How to help children with anxiety

Periods of uncertainty, such as the current Covid 19 pandemic, can bring about high stress/anxiety levels not just in adults, but in our children too. How can we as parent/guardians support our children through this time?
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Happy kids learn to manage their anxiety
Choo Hong Tan

Choo Hong Tan

How can parents identify stress/anxiety in children and help to support their child(ren) through stress/anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic? Choo Hong Tan explores this question with her expertise in pediatric psychology and provides some practical tips for parents and carers alike! #children #anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s normal response to stress/threat/danger. While in the prehistoric times, this may have been an immediate physical danger such as a predatory animal, in modern times we have evolved to perceive everyday stressors as dangers. In order to help us survive, our body creates chemicals that triggers our fight/flight response to enable us to more readily face these dangers. This includes physical symptoms of anxiety such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, shaking, sweating, and so on.

What does anxiety look like in children?

Our brains, particularly the frontal lobes (thinking centre of the brain), do not fully develop until our 20s. As a result, an anxiety response may look a bit different in children than in adults. This means that when children are dysregulated, they are less practiced at being able to communicate their feelings, and may do this through behavioral reactions instead.  In some children, this may be more emotional reactivity to things (i.e. crying more easily, having a shorter fuse), in others these may manifest in undesirable behaviours (eg. Being more oppositional than usual, acting out). Older/more developed children may exhibit similar anxious responses to adults (i.e. anxious thoughts, followed by physical symptoms).

How to identify clinical anxiety?

Some amounts of anxiety is normal, especially during stressful times like these. However, extreme and prolonged anxiety might be a signal that your child will need extra support. Some signs to look out for are:

  1. Are the symptoms extreme and out of proportion?
  2. Have they been happening for a prolonged amount of time (e.g. everyday for more than 6 months)?
  3. Are the symptoms/behaviors out of the ordinary from what you would expect from a child of the same age?
  4. Are they affecting your child’s ability to participate in everyday activities, learn at school/kinder, form and maintain relationships with others, participate in self-care activities (i.e. dressing, toileting, eating), or confidence to communicate and receive their basic needs?

Strategies to help support your child(ren) through this time

  1. Help children to identify and name their emotions

When experiencing intense emotions, children are more likely to be fused to their emotional reactions and sensations, and less practiced at being able to pause and identify what they are feeling. It can be helpful to take some time to help your child to figure out what emotions they are feeling and to let them know that these emotions are normal.

Going a step further, you can incorporate emotion coaching into the way you interact with your child. This is an evidence-based strategy by American Psychologist John Gottman, that can help children to learn to regulate their emotions.

  1. Help children to identify and name any thoughts that may occur with anxiety

When we experience anxiety, we can oftentimes get caught up in the intensity of the emotions and start to avoid anxiety provoking situations due to the fear of the situation. Our thoughts can have a big impact on this, and perpetuate our fears even more than necessary, which leads to us getting “stuck” in our anxiety. It can be helpful to support your child to identify any anxious thoughts that may come along with their anxiety, and to help them problem solve through these thoughts? Is there any evidence for the thoughts or is the mind amplifying the thoughts? Is there anything that can be done to help to calm some of these anxious thoughts?

  1. Identify any triggers

Are there any particular situations or objects that may trigger anxiety in your child? This can be helpful to identify so that we can think of strategies to be able to support them around those situations. If a situation is the trigger, are there things that are able to be done to support your child to feel more ready for a particular situation. Can there be questions that you are able to answer to help to calm their worries. 

  1. Maintain your own self-care

Parental wellbeing is an important factor to the maintenance of wellbeing in children. Attachment research has suggested that parental attachment styles highly predict children’s attachment styles. Especially in the early years, children learn and develop by experiencing their environment and imitating others. When we are physically and mentally well, we are in a good position to be able to teach our children how they can effectively regulate their own emotions. There are many ways that we can incorporate self-care into our daily routine. Try killing two birds with one stone by practicing self-care activities with the whole family!

  1. Maintain a daily routine

Routines are a great way of creating a sense of predictability and grounding in uncertain times. Having a daily routine allows children to have situations where they are able to know what to expect. This creates a sense of safety in their world, and helps to support them to be more confident when experiencing challenges in life.

  1. Incorporate healthy lifestyle habits

Research has shown the benefits of healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise, healthy eating and ensuring good sleep, on overall physical and mental health. These healthy habits also support the maintenance of good mood and reduction of anxiety. Stress in particular can get stored in the body, and healthy habits like exercise and good sleep provides another way for our bodies to be able to release this stress/ rejuvenate.

If you are worried or concerned about your child and would like to get in touch with us, we would be more than happy to help! You can fill out this form here to arrange a callback from our team or email us at info@mvsgroup.com.au

Further Resources/reading:

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