What you can do right now to help your child with anxiety.
When a child is experiencing anxiety, we often are keen to fix it for them. But where do we start? And is fixing it even the right answer?
Here are some ideas and techniques from Registered Psychologist Nadine Isler you can try if you have a younger child in your life who is experiencing some worries or anxious feelings.
Normalise strong emotions.
Everyone loves happy children! So it’s tempting to reward positive and settled feelings and behaviour. Maybe this is the way you were parented too – maybe you were punished for crying or appearing ‘weak’, or even just subtly discouraged from talking about anything negative.
Children need to know they are loved, even when they’re struggling. I’m not saying that all behaviour is acceptable, but that all feelings are. This will prevent them from feeling they have to pretend they are when they are not, and help them feel safe and comfortable enough to hopefully share what is happening.
Model how you cope.
Children watch everything we do, even when sometimes it feels like they aren’t interested! Try showing how you deal with stress and anxiety, even if it’s as simple as saying ‘I can feel I’m getting a bit worked up so I’m going to go outside and move my body’ or ‘I am feeling nervous about tomorrow’s presentation but I know that I will feel great afterwards, and I will enjoy the challenge’. Narrate your struggles, and what you’re choosing to do about them.
Listen in a way that works.
Every parent wants their child to talk to them about what’s going on. But sometimes it’s really tough for children to open up. Maximise your chances of success by connecting in a non-threatening way, and prioritising listening over talking. Make sure you have time, are as relaxed as possible, and perhaps suggest a joint activity together.
If your child isn’t ready, respect it and try not to push. Walking or driving can be good moments – sitting face to face can be confronting.
Give options for strategies.
We all feel best when we know we have options. Try giving your child some ideas for calming strategies that they can practice. Taking some breaths, having a snack, going for a walk, hugging their sides, talking about the problem – the possibilities are endless.
Depending on the age of the child you could make a list or chart together so they are able to see the options often, so that when the anxiety rears up, there is already an idea or two up their sleeves to try. This helps adults too – we often need a reminder of what is available to us!
Be aware of your own worries.
We don’t want to pin everything on parents. But children do look to those around them to determine an appropriate reaction. What do your children hear or see you worrying about? Is there some work you could do on your own anxiety and anxious responses that might help your child see that they are in a safe place with a confident adult?
To begin answering this question it might help to note down everything you avoid doing/are nervous about on a daily basis. It might be more than you think!
What do their bodies need?
The physiological things are often overlooked, but can play a huge role in maintaining anxiety. Things like adequate nutrition, enough sleep and plenty of exercise are all really important. Not just because they build a good healthy body (they do!) but also because keeping these things regulated takes advantage of our primal fight/flight systems.
For example – being hungry is stressful for the body. So the body is likely to release cortisol, amp up our fight/flight response, and we feel on edge. Think of it this way - if we are running away from a threat (eg a tiger, in caveperson times), we don’t have time to eat, right? So the body is likely to interpret hunger as a threat present.
So if you make sure your child eats regularly (and ideally slowly), they’re sending their body a message – everything is ok, we can relax and calm down.
Don’t avoid things just because it makes your child anxious.
Often parents feel it’s cruel to ask their children to face things that make them feel awful. But if you help your children avoid anything that’s slightly scary to them, they won’t build any sense of trust in their ability to cope.
They also won’t expand their comfort zone – in fact it’s likely to shrink, with the less and less things they feel comfortable doing. That leads us to our next point…
The goal is to teach children to tolerate anxiety, NOT avoid it.
This may seem counterintuitive but more a child practices being anxious, and learns that they will survive it/has tools to cope, the less anxious they are likely to get in future. The anxious feelings can then be interpreted as excitement or ‘the feeling my body gets when it’s facing a challenge’.
Talk issues through as a team.
Try problem solving together. Allow your child to come up with ideas and solutions, and if they get stuck, help make some suggestions. This will build their resilience at problem solving, and show them that their skills are valued and growing.
Let’s say your child is nervous about school camp. Try to approach this curiously, without assumptions - to find out from them what exactly it is they feel worried about. If they’re able to identify this (e.g., I’m scared I won’t like the food or I won’t be able to find the toilet in the middle of the night) then you can try to problem solve together. Is there someone they can talk to? Can they bring some alternate snacks/a torch for night time?
Good luck parents/caregivers – you’ve got this!
About the Author
Nadine Isler is a Registered Psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety and related conditions. She finds the human brain fascinating and loves working with people from all walks of life. She was born in Switzerland and is now based in Auckland and has two children.
When to look for more help
Feeling anxious throughout life is normal for all of us. However, you might like to seek further help if
- Anxiety persists after your continued support and reassurance.
- If anxiety is becoming a permanent long-term part of your child’s life.
- If it is affecting their lives by limiting things they will do such as – attending school, joining clubs, making friends.
Please remember, this advice is general in nature and every person / child is different.
Here are some amazing resources we have found that might help you find further support.