Focusing on Children's worries and anxieties
By Sam on 6 February 2020
Focusing on Anxiety in Children
With Children’s Mental Health week just around the corner (3-9th February 2020) and with my own son facing real anxieties recently, I thought it would be helpful to some of you to write more about what you can do to help your children face their worries and anxieties.
The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) report that:
These are sobering statistics and Public Health England comments that “There are opportunities to promote good mental health and wellbeing and to build resilience throughout childhood and youth. It’s important to take these opportunities both for the health and wellbeing of children and young people, and for people’s health and wellbeing throughout their life.” So, what can you do to help your children?
How do you know if your child is worried or anxious?
If you have a child with a pre-disposition towards worries and maybe anxiety you will likely know about it. I know because I am often told about the trolls and monsters and witches that my son can see at night-time. The sharks and jellyfish he sees in the swimming pool during swimming lessons, which was why he didn’t want to go swimming for a long time. And because he is also anxious when catching trains and planes about missing them and in extreme situations when he doesn’t want to go up a staircase in case it collapses or over a bridge for the same reason. I know of other children who are scared about people coming into the house at night time.
On the other hand, if your child isn’t talking about their worries, you may have a 6th sense that there is something going on because of the way your child is behaving. It is common for kids to:
- have a temper tantrum;
- have a tummy ache or pain somewhere;
- have trouble sleeping or eating, or comfort eat;
- lack the confidence to try new things;
- be very stubborn and exhibit fearful behaviours, and be unable to face everyday situations
- bite their nails, pick their skin or pull their hair;
- find it hard to concentrate.
What can parents do about children’s worries?
I recently had a discussion with friends about this. One friend was adamant that the best thing to do was not to pay attention to the worries and move on. This is a very common way of thinking as parents worry that they are giving credence and validation to the worries and making them more real if they do. At a later stage of helping your child with their worries it is entirely valid to help your child move on from them. After all, if you are growing a tomato plant and you keep feeding it and watering it, lots of tomatoes will grow. If you ignore it, it will wither and die and the same is true with worries. We can’t allow our children to dwell on them all the time otherwise they keep growing.
However, it is very important that children’s worries aren’t dismissed immediately.Instead, as parents, we must pay attention to what our children are expressing. In her book ,‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did’ by Philippa Perry, she says ‘instead of dismissing the idea that there are monsters under the bed out of hand, name the feeling the monsters seem to be representing. You sound scared’ She notes ‘even when it’s impossible to trace the source of every feeling, that doesn’t mean the feeling isn’t real. It still needs validating….’
In essence, it doesn’t work telling a child that there is nothing to be afraid of or not to worry. Instead use emotion coaching. This helps children cope with uncomfortable feelings and find ways to manage them, and, teaching them to manage their own emotions is a very important life skill. During emotion coaching we don’t have to agree with our children that there are monsters in the room, instead we acknowledge that ‘even though we know the monsters aren’t really there, in the dark monsters can feel very real and make you feel upset’. Sometimes it can work to try and spray the monster to make it disappear – I used a lavender sleep spray with my son. And the recipe I told my son that made up the anti-monster spray was one that only his Grandma knew and it was so top secret and magic that only one person in a family is ever allowed to know it at once. She makes the potion and I am allowed to have some to give to him. This sense of magic and wonder can help. Anything that can magic away monsters is helpful – it could be a magic wand. This worked for him for a few days but then the monsters came back.
Don’t think that monsters are just around for children at night time either. If your child doesn’t want to go into another room, or upstairs without you, it could be because of their vivid imagination. Once I had finally understood this about my son, and used emotion coaching with him, he started to open up to me about what was going on and he plotted a map of the house for me and told me where all the trolls were in the house which stopped him moving about the house freely. Your child may have very different worries and anxieties but emotion coaching and the following skills can be applied in any situation.
Once you have understood and empathised with what your child is worried about and really gone to town doing this, you can start to deal with the worry. We have often ‘Fought worries with Facts’ in this house. So, we have researched the Plague and how it is less prevalent now and that there is a medical cure for it. We have researched how many aeroplanes fly compared to how many crash, and all sorts of other things. But sometimes, even logic isn’t enough. If you remember the Tomato Plant analogy above, this comes from a lovely book called ‘What to Do When You Worry Too Much’ by Dawn Huebner (linked below). She says, in order to water the tomatoes less, it is important to have a fixed worry time with Mum or Dad which lasts about 15 minutes. It should be time without interruptions for that child and they can say whatever is worrying them in that time. The important thing to note though, is once worry time has finished your child is not allowed to think or talk about the worry again. Instead they have to imagine a strongworry box with a lock and cover and they imagine themselves locking the worry up and walking away. They know they can revisit it during worry time when Mum or Dad can help them but only then and at no other time during the day or night. There is far more detail in the book about how to manage this.
The final advice in the book is to talk back to worries. At bedtime you will often hear my son shouting to the monsters ‘Go away monsters – I am stronger and more powerful than you and I will defeat you’. And then to reset your system by either doing 3 deep breaths or another relaxation activity or by choosing a special memory and remembering all the details about it.
The final thing to say about acknowledging worries with your children and helping them deal with them also comes from Philippa Perry who says ‘if you dismiss your child by telling them that they’re being silly they learn not only to clam up on the ‘silly’ communication but also those you wouldn’t consider silly’. And while as adults we know the distinction between silly and not silly, children don’t. Many things feel yucky to children, whether that is the texture of roast chicken dinner, or an adult making an inappropriate comment or touching a child inappropriately (the link to Philippa Perry’s book is below).
Helping children avert worries by building their confidence:
The same principles as above apply here. Try not to assume your child is feeling the same way about a party as you are. If you are excited and looking forward to it, they may be dreading it. Think about emotion coaching and be curious about your child’s feelings. Focus on these feelings and try to imagine what is going on in their heads before the party and express this to them, for example, ‘we’ve got Grandma’s big family party coming up on Saturday. I wonder if you might be feeling a little worried about all the people being there and the noise.’You wouldn’t then say I bet you wish you didn’t have to go. But you might say, I bet you wish that when we get there everyone else was invisible.This should open the doors for your child to talk to you about their feelings.
We can also give our children lots of chances to be successful with things they might be anxious about in life by making sure we prepare them in advance for what is coming, we revisit the conversation many times and even act out what might happen. We can also help our children to become independent by using small steps to build them up to the bigger goals in life, so maybe having a serious of discos in your kitchen before a loud party and gradually turning up the volume each day. We can also descriptively praise our children’s efforts for the strategies they are using to cope with life. Showing your child that you trust in the coping strategies he has devised for life will make him less anxious. For example, you could say ‘I saw you trying really hard to walk instead of running for the train when you knew we still had 10 minutes to catch it. Grabbing your thumbs in your fist helped you slow down didn’t it. You’ve developed a good coping strategy there’.
Finally, make sure your focus is on effort and not results. So rather than asking, ‘did you win’ after a sports fixture, you can ask ‘did you enjoy the match?’ Children get very worried if they think that all their parents care about are the results.And you can also model to them when you have failed in something (I find this easy to do as a parent!) and talk to them about what you can learn from this. For me, it is often that I need to allow more time for things and stop rushing as this wears my patience thin. As Steve Bidduph says ‘Rushing is the enemy of love’.
The final tip is to ensure that you are not labelling your child in front of them. It can be easy to say ‘my anxious child’ or my ‘shy child’ especially if we are feeling embarrassed and trying to excuse their behaviour. If a child overhears you saying this it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy where your child may feel obliged to live up to the label.
If your child’s anxieties go beyond the level of worry and anxious to a place where they cannot fulfil their daily functions normally, you may need to seek help from a professional child psychologist. Please do get in touch with me if you wish to discuss this as positive parenting can often be a first step to help but I can recommend people to you for further help as well.
Don’t forget that Positive Parenting classes can help you master all the skills outlined above and are an opportunity to promote good mental health and wellbeing and to build resilience in your children. Remember that Public Health England say “It’s important to take these opportunities both for the health and wellbeing of children and young people, and for people’s health and wellbeing throughout their life.”