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Tips for Helping Your Anxious Child

There is no doubt that managing an anxious child can be stressful for both parents and children. We can all experience anxiety from time to time, however, children with an anxiety disorder will experience anxiety persistently in certain situations. They will most likely be preoccupied with anxious thoughts and worries, be hyper-vigilant to safety concerns or anxious situations (e.g., whether there is a dog nearby, whether you are going to stay close to them, what will happen and when). Anxious children will most likely experience bodily symptoms such as a fast beating heart, feeling hot, feeling shaky, racing thoughts, can't sit still, and may have gastrointestinal symptoms such as needing to go the toilet too often and stomach aches. Children with anxiety will also avoid situations in which they feel anxious, sometimes quite dramatically. This can cause them to have what looks like a temper tantrum but they are actually trying to avoid feeling anxious. These symptoms can interfere with day to day functioning at home, at school and with friendships.

Childhood anxiety is very common with about 50% of children experiencing significant anxiety at some point. Every child's anxiety is different and generally requires a tailored approach.

Here are my general tips for managing an anxious child :

  • Stay calm yourself. There is nothing to be gained by getting upset with your child about their anxiety. However, it is understandable to be frustrated. Unfortunately, getting emotional yourself models emotional coping. Instead acknowledge that the situation is difficult for you child and encourage them to just sit for a bit of quiet with you if you can until the anxiety has passed.

  • Don't expect your child's anxiety to make sense. Many people are more scared of talking in public than jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane.

  • Face feared situations gradually. For example, if they are scared of going to friend's place for a play date, start with a 30-minute playdate with you in attendance. Or if your child is scared of public speaking, consider encouraging them to do their speech in front of just their teacher to start with. Or if your child is scared of dogs, encourage them regularly to go to the pet shop and look at them through the glass window. A psychologist can help you tailor an approach to suit your child's particular fear.

  • Help your child learn to breathe slowly and calmly. This slows down the nervous system which helps to decrease anxiety. There are many apps and YouTube clips available to teach and support this skill. It may sound simple but it helps and is the first step in decreasing anxiety. When in doubt, just breathe!

  • Help your child problem-solve the situation. I have found that many kids get anxious in situations because they think they won't be able to cope. Encourage them to engage in a variety of activities where they can have an opportunity to learn to problem solve. In turn they learn that they can and will cope. Ask them to think of possible solutions to a problem first and then add your thoughts to come up with a solution together. This will help them learn to do it on their own.

  • Encourage your child to exercise in any way, shape or form.

  • Listen to them. Let them tell you what it's like and how it feels and simply summarise what you are hearing. It will help them feel understood.

  • Take a break when you need to as a parent. Parenting an anxious child can be tough so if you're not okay it is going to be harder to help them. Rest and recharge regularly.

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