Parenting / 5 July, 2022 / Dr Maryhan Baker
Are you wondering about the common signs of anxiety in children? 1 in 6 children aged between 4-16 years of age has a probable diagnosable mental health challenge, and a staggering 80% of parents are worried about their child’s mental health. No wonder the press is calling it a children’s mental health epidemic! So, how can you help as a parent?
I think the first thing is we need to understand what anxiety is and how we might know our child is anxious. Then we are far better equipped to help them.
The easiest way I know to explain it is to imagine a see-saw. When your child is happy and confident in a given situation their see-saw is in perfect balance: when they perceive the demands placed on them by the situation are met equally by what they perceive are the resources within them to manage it. The key here is your child’s perception NOT yours.
Anxiety happens when our children perceive the demands being placed on them by a given situation far outweigh any resources they perceive they have to manage it. This is not what they are or are not capable of – it’s what they perceive they are and are not capable of. I cannot stress this enough.
If your child finds going into school tricky because they feel they can’t cope with being away from you, they feel they can’t put their hand up in class because they fear they might get the answer wrong, or they refuse to go to after-school clubs or ask to join in a game at school because they fear no-one will want to play with them – then your child is feeling anxious and they need your help.
Children need to understand what is happening in their bodies when they worry about a given situation. They are probably telling you they feel sick, have butterflies, or an icky feeling in their tummy, a headache, feel dizzy, or a racing heart, sweaty hands, etc. Once you explain that their body is just doing its job and responding to what it thinks is a danger, by getting them ready to fight or run away, you begin to normalise their experience. I use the analogy of a smoke alarm, which goes off when it shouldn’t – it’s simply trying to alert you to a possible fire, and it’s your choice whether to act on this alarm or switch it off.
Your role as a parent is to help your child troubleshoot the most effective ways to switch off / silence the alarm. Understanding your child’s unique physiological response to stress is the best place to start. If they tend to start breathing very quickly, then focus on ways to slow their breathing down, if they feel sick then you are best helping them find a ‘happy place’ to take themselves off to, which doesn’t have to be a physical place (see next tip). I have found encouraging children to count their in and out breath in rounds of ten works far more effective than simply asking them to take a few deep breaths. Ask your child to count in their heads, an in-breath is one, an out-breath is two, next in-breath is three, next out-breath is four, and so on until they get to 10, then they can start again from one, until they feel an easing in their stress.
Children have the most vivid imaginations; in some ways, their anxiety is born out of this as they picture all sorts of negative outcomes for their particular worries. This strategy harnesses their imagination to create a ‘safe place’ they can mentally retreat to or interact with when they are feeling anxious. Practice makes perfect with this strategy so introduce this concept to your child when they are in a good mood and help them make the imagery as vivid as possible. If your child is into unicorns have them create a land where unicorns live with vibrant colours, sparkles and their worries are taken away into the beautiful blue sky, if they are into space and rockets have them jet off to the moon and jettison their worries out of the rocket into space. Whatever works for your child, help them make the image as vivid and real as possible.
It can feel overwhelming to know how to help your child when they are anxious. Know you are absolutely not alone, and neither is your child. These strategies take time to practice but are super effective.
One Million Moments is a worldwide campaign with one single mission – to reduce the number of children struggling with mental health challenges from the current 17% to 10% by 2025. We know prevention is better than cure. Children who feel connected, heard, and understood are less likely to struggle with their mental health.
Yet our lives are so busy, and it can be overwhelming for parents to know where to start. So, let’s keep it simple for all and actively seek change, one moment at a time. Seizing opportunities to connect with children, moment by moment, day by day.
These moments raise our awareness and give us a glimpse into a child’s mind, their reality, and how life events are impacting them right now.
We can positively impact children’s lives in those moments when we:
Lean – seize those moments to connect, however fleeting they may be, and really lean-in. Be fully present and quieten all distractions (including your mind’s need to remind you of your to-do list!)
Listen – tune in to everything your child is telling you, not only in their words, in their body language, and facial expressions. Give them your full attention without needing to have all the answers
Learn – what has this moment taught you about your child, their reality, their emotions, their challenges, their joy? Do you need to do anything different as a result of what you have learnt? Do you need to enlist help from anyone else?
One Million Moments aims to tackle the mental health crisis using a three-pronged approach.
Prevention, parents, schools, and companies pledge their support and actively create opportunities for moments with children. In exchange we provide free resources to help maximise those moments, creating the building blocks to mental health resilience.
Crisis support, donations made by parents, schools, and companies are donated by us to our charity partners, who are currently working with families in crisis.
Impacting 1 million lives, by asking parents, schools, and companies to share news of their pledge with others, so as a collective we can positively impact 1 million lives and reduce the incidence of mental health challenges in children.
Article by Dr Maryhan Baker
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