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How to help your anxious child

Parenting an anxious child can feel overwhelming as you watch your child struggle with everyday activities which other children manage, with what appears, relative ease. As a parent you can often feel isolated, embarrassed, and guilty; no-one else’s child gets upset about going into school every day, or attending after school activities, or making friends, or getting to sleep at night, or going on a school trip, or sitting a test, or managing their emotions, or (insert as appropriate)………

However anxiety is the most common mental health issue children will experience, affecting 1 in 4 before they reach the age of 16 years. It’s the quiet struggle which so many parents live with but never talk about for fear of being judged, misunderstood, or given well meaning advice on why ‘tough-love’ is required. Given these stark numbers your child is likely to be in a class of between 4-8 children who worry too. As a parent with an anxious child you are therefore not alone; other parents are simply choosing not to publicly talk about it.

If you are a struggling to support your anxious child, feel you’ve read every book, tried every technique, and still feel overwhelmed, here are my top three tips to get you started. They are not a cure but they are where I would start with any child, or adult, who is anxious. They are the foundations upon which all my strategies dovetail onto. Without these foundations you are unlikely to make any real lasting progress.

1.    Explain the physiology of stress
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.

2.    Problem solve strategies to reduce the physiological response
Your role as a parent is to help your child trouble shoot 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 effectively than simply asking them to take a few deep breathes. 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 1, until they feel an easing in their stress.

3.    Harness your child’s imagination
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.

In over ten years experience working with children these have been the most effective strategies I have found, but they won’t work instantly. As is the case when learning anything new, they require practice.

If you’d like to know more about how to help your child then why not tune into my first ever children’s Facebook live session on Wednesday 27th September at 6pm, where I will cover these three strategies and more. Go to my Facebook page on the day or start following me now to get notified once the session starts

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