present – as difficult as it may be. Anxious children become anxious adults if dealing with anxiety is not mastered.
Jodi concludes that it’s essential that your child understands that you’re there to help. “It can take lots of repetition, patience and understanding. Self-compassion is essential, so always remember that you’re doing the best you can.”
Tips to parent an anxious child
- Empathise, which allows your child to experience anxiety, but to have your support and understanding.
Stop constantly reassuring your child. Rather teach her to reassure herself.
- Anxious children may have difficulty expressing strong emotions like anger and sadness. Let them know that all of their feelings are acceptable.
- Don’t avoid the triggers of the anxiety. Rather break the situations down into manageable chunks and use gradual exposure to reach a goal.
- Acting out possible ways your child could handle a difficult situation is helpful. Practising can make children more willing to try the strategies alone.
- Build your child’s confidence by offering her opportunities to do things she is good at.
- Manage your own anxieties by keeping your fears to yourself as much as you can. Present a positive or neutral description of a situation to your child, who picks up on your energy and models your behaviour, which affects how she relates to the world.
- Work as a team. Agree with your partner on a method for handling your child’s anxieties to avoid mixed messages.
- Create a worry character for your child. For example, “Mr Worry protects us when we’re in danger – sometimes he gets out of hand and needs a talking to.” Encourage your child to talk to Mr Worry, as externalising the worry can help reactivate the logical brain, allowing children to see themselves from a different point of view and gain mastery over their feelings.
- Focus on your child’s positive qualities rather than her anxiety. Build your child’s personal strength, to face challenges and be brave.
- Without laughing at your child’s fears, teach her to see the light side of life’s absurdities and uncertainties.
- Allow your child to worry openly in limited doses. Implement a daily ritual of “worry time”, in which your child can release her worries verbally, in writing or by decorating a worry box. Afterwards, close the box and send the worries away for the day.
- Have a holistic perspective of your child, where her strengths and limitations coexist. By acknowledging your child’s many features, you communicate that anxiety is just a small part of who she is.
Signs of anxiety
- Clinging, crying or tantrums when you leave her, or lashing out and aggression.
- Excessive shyness or avoidance of social situations.
- Sudden and frequent panic attacks.
- Avoiding situations or places because of fears.
- Constant worry.
- Complaints of frequent stomach aches or headaches.
How your child can manage anxiety
When you feel anxious, the prefrontal cortex (logical part of the brain) is put on hold and the more automated emotional brain takes over, so logic and reasoning won’t work. Here are some tools for your child to cope with anxiety:
- Tell her to breathe deeply. It can help relax and calm the nervous system.
- Create an awareness of the worrying thoughts.
- Collect evidence to support or negate these thoughts. Let her realise that feelings aren’t facts.
- Figure out possible solutions. Go from “what if?” to “what is?” Being in the present can alleviate the tendency to pre-empt the future.