Supporting Our Children Through Anxious Times

Supporting our children through anxious times can tug at all of the heartstrings and flood our minds with worries such as ‘am I doing enough’s’. Though we often wish we could, we can’t wave a magic wand and ‘fix’ it for them. But we can support them to cope.

Supporting Our Children Through Anxious Times

What Does Anxiety Look Like In Children?

Children, especially younger children, aren’t always able to name their emotions. Often, anxiety comes out in their behaviours or physical symptoms.

A child might talk about tummy aches or headaches. They might regularly feel sick, be tearful, struggle to sleep, have bad dreams, wet the bed, have no appetite, or always be hungry.

We might notice that they’re unusually irritable or angry. There could be a daily battle about going to school (or nursery). Some children experience selective mutism. Our child’s behaviour at school or nursery can deteriorate. They may isolate themselves from friends or family and avoid certain situations. In older children, their grades might go downhill.

If our child’s behaviour has suddenly changed, then it’s usually due to something. Behaviour is a way of communicating when we don’t have the language or emotional capacity to explain what’s going on.

Is My Child Anxious Or Do They Have Anxiety?

When our child is finding life tough, whether they’re 3 or 53, we worry and we want to help.

Mental health is talked about more now than it used to be This is good in many ways but does mean that we sometimes medicalise ‘normal’ experiences. If our child is feeling anxious about something, we don’t necessarily need to panic and rush them to the GP.

Anxiety as an emotion is a ‘normal’ feeling. We all feel anxious sometimes. It’s important for our survival, helping us through difficult or dangerous situations. Feeling anxious before the first day of school, for example, is normal.

Anxiety Disorder is a diagnosable condition. It applies to people who’s anxiety levels far exceed those ‘expected’.

For some children, the amount of anxiety they feel goes far beyond what’s ‘expected’. They might start refusing to go to school and try to escape once there. We might notice that they stop eating much, complain about feeling sick regularly, and begin to lose a lot of weight. They could begin to lash out over things like their routine being disrupted.

If our child’s anxiety is reaching a point when it’s interfering in their life, then we might need some more help.

Explaining Anxiety

One metaphor we can use is the bucket metaphor. The ‘water’ coming into our bucket represents the things that we’re finding difficult. For example ‘maths lessons’, ‘falling out with friends’, or ‘going to the supermarket’. At the bottom of the bucket are some holes. The holes represent the things we do to cope such as ‘talking to my Dad’, ‘going for bike rides’ or ‘colouring’.

If too much is coming in, and there aren’t enough holes to let it all out, then our bucket overflows and we feel really anxious or upset. We either need to reduce how much is coming in or make more holes to let it out.

Although we might be able to resolve some worries and anxieties, it’s also vital to add some coping mechanisms. We can’t control the world around us, but we can control how we respond to it.

Supporting Our Children To Talk About Feelings

Children without the emotional literacy to name anxiety might be able to draw or describe the physical symptoms they have or use colours and shapes to describe their feelings. For example, they might say that they feel ‘wobbly’, ‘hot’, ‘red’ or ‘spikey’. Having conversations around these feelings can help children to identify and put words to their anxiety.

Listening

Listening is such an important part of supporting our children. There is a difference between listening and hearing. Kids are smart and if we’re not listening properly, they tend to work it out fairly quickly.

If we’re forever rushing around and never sit down or spend downtime with our child then there may never be a time when they feel comfortable talking to us. For them to feel comfortable talking to us, we need to be available. Bedtime can be a good time to sit down and chat about the day.

When our child does speak to us, we need to try and be careful not to force things out of them or push them too far. They will speak to us about things when they’re ready to. This can be really, really hard sometimes, especially if we’re worried. But our child needs to feel safe, not pressured.

It’s also really important that we validate the things they’re sharing with us. If we respond to ‘I’m worried about my GCSEs’ with ‘oh you’ll be fine don’t worry about it’, then it immediately ends the conversation, and our child is left feeling like their (very valid) worry is ‘stupid”. A validating response would be something like: ‘exams can be really tough, it’s totally understandable that you’d feel anxious, shall we chat about it a bit more?’.

Having A Code

Some children find it helpful to have a ‘code’ or ‘name’ for their anxiety. Younger children might call it something like ‘the worry monster’ or give it a name. Older children and young people might use things like emojis. For example, we could agree that a particular emoji means ‘I’m anxious and I need a hug but I don’t know how to ask for one’.

Be Honest

Honesty is so important. Trust is so hard to build and so easy to break.

If our child is worried about something, and we can’t absolutely 100% guarantee that it won’t happen, then we shouldn’t promise that it won’t happen. For example, if our child is worrying that there will be a storm, we say there won’t be, and then there is, then that can break our child’s trust.

It might reach the point where we need more support with our child’s anxiety. If possible, asking or telling them before we speak to someone can help them to feel in control and maintain trust. Finding out that we’ve spoken to someone about their anxiety without telling them can feel like a betrayal.

Our child deserves respect, however old they are, and whatever their level of understanding. Before we speak to our work colleague (who our teenager babysits for) it’s worth stopping and thinking about whether our child would be comfortable with that.

Supporting Our Children Using Growth Mindset

Often our children and young people feel anxious around the idea of failure or getting things wrong.

Our society and school system are geared towards achievement, and ranking our children according to their grades.

Growth mindset is the idea that rather than thinking ‘I can’t do it’, we think ‘I can’t do it yet’. This helps us to stop viewing achievement and ability as things that are fixed and to start viewing them as things that we have some control over and can work on.

When we support our children, focusing on things that our children and young people can do, have worked hard on and can build on can help to increase their self-esteem. It also shows that if we work hard at things then we’re often able to upskill ourselves.

Empower Don’t Rescue

When our child is struggling, it’s so tempting to swoop in and ‘fix’ the situation.

Our children and young people will have times when they feel anxious throughout their life. If we support our children by ‘taking away’ their anxiety when they’re in a safe, supportive environment, then later on in life, when an anxiety-provoking situation crops up, they won’t have any idea how to cope with it.

Rather than ‘rescuing’ our children, we need to try and empower them. Instead of doing things for them, it’s far better to do it alongside them.

We could learn coping skills alongside our child. Children and young people can be really resourceful and sometimes develop their own ways to cope with things. They might like to teach us one of their coping skills.

Encouraging our children to recognise when they’re anxious, use their skills, tweak, and flex can help them (and us!) to feel more confident when managing difficult situations.

Supporting Our Children To Create Healthy Boundaries

Respecting our child’s boundaries and encouraging them to create healthy boundaries can help them to feel increasingly self-assured and in control, reducing anxiety.

Respecting their boundaries looks like asking them if they’d like a hug, not just bundling them into one. Asking them if they’d like to go somewhere, not just expecting them to go. Knocking before going into their bedroom or safe space. Respecting their ‘no’ if you ask them if they’d like to come and talk to your work friends who have come over for a meal.

Our Child Speaking To Others

Sometimes, our child chooses to speak to someone other than us about their anxiety. Knowing that our child is happy to speak to someone else and not us, can hurt.

However, it’s important to remember that the fact our child or young person is talking to someone, is a good thing. It’s much better than them keeping all their anxieties to themselves and reaching a point where they just can’t cope.

Preparation

If our child’s worried about a specific situation, it can help to talk, or walk, through in preparation.

We could talk through their worries at each stage and see if there are any of their ‘usual’ anxiety coping mechanisms that they could employ.

Thinking things through before they happen can help us to mutually problem-solve and think about things that might help in advance. This can also help our child to remember to take anything they might need, such as rollerballs or fiddles.

Being prepared can feel empowering. Our child knows what to do if anxiety strikes. That in itself can reduce our child’s anxiety levels.

Distraction

Distraction is a tool that we need to be a little bit careful with. If we constantly distract from the things that are worrying us, then we often just delay the problem rather than solving or coping with it. It can act as a ‘sticking plaster’.

There are some instances where distraction can be useful. For example, if our child has an exam the next day, we’ve talked it through, packed their bag, have a plan, and it’s an hour until bedtime, then it might be helpful to spend that hour distracting and winding down.

Supporting Our Children To Self-Care

Self-care is the foundation of our wellbeing. If we don’t look after our basic needs then we’re unlikely to feel good.

Children and young people might have some different self-care needs to adults. For example, keeping on top of the mail probably isn’t even on their radar. But there are lots of different ‘self-care’ things we could do together. For example, cooking healthy meals, getting some fresh air, or going to bed on time.

Supporting Our Children Using Breathing Techniques

There are various breathing techniques we can learn to help us support our children to slow their breathing down and cope with anxious times.

To start with, we could focus on breathing from our stomach rather than our chest. It can be helpful to breathe in for longer than we breathe out. So we might breathe in for seven and out for five.

Another technique is ‘square breathing’. This is where we breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four, and hold for four, then repeat it until we feel calmer. Some people find it helpful to trace the square on their hand or leg, too.

We could try yoga. Either through a class or there are lots of resources online ranging from minibeast yoga to YouTube classes. Though our child might not want to do a ‘downward dog’ in the middle of the school playground, the breathing techniques learned through yoga can be transferred anywhere.

Using Our Senses

We can use our senses to support our children to self-soothe, and ground themselves.

We all have different sensory preferences. It can take some exploration and a bit of trial and error to work it out the things that work for us. We could try things like lavender pouches, using fabric conditioner, blankets, coloured lights, things to fiddle with, headphones, or lava lamps.

Once we’ve learned the things that work for our child, we help them to self-soothe and ground themselves during anxious times. Have a think about how to make it as easy as possible for our child to use these sensory tools both when at home and when out of the house.

Worry Boxes

The idea of worry boxes is that we write our worry down and then pop it in the box. Worry monsters are similar in that they eat our worries. The idea is that this takes our child’s worry out of their head so they stop ruminating on it.

Coping Boxes

Coping boxes, happy boxes, or ‘distress tolerance’ boxes are all different names for a similar thing. These boxes contain things that can help us to cope with anxiety.

They might include things like stress balls, sand timers, colouring pencils, a playlist, photos, teddies, fiddley things, affirmation cards, slime, rollerballs, lavender bags and spikey balls.

Although we can support our children to create the box, it’s important that they have complete ownership of it. We can then encourage them to use it at times when their anxiety rises.

Supporting Our Children To Create A Safe Space

When we’re anxious, having space to ‘de-stress’ in can be valuable. This might not be possible for everyone. But if there is a corner of a room that we can turn into a ‘breathe out’ space with our child, it can make a big difference

Involve your child in making this space. Discuss how closed-off they’d like it to be, the kind sensory items they might like in there. What else should go in there? Do they want things to do? Would they like audiobooks in there?

As well as being a safe space for our child to retreat to, it’s also a good communication tool. It tells us that our child is feeling anxious at that point and might want to chat a bit later on.

Supporting Our Children To Use Creativity

Being creative can help us to express our feelings and cope when times are tough.

Younger children often naturally gravitate towards creative things, be it colouring, drawing, making up a play or creating a story with their toys. If we notice that they’re anxious and want to talk to them about it, then asking permission to join their play or to draw with them can help us to talk through their anxieties with them in an accessible way.

As we grow up, we often start to get embarrassed or worried about things being ‘good’ and stop doing so many creative activities.

We don’t have to be ‘good’ at things for them to be helpful. If our child has previously enjoyed creative things then gently encouraging them to be creative can help them to have a means of expression. This could be via drawing, colouring, scrapbooking, writing, creative writing, theatre, singing, or the way they do their hair or make-up.

Supporting Our Children To Use Sport

Sport and exercise can be an amazing way to release the build-up of anxiety that we often feel.

As children grow up, they tend to become more self-conscious which can affect how much they participate in sport. School PE lessons can be difficult environments (especially the changing rooms) and sometimes put them off sport altogether.

Helping our children and young people to find a sport or exercise that works for them (if they want to and if it’s appropriate), can give them another coping mechanism for when stuff gets tough. We could even do it with them!

Who To Reach Out To

There are people we can reach out to if we, or our child, need further support. Schools can be a good place to start because our young people already know the staff. Our GP should be able to help, too, but our child might not feel quite as comfortable with them because they might never have met them before. Friends, family, youth workers, childminders, after school clubs, breakfast clubs, religious centres and community centres are all likely to have people would be happy to talk to us. Some charities such as YoungMinds, Childline and Action For Children offer specific support around young people’s mental health and may be able to signpost to further services.

In the UK, the children’s mental health service is called CAMHS (Child Adolescent Mental Health Services). Different areas have different referral processes, criteria and waiting lists, but our child’s school or our local GP should have information on that.

Self-Help

There are various self-help resources online. We have some free downloads such as our Sensory Self- Care Toolkit and Self-Care Starter Kit. The Anna Freud Centre has some fantastic resources for young people on a whole range of topics.

The NHS has a list of useful apps, including some that are specifically designed to help young people who are struggling with their mental health.

A Final Note

Whether our child is anxious or has anxiety, it’s important to remember that it’s probably not a reflection on us as a parent or caregiver. It can be really hard when our child is going through a tough time and all we want to do is shield them from it but we can’t.

It’s important to look after ourselves, too. To keep up with our own self-care, and reach out for support from places like our local carers centre if we need to.

Having a child who is struggling can be an isolating experience. But you’re absolutely not alone, you matter, and things won’t always be like this.

Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.