If you’re the parent of an anxious child you’re most certainly not alone. The number of children experiencing an anxiety disorder is currently estimated at 117 million worldwide. Here in Australia, there’s an average of 2 anxious kids in every classroom; and they’re the ones with a diagnosis. Many more anxious kids are yet to have their anxiety identified and understood.
As much as we’d like to, we can’t rid our kids of their anxiety, but we can help them to manage it in ways that enable them move it from centre stage and get on with living a vibrant, rich and meaningful life.
Here are 6 tips to support you to parent your anxious child:
1. Explain Anxiety
Anxious kids can struggle to explain how they feel and can worry that no-one will understand what they’re going through. That’s why explaining anxiety is an important step in supporting an anxious child. The knowledge that anxiety is well understood, that other kids experience it and that it’s manageable brings them immediate relief.
Teach your anxious child that the part of their brain that protects them from danger is always on high alert. Called the amygdala, it’s meant to protect them from genuine danger but for anxious kids, it can be almost constantly activated.
Explain that when they feel anxious, their amygdala sends signals to their body to fight or flee from the threat, whether it’s real or imagined.
Next, talk about the body changes such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing and an upset stomach that power them up to fight or flee. They might even feel dizzy, hot, sweaty and panicked. Anxiety effects thinking and behaviour too.
2. Respond with Empathy
In the midst of an anxious moment it’s natural to want to reassure anxious kids they’ve got nothing to worry about. Reassurance works in the short term but it soon wears off and they come back for more, which becomes an unhelpful pattern.
Instead, respond with empathy and validation. Use ahhh statements such as:
- “Ahhh, I see you’re feeling really anxious right now, I know how hard this is for you”
- “Ahhh, I know you’re feeling really worried right now, it’s not much fun feeling like that is it?”
Anxious kids need to know you understand what they’re going through.
3. Show the Amygdala They’re Safe
Once the amygdala senses danger, the cascade of events that follow can’t be stopped. The body and brain will respond as if the danger is immediate. The best way to help an anxious child calm their anxious brain is to teach them to show their amygdala they’re safe. Deep and intentional breathing helps an anxious child to calm their amygdala and will begin to reduce their anxious symptoms. Practise intentional breathing regularly between anxious times before applying this technique in the midst of an anxious moment.
4. Practise Mindfulness – the Antidote to Worrying
Anxiety is distress now about a possible future event, which is why worrying is common for anxious kids. When an anxious child’s mind fast-forwards to an upcoming event or expectation, their amygdala can respond as if the ‘threat’ to their safety is immediate. The antidote to worrying is mindfulness. Put simply, mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. It may take time to learn, but is a powerful anxiety management strategy once it’s mastered.
5. Practice Defusing Sticky Thoughts
Anxious thoughts can get stuck, refusing to budge no matter how much attention is payed to them. Defusion is a strategy that helps anxious kids look at their thoughts rather than from them.
Imagine your anxious child is worried about an upcoming test. They’re thinking “I’m going to fail the test”. The thought makes them feel awful. Defusion helps kids (all of us) to look at their thoughts by reminding them that the words in their heads are indeed just words, not reality.
Your anxious child can defuse his unhelpful thoughts by putting a statement in front of the thought such as: “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m going to fail the test.” Alternatively, he can say the thought in a character voice like Darth Vader or Peppa Pig, or sing it to the tune of happy birthday or a nursery rhyme. Defusion puts distance between anxious kids and their thoughts and is a wonderful skill to learn.
6. Get the Fundamentals Right
Ample sleep, good nutrition and exercise are essential for anxious kids. Support your child to adhere to their optimal bedtime so they wake naturally around the time of their alarm, reduce their sugar intake to support their gut health and to exercise regularly for optimal mental health.