Anxiety is normal and all children and youth will experience it at some point. An effective way to help your children through anxiety is through effective communication and discussion. By maintaining an open dialog with your child and encouraging them to talk with you about their feelings, you can help your child to build resilience and emotional intelligence. We’ve put some tips together to help caregivers navigate how to help their children through anxiety.
Understanding the physiology of anxiety
During anxious moments, children don’t always hear what you have to say. They have a rapid flood of chemicals that brings physical responses in the body – the fight-or-flight response used for survival. The logical part of the brain ceases to function as well, and the automated emotional part starts firing. Calming your child physiologically is important. Calm breathing can help achieve this.
Timing and managing your child’s anxiety is key
We need to be calm and in a good head space to, firstly, settle the child in a confident way. Then we can respond most effectively. We can underestimate the impact that our own stress can have on a child. We need to be aware to put aside other stressors to be present. Listen and empathise. Your child wants you to “get it”. Ask what it feels like for them. Give them time and space to answer in their own way.
Anxiety is actually okay and a normal part of being a human
It’s when there’s too much anxiety operating, or too often, that it’s uncomfortable. Anxiety is helpful as an “alarm bell” for children – a “warning” that something may not be comfortable. In fact, some children have too little anxiety, which means being a couch potato! We all need a certain amount to get up and get going. Normalise to your child that everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Explain what anxiety is to them, if they are confused.
Teach your child to identify with what makes them anxious
Work through logical solutions and helpful thought challenges. For example, “Yes, Dad’s job means he chases baddies, but most often he does this with another police officer”, or “Yes, that did happen, but Mum is fine and has managed this okay.” You are modelling to the child that anxiety can be managed and that thoughts can be worked with to be more helpful.
Gently encourage mini goals that lead to the bigger goal. When each mini goal is comfortable for the child, check in and see if they are ready for the next mini step. Allowing your child to “give it a go” and take “safe risks” are great principles. For example, trying a new food or sport. This encourages confidence, assertiveness and adaptability.
Reinforce the small gains
Look for the good in your child and reinforce this behaviour. Not only does the child respond well to this, but also, as a parent, you start to focus on the positives.
Further reading and resources:
Support for Parents/Caregivers | Anxiety NZ website - A selection of resources, coping techniques and tools for caregivers by our child psychology specialist team
"Just Breathe" by Julie Bayer Salzman & Josh Salzman (Wavecrest Films) - YouTube - watch and hear from elementary school students learning to use mindfulness to navigate complex feelings.
Life Education Trust - What to do when I'm feeling worried, scared or nervous (techniques and coping mechanisms for children)