As parents we naturally want our children to be happy. It is our job to protect them, so it can be incredibly distressing to see your child struggle with anxiety. But there are things you can do to help minimise their anxiety, and equip them with effective coping skills.
My six-year-old daughter has struggled on and off with anxiety. She was an intense and frustrated baby, and she became a clingy, anxious and contrary toddler. We wrestled with multiple meltdowns on a daily basis. She was highly sensitive to temperature, sound and touch. If it rained and we were outside, she bellowed. If we saw a dog in the street, she leapt into my arms. If we saw a digger nearby she was convinced it was coming to dig her up. Even the innocent postman arriving on his bike terrified her.
Her anxieties interfered with daily life and family harmony. For a long time I lived in a state of anxiety myself so we sought professional help. With time, patience and compassion my beautiful daughter underwent a behavioural transformation. I urge you to read about it here. By the time Miss J started school she was a different kid. She had a quiet confidence about her, and her anxieties had all but disappeared.
But earlier this year her anxiety returned, surfacing mostly at nighttime. Miss J hated going to bed. Nightmares and imagined visits from bears would have her in tears every single night. For six months she wouldn’t fall asleep in her own bed. She would start off in our bed, or on a sleeping bag in the family room, and we would carry her to bed later on. We tried many different techniques and I’d like to share with you 7 ways I have helped my child with anxiety.
1. Give it a name
Anxiety is not something to be ashamed of and so we openly use the term ‘anxiety’ to explain and normalise it. In doing so it helps to give her more control over it. When she feels anxious, we remind her that it is her anxiety causing these feelings, and we are there to help. Research has found that when you name the feeling and offer what’s needed (assurance, warmth, security) the need behind the feeling will ease. We reassure her that anxiety is normal and everyone experiences it at some time. Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away.
2. Adopt a gentle tone
Early on in Miss J’s life I realised that she was extremely sensitive to tone. If she feels intimated, scared or like she has done something wrong, she becomes flooded with emotion. In the early days I too would get flooded with emotion and my frustrations showed. It only exacerbated her symptoms and led to us both feeling miserable. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be firm, but I have learnt you can be firm and gentle at the same time. A gentle tone often works as a circuit breaker to emotional overload. The more patience and love I demonstrate, the less likely the anxiety will take hold.
3. Acknowledge fears
However irrational a child’s fears may seem, they are completely rational to them. I have never minimised Miss J’s anxieties. When she first told me of the bears who visited her during the night, instead of saying, “But bears aren’t real”, I simply listened to her. I asked her questions about the bears and even got her to draw them for me. I suggested that perhaps the bears were simply curious, and they weren’t there to harm her. We also drew a map of our house, which we posted on her bedroom door. On the map we drew arrows to direct the bears to our bedroom, so they knew where to find us. She loved the map, and it helped her feel more secure.
4. Books as therapy
We are book lovers in our household and I believe books can powerfully influence how a child perceives the world. Two books really helped. Silly Billy is a beautifully illustrated book with simple prose. The story is about Billy. Billy is quite the worrier and has trouble sleeping at night. He stays with his grandma one night and shares this problem with her. She has just the cure – ‘worry dolls’. Billy shares his worries with the dolls and finds that sleepless nights become a thing of the past. Silly Billy is a gorgeous read and helpful for any child who may be a bit of a “worrier.” We have worry dolls for all our girls, which they tuck under their pillows at night to take their worries away. The second book, which I think every family should own, is ‘In my heart.’ This delightful book explores emotions – happiness, sadness, bravery, anger, shyness and more with beautiful imagery and language. I utterly adore this book and whenever I read it to my girls I ask, “How is your heart feeling today?”
5. Slowly does it
There were times when I was so tired I just wanted my daughter to get into bed and go to sleep. Times when I had no energy to allay her fears. But I discovered that the longer we lingered over the goodnight ritual, the more calm and secure she felt. We let her set the pace. I didn’t berate her for getting up (yet again!) and she was always welcome to come to us during the night. I also had a permanent sleeping bag set up in the living room so she could fall asleep with me close by. In these instances, she would close her eyes and be asleep within seconds; simply knowing I was in the same room was enough for her to feel secure. A couple of months ago, she one night announced that I could pack away the sleeping bag. She said she didn’t need it anymore and that was that. She has slept every night in her bed ever since.
An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. The great thing is that kids are naturally inclined to mindfulness, and the self-acceptance it calls for. We use two techniques:
Breathing can be effective in reducing anxiety in the moment, and also in preventing it. When anxiety is taking hold (and her breathing becomes shallow and restricted) we ask her to visualise a bottle of bubbles and to take in a deep breath, and then pretend she is blowing the bubble mixture through the wand.
Mindfulness apps: Our favourite app is Smiling Mind and it has helped my daughter remarkably. We often bookend the day with a “body scan”. This encourages her to be present and aware of how her body is feeling.
7. Unconditional love
If you child has anxiety what they need most from you is reassurance. There is no “quick fix”. The best thing you can do is offer them acceptance and never make them feel “flawed” or a burden to you. Use supportive language like: “I am here for you”, “It’s OK you feel this way” and “I will sit here with you for as long as it takes you to feel better.”
Some anxiety, worry and fear is normal in childhood. But if you’re concerned that your child’s anxiety is interfering with daily life, talk with your GP. And remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help your child manage it.
Do you have a child who experiences anxiety? Or perhaps you have a worrier who is very sensitive? Let me know in the comments section what techniques you have tried.