Many parents often feel concerned that talking to your child about anxiety will make them even more anxious. However, if you don’t, they may think there is something wrong with them. I’ve worked with children who think they weird, odd, weak, or out of control. Therefore, the first step is to teach your child how to recognise it. Here are three simple steps.
Three steps on talking about Anxiety
Firstly, enable your child to open up about any fears
- Start by describing a recent situation when you observed your child is anxious. ( Children are often anxious at new social situations and transition times, often when they have to leave you)
When we went to Jenny’s house, I noticed you seemed very quiet and need to stay with me for quite a long time. I wondered if you were a bit nervous about being in a new house.
- Help them to identify normal fears, you may have to offer a prompt.
I know some children are scared of the dark and have fears at nighttime……do you have that worry too?
- Share your fears and worries that you may have had as a child and ask if they have the same too.
- Accept your child’s fears, tell them you believe them, and empathise with how hard that be for them.
What not to say to Anxiety
Secondly, teaching your child about Anxiety
- Ensure your child has an emotional vocabulary. Do they have a word for anxiety such as fear, worry, or being scared?
- Communicate that anxiety is normal and everyone feels anxiety or worry some of the time. So, it is normal to have fears about being away from mummy or daddy. It is normal to feel worried before a test or a competition.
- Anxiety is not dangerous within itself, however, it is uncomfortable but the feeling/s will pass.
Talking and explaining the Fight-Flight-Freeze ( stress response).
Children like a bit of simple science, help them to understand the relationship between the Amygdala and Hippocampus for the stress response:
The Role of the Amygdala
Did you know that this response goes back to cavemen times? It’s the part of the brain called the Amygdala. This is online from birth. It’s a bit like a very sensitive guard dog that barks and helps us to decide what is a threat or not. It uses sight, sense, smell. ( it does not use thought, it is mindless). It makes this decision fast ( a tenth of a second) whether it needs to save your life. It will decide whether to:
- Fight ( lash out at others)
- Flight ( run away or avoid situations)
- Freeze ( mind goes blank or just freeze)
It often triggers “false alarms” and potentially problematic reactive behavior. We sometimes freeze in stressful situations, like public speaking or when taking a test.
The Role of the Hippocampus
The amygdala works together with the part of our brain called the hippocampus. This is a bit like a security guard ( or librarian) The guard’s main duty is to note different facts, such as the time, location, and what actually happened at different stages of an event. This process is like putting a tag on your memory. It is much slower and thoughtful, helping you to construct memories.
For ordinary events in daily life, the guard dog (Amygdala) and the security guard (Hippocampus) have quite a good relationship. They work together and cooperate well. For example, when the dog senses a potential danger, it will bark to get your attention and the guard will check it out. After checking the records of your previous experiences and life events, the guard will decide if this situation is a real danger or a false alarm. If it’s a real danger they will agree with the dog to continue with the ‘fight or flight’ behaviour to save your life. If not, they’ll reassure the dog who stops barking. After a short while, they go back to their normal state and leave your brain and body relaxed.
Lastly, how to help your child recognise Anxiety
Anxiety affects our thoughts, our body responses, ( physical feelings) and actions ( behaviour ). It sends signals from the brain to our body, muscles, and hormones. This is why you may be feeling sensations such as:
Sit down with your child and help them to identify physical symptoms, they may soil, be constipated or suffer from daytime and nocturnal enuresis Younger children are much more likely to identify anxiety as a physical symptom. If it is age-appropriate, give the anxiety a name such as:
- The worry monster
- The scariness
- Mr worry
- The wibble wobble
Help them to understand how anxiety or worry affects their thoughts.
Children often suffer from negative thoughts. As a result, they may:
- Worry about family’s health and preoccupied with death
- Suffer from lots of ” what if ” thoughts, they often seem unrealistic and occur in the future.
- Feel they are ” getting it wrong “, hence, children “ruminate” over and over on something that occurred during the day at school (e.g. they may have got something wrong in a lesson)
- Think the worst, “catastrophizing” about what may occur.
Therefore, it’s good to ask children to identify their thoughts, take back control by ” bossing ” Mr. Worry”
For older children use the analogy of music, ” it’s as if the volume is turned up and the anxiety is really loud”! These strategies help your child to adopt a sense of control and detachment for the anxiety and fears that is helpful.
Help them be a detective to their thoughts. Examples are:
How anxiety affects your child’s behaviour
Ensuring your child understands that anxiety is ” avoidant” or is often in flight, is important. Help them to understand that if they always avoid something, it will remain a threat. As a result, they may show:
Marked avoidance of certain situations that they used to do. ( people, school, places, and animals) this may start to impact on their day to day life.
In younger children, prior to a situation, you may notice extreme aggression or meltdowns directed or alternatively distress and extreme crying.
Safety behaviours, children develop routines, that they need to do to feel safe and keep the anxiety at bay. Other safety behaviours are seeking constant reassurance from you.
Please note safety behaviours only give temporary relief and sometimes maintain the anxiety.
Once your child has gone through these steps, your child will be better prepared to move to the next stage which is managing the anxiety. If you need a bit more explanation about Anxiety, do meet me at my workshop, more information below:
Thank you for taking the time to read this and thank you for your commitment to the wellbeing of your child and your family. Remember: parenting is hard work and you all deserve support. Do contact me if you feel you need some support. With Love Catherine