We’re all too familiar with the ever-increasing numbers of adults suffering from anxiety here in the UK. We’ve been through some pretty tough times in the last few years, after all.
But what many people are only starting to open their eyes to, is that children are not exempt from experiencing anxiety. In fact, it’s understood that 50% of all mental health disorders will start by the age of 14.
While there are many causes of anxiety that are uncontrollable, catching the symptoms early and teaching your children vital coping mechanisms will help them to manage their anxiety, so they can lead full, happy lives, as every child deserves to.
What is anxiety?
According to the NHS, anxiety is a feeling of worry and fear that happens over a long period of time.
It’s important to recognise that being anxious and having a medically recognised diagnosis of Anxiety are two different things.
Everybody gets anxious from time to time. There are events in life that are naturally nerve-inducing, and it’s completely normal to be anxious about them. Things like interviews, stage fright, moving to a new location, taking an exam, or going on a first date. But despite the fear, you push through, and do it anyway.
Anxiety is not quite so simple.
Some people who suffer with anxiety may feel intense fear around particular events that don’t necessarily pose a risk (hanging out with friends, going to school, going outside, or going to the shop).
Most people with anxiety will avoid or procrastinate in any uncomfortable situations rather than feeling able to push through. The physiological (body) and emotional symptoms of anxiety can be too much to bear, so running away from the situation becomes a coping mechanism.
How does anxiety affect children?
Children are still learning about the world around them and how to navigate it. They’re still trying to work out for themselves what’s “normal” and what isn’t.
So for children with anxiety, they may feel that these fears are normal, or that they have to live with them. Alternatively, they may not understand or have the vocabulary needed to express how they feel, leaving them scared, confused, and vulnerable.
As a result, they can become socially distanced at school, afraid of trying new things, and a shell of the bright young child they once were.
Unfortunately, society is still not at the place it needs to be to create a kinder and more inclusive environment for kids to thrive. Schools are trying, for sure, but mental health is still a relatively misunderstood part of humanity, and without proper diagnosis (which isn’t as simple as you’d think), schools may be limited in what they can do.
We have a school system that places a lot of weight on learning success through letter/number grades and puts very little comparative weight on self-development and emotional intelligence. So teaching your children coping mechanisms is vital for them to successfully navigate their time at school.
At home, children may become distant and unmotivated as a result of anxiety. And it’s at home where you may be able to observe the traits of an anxious child.
Signs your child may be suffering from anxiety
As we discussed earlier, children, especially younger ones, may not have the communication skills or self-reflection necessary to tell you they are suffering with anxiety. And other children may know they have anxiety but treat it as a secret, ashamed of being “different.”
That’s why it’s up to you as a parent or carer to try and spot the signs. So here are some behaviours to look out for:
- They find it hard to concentrate
- They are scared to go to school, often faking illnesses to stay home
- They don’t want to join clubs for activities they enjoy
- They have trouble sleeping, or frequent nightmares
- They aren’t eating properly
- They worry about what other people think of them
- They are extremely fidgety
- They are extremely sedentary
- They need to go to the toilet often
- They don’t want to separate from your side
- They struggle to do homework
- They get upset if they don’t get perfect school results
- They frequently complain of an upset stomach
- They easily cry or become irritable
If your child has a combination of these signs, it’s time to have a gentle, open conversation with them to get to the bottom of the cause. It could be anxiety, or it could be something else – talking is the best way to pinpoint it.
And if you’re extremely worried and your child has many signs of anxiety, don’t be afraid to get a professional opinion.
Six anxiety coping mechanisms to teach your child
If you suspect your child has anxiety, it’s vital you teach them coping mechanisms. These tips will help all children to have a better relationship with their fear and self, to help manage anxiety and anxious thoughts.
1. Get open and honest about feelings
Many times, children internalise their fears because they don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Maybe they feel they’ll be invalidated, maybe they worry they won’t be believed.
So, it’s up to you to change the conversation.
Encourage your child to be open about how they’re feeling and let them know that there is no judgement – they are free to express their thoughts and emotions.
This will open the dialogue to talk through anxiety-inducing situations and help your child see that they aren’t alone and they have a loving support system to fall back on.
2. Teach your child to recognise when they are experiencing anxiety symptoms
Anxiety symptoms can be scary. Heart racing, nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation… they all help perpetuate that feeling of fear and unsafeness.
Teach your child to recognise when these symptoms are caused by anxiety. This will help reassure them that they are safe and nothing bad is happening, which in turn can help calm the anxiety and reduce negative thought spirals.
3. Encourage your child to start journaling
Processing your thoughts and emotions is vital to coping with anxiety. Anxiety is a string of irrational fears that cause intense fear and panic in sufferers. Negative thoughts and spiralling worries contribute to this.
So encourage your child to write or draw their thoughts so they can better understand how they think and process events around them.
Check out our article on Journaling for Children to see how you can get them started.
4. Prepare your child for anxiety-inducing events
Fear of the unknown is a major trigger for anxiety. It provokes a spiral of negative “what if’s” that can leave your child paralysed with fear.
So, when taking your child somewhere they may be unfamiliar with, it’s a good idea to brief them on what they can expect.
Focus on the five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
The more information they have going in, the more comfortable they will feel that they won’t be blindsided by unexpected occurrences.
5. Teach them relaxation breathing techniques
You can’t always prepare your child for every situation; that’s not how life works. So, teaching your child what to do when anxiety creeps up will empower them to start tackling their fears and reassure them they will be ok.
Breathing techniques, in particular, are extremely beneficial to reduce anxiety.
When they feel anxious, teach them to breath in slowly for four counts, then breath out slowly for another four counts. Repeat this ten times, or as needed to calm the body.
For younger kids, you can use the bubble method to teach this breathing technique. Get a bubble wand and ask them to breath in for four, then blow at the wand for four, making a bubble.
6. Introduce the “worry box"
Working through negative and anxious thoughts is one of the best ways to reframe them. But it’s not always possible to work on them in the moment and you don’t want to rush through it.
That’s where the worry box comes in.
Find a box and encourage your child to write their negative thoughts or beliefs on a paper and put it in the box any time they feel anxious. Once a week, spend some time with your child going through the box and working through each thought.
Not only will this give your child an outlet for their emotions, but it also gives them practical and specific help for the things that cause them anxiety. Because as much as you talk about hypothetical situations, there’s nothing more powerful than tackling what’s actually happening.
Anxiety is scary for children, but you have the power to teach them how to cope. Using the tips above, you’ll be able to empower your child to take charge of their mind and start to work through their anxiety.
And don’t forget, if you find that your child’s anxiety is really bad, or they aren’t getting better after implementing coping mechanisms, don’t be afraid to seek out medical help from your GP. They’ll be able to arrange psychological help for your child.