According to clinical psychologist and parenting expert Andrew Fuller, the ability to cope with life’s challenges is often rooted in what type of mindset your child has: anxious, avoidant or resilient.
“The biggest barrier for most children to doing well is not their attitude, intelligence or motivation; it is their levels of anxiety,” he explains.
The science behind stress
Everyone gets anxious, which is why we all need to develop skills to handle worries and stress. “As human babies are defenceless, it is wired into us from birth to develop strategies to gain attention and comfort from parents and caregivers. We are also acutely aware of when our caregivers are not available.”
From this stage of development, children need to move to the next level finding ways to calm themselves, rather than just remaining reliant on other people to calm them − something many adults still do.
“Feeling secure is the gift that keeps giving,” he explains. “Learning you are secure means you learn how to calm yourself, to know that you depend on some important people in your life and that when times are tough, you can look forward to better times ahead. For this reason, two of the most important gifts parents can give their children are a sense of dependability and the art of soothing.”
Soothing is the initial stage of learning to self-calm, as we first learn about reducing stress by having others calm us, he says. Some of our “oldest and most powerful anti-anxiety techniques” include being held, distracted, gently rocked, being sung to, smiled at and hugged.
For this reason, Andrew believes the old idea of letting children cry it out and settle themselves needs to be consigned to the “dustbin of bad ideas”, as we live in a world where there is too much “time-out” and not enough “time-in”.
Typical signs that your little one could be suffering from increased levels of anxiety include:
- Separation anxiety that does not settle after a while
- Ongoing nightmares
- A startle response for no reason
- Upset, clingy behaviour over an extended period of time
- Sleep disturbances
- Insistence that you stay with them
Other typical scenarios may include having problems settling with someone they know well, seeming fearful and apprehensive beyond the norm and being reluctant to try new things − even with you.
A modern dilemma?
Andrew says we typically think of anxiety as a problem afflicting individuals, but it’s also like an infectious disease. “Anxiety is your body’s response to threat. It’s good for those moments, but not when [the threat] has passed. Yet, we seem to be permanently in a state of ‘always-on’, with shared experiences of alarm and fear that metastasiSes through sharing of fears and social media.”
These days, he says, it’s difficult to tell where your anxiety ends and the day’s news begins – and that type of negativity is often picked up by children.
The anxious mindset
Little ones with an anxious mindset will be more likely to freeze in the face of anything – or anyone – new, explains Andrew. Their anxiety levels may soar, and could lead to feelings of panic, which then result in shying away from new opportunities and experiences.
Feelings of nausea, shakiness, fear and panic may often accompany this state and it is difficult for your child to be calmed or soothed, he says.
What’s the solution?
There are myriad ways to boost your child’s brain into being less anxious and more resilient, but the key is to start with the basics and celebrate every step towards less stress, Andrew advises.
The foundation of a less anxious mindset is a healthy diet and environment, coupled with supportive parents with a can-do attitude.
- Focus on food. Get takeaways only once a month, increase vegetables and avoid soft drinks.
- Get a good night’s rest. Explore ways to soothe your little one into a peaceful sleep and nail down a consistent bedtime routine. Even if it doesn’t work well, the idea is still there, and provides a sense of security and boundaries (something anxious children, in particular, need).
- I love you! You can’t tell your child this enough – lavish him with affection.
- That’s interesting! Show enthusiasm for, and interest in, any new ideas he has.
- Go on, have a go! Encourage attempting something new and remind him, again and again, that mistakes are not only allowed, but normal. Even the smallest step is a big step, such as holding Dad’s hand, rather than Mom’s, during an outing.
- Nap or quiet time. The brain is hard-wired to become overcrowded by sensory input, so time away from noise and people is important.
- Encourage sport and physical activity. This helps both brain and body to relax.
- Take family walks.
- I believe in you. Tell your child this often, in simple, age-appropriate language. He needs to know he has a champion.
As parents, we need to constantly check in with ourselves, too, and our own behaviour, says Andrew.
Anxiety triggers to avoid
Avoiding the following anxiety triggers will promote a sense of security and stability in your anxious child, giving him the foundation for coping with his hot-wired brain and sensitive personality:
- Family conflict. Turn down the drama and count to 10 if you have to, before saying or doing something you will, almost definitely, regret later.
- Talking about troubles. Regularly talking about money problems and world politics in front of your children can contribute to insecurity.
- Physical punishment. This doesn’t solve anything, argues Andrew, and increases biological stress, which in turn fuels anxiety.
- Gossip. Negative comments about school, teachers, other people, friends or anyone else creates
a pattern of negativity – a prime breeding ground for fear and anxiety.
- Watch your mouth. We all have bad days, and we’ve all done it: ridicule, sarcasm and shaming. Observe yourself and “tone down your tone” − especially when you’re feeling emotional.
- Mind your baggage Comparing your child’s fears or anxieties to your own should only be done positively. For example, saying: “I used to feel scared of leaving my mom sometimes. My teacher helped me to have fun while mom was away, and I enjoyed painting and drawing until she came back to fetch me.”
- Yells and threats. It can be frustrating and exhausting when everybody else’s child seems quite happy, and yours isn’t. That’s OK, says Andrew, as nobody is built quite the same way. Constantly remind yourself there are always solutions, and you are your child’s champion – and firmly stop yourself from allowing your fear of failure as a parent to leak into conversation with your child.
- Getting back to basics – sleep, good food, play, laughter and a firm, loving family base – are ideal antidotes to an anxious mindset. Yes, you may need to seek professional help for your little one if the issue persists, but focus on building a strong foundation first.
Beth Cooper Howell is a freelance journalist based in the Eastern Cape. She has a keen interest in holistic health and progressive parenting. She has written a book on breastfeeding, enjoys interviewing experts on cutting-edge parenting topics and believes that nothing beats being barefoot in the veld.