If my child is anxious, how can I help?
So now what? You’ve done some reading and you are pretty sure your child is demonstrating anxiety-related behaviors. The household is getting more and more tense as everyone struggles to cope with uncontrollable emotional outbursts. This tension starts to make communication difficult and strained, and everyone feels as if they are either on the verge of tears, or an explosive fit of rage! What can we do if we have an anxious child? The answer to this is threefold and we will look at each in turn.
Develop ways to teach your children how to recognize their feelings, especially fear, and anxiety, and give them strategies to manage those feelings. Empowering your child to feel capable and in control of themselves is a gift for life.
Look at what is going on within your household and in your own mind and develop your own strategies to address these issues. While genetics plays a part, children are little sponges who will absorb much of what is happening within their home environment. If you don’t feel able to manage your own stressors and pressures, your children will model those behaviors from observing you.
Seek advice from a mental health professional so that you can be assisted to develop specific and age-appropriate strategies for your child. You are not alone. Getting support from a psychologist, occupational therapist, counselor, or social worker, is a positive step.
Develop ways to teach your children how to recognize their feelings.
There are two things that we have to focus on when learning to recognize feelings. Bodily sensations and words. Noticing their bodily sensations, children can become aware that they are feeling a particular way. This is trickier than it sounds so it is a skill that needs to be taught. Developing a strong vocabulary of descriptive feeling words can then allow your child to express to you how they are feeling during times of perceived pressure.
It is very important to remember here that you need to teach your children to notice bodily sensations and grow their vocabulary in a time of calm. See it as a game that you can play at any time you have their attention. Encourage them to imagine how they may feel in particular situations, or talk about something that happened in the past and use it as a trigger for the conversation. Use flashcards or draw upon one of the many Android apps on the market. There is absolutely no point waiting until your child is having a meltdown to then ask them how they are feeling! Chances are they will only scream louder or withdraw further!
If you struggle to recognize and/or describe your own emotions, then this is a chance to learn alongside your child. Helping your child understand and manage their anxiety will also help you to understand your own.
….and give them strategies to manage those feelings.
Having read the research and talked to experts in the field, the most important strategies to teach when managing emotions are:
- Understanding why we feel a particular way.
- Using re-appraisal to slow down and evaluate what has happened.
- Using problem-solving to figure out what we can do to change the situation or cope with an unchangeable situation.
- Learning how to slow down and relax.
- Learning that it is ok to express emotions in a way that is appropriate to the environment.
- Why we feel a particular way
Understanding why means being able to track the trigger event(s) that elicited a particular response. For example, if a sibling laughs when your child is trying unsuccessfully to work a hula hoop, chances are there will be tears or yelling. The trigger is not being unsuccessful at hoola hooping, it’s the fact that their sibling laughed and caused them to feel silly.
Re-appraisal of the situation
How we feel about an event is defined by our perception of that event. If no one talks to us at a party, we may perceive that party negatively and feel rejected or sad. If we felt engaged and interested in others, we may perceive that party positively and feel happy and connected. This process is called Cognitive Appraisal.
Re-appraisal is the process used to re-evaluate an event and find alternate ways of perceiving what transpired. So back to the party, if no one talked to us at a party and our initial reaction was to perceive the event negatively, re-appraisal might mean we look in greater depth at what happened during the party. It is then that we have the chance to notice that the other partygoers made no effort to introduce themselves, or that everyone was too busy dancing to chat.
When we take time to re-appraise an event, we often find that there are less negative ways to perceive the situation and hence we can impact how we feel about it.
In essence, when we problem solves during an anxiety-eliciting event, we are trying to find ways of altering the trigger so as to impact how we will later feel and improve our chances of coping. This often takes the form of an internal dialogue that sounds something like this “OK, even though my stomach is churning and my hands are sweaty, let’s stop and think about this for a moment. I practiced really hard for this piano exam so there is no reason for me to think I will fail. Even if I make a mistake, that is ok. A mistake doesn’t mean I’m going to fail.”
Everyone can benefit from learning how to visualize, breathe deeply and slow down their heart rate in a moment of anxiety. You can read more about these techniques on this website.
Expressing emotion appropriately
The suppression of emotion can have impacts upon coping in adult life, however, the expression of emotion must be appropriate to the place and time. If a child doesn’t get what they want for Christmas from a relative, they need to show enough self-restraint to express that disappointment when they are with you in a safe environment. Yelling at Uncle Greg over Christmas dinner for buying a Barbie doll instead of a Transformer figurine, is not an appropriate way to express disappointment!
So what is going on in your own household?
This part is really hard but absolutely necessary. Most mental health professionals who work with children will tell you that you need to participate in your child’s counseling and role-model the behavioral changes you would like to work towards.
If you or your partner explode with anger when things don’t go right, or if you praise one child for practicing their sight words, but don’t make the same efforts to praise your other child, or if you break into a rage if someone spills water on the floor, or if you don’t let your child try new things and overuse the phrase “don’t do that you’ll hurt yourself!”, or if all in your life is filed alphabetically according to size and then color-coded, chances are you need to put some work into how you manage your own pressures and raise your awareness of what indirect messages you are sending your child. Also be aware that if your partner has a different parenting style to your own, your child cannot be expected to navigate the constantly moving goalposts.
Being honest with yourself is not about placing blame or taking on board another stressor. Being honest with yourself is the key to understanding where your children’s behaviors may be coming from. Put in their situation, watching what you do and how you do it, you might start acting out too!
Seek assistance advice and support. You are not alone.
A qualified professional has almost certainly the skills and experience to help you when you feel there is not much left in the tank. There will be very little that you could say that would surprise them. This means that seeking out that support may just be one of the most positive and empowering steps you can take for yourself and for your child