Welcome to Calming Tree’s new blog series on helping your child cope. Every blog in this series will look at different conditions in childhood from mood disorders, behavioural concerns to bullying. The focus of today’s blog is helping your child cope with anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
As a species, we all experience emotions and emotions have a function in our body and life. While emotions can be pleasurable and invite connection with others, they can also be uncomfortable and negatively influence our thoughts and reactions. Although our children may be little, the intensity of their emotions can be overwhelming to not only them but to you as their parent. Helping children manage their emotions and giving them tools to put them in the driver’s seat of their thoughts and reactions will support them in learning to cope and adjust their responses more effectively.
Why Do We Have Anxiety?
Let’s start by understanding a little more about the emotion anxiety. This emotion has been important for our continued existence; when our ancestors had predators to be wary of, anxiety warned them of a threat and in warning them allowed them to find safety. While predators are no longer our main concern, anxiety still has a function in alerting us to potential threats and helping us to make choices to feel safe. When we experience anxiety before a test, we might find ways to prepare to reduce the feeling or when we approach a busy street, anxiety will remind us to look both ways. Anxiety may not be comfortable in our body, leading to a negative experience with this feeling. However, these sensations in the body are also helpful, not literally of course, but the change in how our body feels, tells our brain to be on alert and pay attention.
How Does Anxiety Effect our Bodies?
Anxiety can also be a cumulative emotion. Meaning when we have an initial worry that leads to another worry that leads to yet another worry, the anxiety becomes bigger than our ability to manage it and we may begin to feel like everything is a threat. Biologically, our brain is made up of neuropathways that form our thoughts and perceptions. These pathways develop through our experiences and the more frequently we have an experience the stronger that pathway becomes. If the pathway is formed due to experiences with anxiety then we will be more likely to think that we are under threat and react in response to that belief. The good news is these pathways are capable of rerouting and changing and we don’t have to be stuck travelling through anxiety constantly.
What anxiety may look like in your child:
· Difficulty eating
· Difficulty sleeping
· Difficulty concentrating
· Enacting a perfectionist attitude
· Anger/lashing out
· Stomach issues (where a physician has ruled out health concerns)
· Fatigue and/or high energy
. Hypervigilance and/or fear
· Out of characteristic behaviour for your child
Strategies to Help Your Child Cope with Their Anxiety:
1. Deep breathing – most importantly the exhale needs to be longer than the inhale. It can be helpful to ask your child to put their hands on their belly so they can feel it inflate and deflate like a balloon – this also helps to ensure the breathing is deep in the diaphragm rather than the upper chest area.
2. Grounding – anxiety is most often focused in past and future oriented thinking – we want to help our child shift from “should-ofs” and “what-ifs” to the present moment. By getting out of their head and connecting back with their body it allows the brain to rewire and the rational brain to take over. Try this 5 senses exercise
3. Mind Full to Mindful - We are always thinking and busy with our thoughts, especially when our brains are filled with anxious thoughts that seem to run patterns, repeat themselves, and connect to further anxious thinking. Helping your child learn to watch their thoughts without judgement is an exercise in mindfulness. For example, your child envisions water and leaves floating by. Each time they have a thought they don’t get stuck in it, but instead, watch it float by.
4. Externalize Anxiety - It is hard to feel as though we can change something if it feels connected to our identity, however, if you can help your child to name the emotion, exposing it to the light and in turn separating it from themselves it becomes easier for them to manage.
5. (Super) Power Poses - When you think of a superhero what comes to mind; strong, brave? Ask your child to try standing like a superhero, and feel the power run through them. In the very least, it will likely make them smile and laugh which has shifted them emotionally.
6. Positive Self-Talk - I think I can, I believe I can. Help your child come up with a motto that fits for them, that they can remember and repeat to themselves. Believing is half the battle.
7. Reframe Worry as a Helper - Remember the origins of anxiety and how it helps us. Helping your child to think of their body's stress response as a positive, priming them for action to lead them to safety.
Parents it can be important to check in with yourself emotionally before providing your children with support. If you are overwhelmed by your own anxiety, it would be beneficial to ask a co-parent or another caring adult for help in supporting your child while you manage your emotions. It is okay to take care of yourself in order to better care for your child. Finally, remember anxiety is not an emotion that you should shield your children from. In small, short amounts it is healthy, and overcoming anxiety can make a child feel empowered and build mastery.
To find out more about supporting your child through their anxiety or to inquire about our services contact Calming Tree Counselling today.