Helping your anxious child: information for parents
Anxiety is a normal part of children's behavioural and emotional development, and as children get older, their concerns grow broader. A younger child may be worried about a spelling test, a soccer match, or catching the school bus for the first time. An older child may worry about a school camp, failing in a test, impressing peers or starting a new sport. These anxieties are common, even signs that your child's development is on track.
Why is my child so anxious?
As children get older, they experience more everyday pressure, and this can give rise to a good deal of anxiety. Anxiety can result when a child feels they may be likely to fail at any of these things.
In addition, your child may react to stresses and issues within the family as well as the world beyond: A divorce, a parent's losing a job, a car accident, even a story on the evening news can trigger feelings of distress, fear, and helplessness. At this age, children begin to think more about death, realising that it's real and happens to everyone -- not only the bad guy on TV, but parents and children as well. Consequently, your child may have trouble falling asleep after watching a movie in which someone dies or refuse to go to school if you're ill. Provide your child plenty of opportunities to discuss specific fears, especially if they've arisen from events in your household.
Ask yourself whether your child has spells of anxiety linked to particular events, or if your child is anxious day in and day out. While all children are anxious before having to do certain things, , some become apprehensive even when going about their daily routines. If that's the case with your child, it's possible that your child's worries are overwhelming the ability to cope.
Generally speaking, you should be concerned if your child's fears or constant worrying begin to hamper the ability to participate in school, family or social activities. Your child may also need some special help if you've repeatedly reassured him, yet the fears are as strong as ever.
About 1 in 10 children have difficulties managing anxiety but they can be difficult to identify as they are often very well behaved and seemingly well adjusted. Despite appearances these children spend a significant amount of time worrying and avoiding situations which they are afraid of - the consequences of this can be sleeping difficulties, high levels of stress, physical symptoms such as stomach and head aches, and missing out on age appropriate activities. Ultimately these children are at a higher risk of later developing serious anxiety disorders and depression, and are less likely to reach their learning potential.
So, what can you do to help?
Providing reassurance: is this the right thing?
Reassuring your child is usually the most common strategy for children who are worried about small, everyday events. Commonly, parents will offer reassurance, and highlight shared experiences: "There's nothing to be worried about... You will be fine once you get going...Your brother has to do it, too" Surprisingly, reassurance is not helpful for truly anxious children.
The problem with this approach is that the child DOES have a worry. To them, there is something to worry about, and they are worrying. They know they WON'T be fine. The child will either dismiss the reassurance: "she doesn't get it...", or will seek more and more reassurance, setting up a dependency cycle where the child becomes more hesitant to take risks.
A better approach is to acknowledge the anxiety, right up front. "I can see you're really worried about this, and you're not going to be able to do this right now".
The best strategy is to help children come up with their own strategies, and do their own problem solving. For example, if a child is worrying about what is required in a particular task or activity, and whether their work so far is correct, ask them, "how could you find out? where could you get the information? how do you think you are doing so far?...." - try to encourage them to work it out for themselves.
You may find for anxious children, you need to hold off on reassurance even more than for non - anxious children, just to create the opportunity for them to learn that they can do things for themselves and solve their own problems.
Challenging the worrying
For children whose worries are affecting everyday life, and where the worry seems much greater than it really needs to be, you need to help them challenge the thinking that is underlying the worry. This takes particular skills, and you may need to talk to a School Counsellor or a Psychologist about this. Challenging the thinking involves three steps:
- Help your child work out what they are worried about, and what they are telling themselves about the situation. For example, if your child is worried about giving a talk to the class, they may be telling themselves ...."My talk won't be very good.... everyone will be bored.....I won't remember all the bits"". Help your child see that it is this negative thinking that leads to the feelings of worry.
- Help them to challenge the negative thoughts that are going through their minds by more realistic thinking. Often, children will exaggerate the likelihood ( "I am sure to....".... or "I always....") or the consequences of something negative happening: we call this 'catastrophising'. Try to get your child to work out how likely it is that those things will actually happen. Evaluate more realistic the likely consequences. Ask questions such as: What has happened in the past? What general things do we know about this situation? What has happened in the past? What might happen instead? What else could happen? For example, "I answered some questions in the class discussion about the same topic...... I gave a shorter talk last term, and that was ok.....I can use cue cards, and they will help..... Kids in this class don't laugh at each other...."
- Hopefully, they will be able to realise that the worried thought actually isn't very likely. Realistic thinking will replace frightened thinking, allowing the child to go on and do some problem solving about the situation: "I can use cue cards... I can practice first at home in front of my parents... My teacher will remind kids to listen carefully....If they laugh, maybe it's because I said something funny.....Even if I forget something, I will remember some parts..." These more positive thoughts should be the ones your child uses to get them through the situation.
Over time, you may find that just a small "prompt" will trigger your child to use these tools : "What are you telling yourself about the situation? What positive thoughts could you have instead?".
Other ways to help your child:
Don't demand toughness.
- Provide support and encouragement but without too much fuss eg "I can see that you are scared but just try the best you can", then walk away
- Model good realistic thinking and problem solving yourself. Find every day times that you are "worried" (or create them!) such as "I am worried that we are going to run late for grandma's." Then model the process of challenging your own thinking and coming up with more realistic self - talk : do it out loud, so your child hears you going through the steps of the process.
- Use a worry scale. Suggest your child gives a "worry rating" from 1 to 10 to each worry as it comes up. Often, highly anxious children tend to "catastrophise", thinking situations are much worse than they really are, and this can help to keep the worry in perspective.
- Encourage your child to take action or write down fears and worries. School-age children often keep journals, and writing down fears and worries can really help. If your child has become concerned about something outside his own life, such as the plight of dolphins or children going hungry, don't dismiss these fears, but suggest strategies to deal with them. Your child might write a letter to Greenpeace about the dolphins or to UNICEF asking about ways to aid needy children. Acting out fears is another way to diminish them.
- Encourage small steps. For example, for a child who is fearful of nights away from home, start with an evening at grandma's, then stay overnight at a friend's house or a weekend with a favourite aunt and uncle. Such temporary separations will give your child practice in adjusting to different situations and experiencing success.
- Talk to your child's teacher. Suggest he or she uses some of the same tools.
- Lower the pressure. Your anxious child may be trying to tell you that he or she doing too much -- that the demands of school, music classes, sports, and friendships have mushroomed out of control. Consider whether you're pushing too hard in terms of activities. Suggest cutting back on activities - choose just one activity per term, for example. You can also help your child feel secure and well rested by keeping mealtimes and other routines as regular as possible.
- Use your sense of humour. Laughter goes a long way towards resolving anxiety. If your child is worrying about an upcoming piano recital, tell him the old trick of imagining the audience in their underwear. Or describe the time you got stuck while making a toast at your sister's wedding. Funny stories put things in perspective, and if your child learns to laugh at occasional flops, your child will have an easier time throughout life.
Your child already is tough, in ways you probably don't appreciate. How many times a day does your child fear that they have failed, and must try again? How many rules is your child expected to follow? How many activities compete for attention? Forcing your child to do something that makes him anxious will only make him fear you and doubt herself. Give your child time, don't fret if progress is gradual, and praise for each small step your child takes.
Jenni Pearce, Psychologist (2009)
Child & Educational Psychology
6 Edward Street, NORWOOD 5067 South Australia, Australia.
Telephone: 0407 726 332
Fax: (08) 8362 0332