How to talk to children about anxiety.
The world has changed enormously over the past few weeks for everyone and most of us have probably experienced some feeling of anxiety. Children and teenagers often don’t recognise when they are feeling anxious. They may just think that something is wrong with them. Often kids have physical symptoms such as tummy ache, disturbed sleep, irritability or a tight feeling in the chest. Teens may feel overwhelmed, weird, out of control or that they are going crazy. This may lead them to feel even more anxious of self-conscious. The first step to helping is to talk about it. Having self-awareness helps kids to recognise what is going on and allows them to ask for help or help themselves.
5 steps to help children with anxiety
STEP 1 – Talk about it
Let your child know that it is ok to talk to you about anything and encourage them to open up about whatever is worrying them. Sometimes parents worry that if they talk about anxiety they will make their kids anxious. This is not the case. If something is not mentioned or avoided children will try to fill in the blanks for themselves and inevitably 2 plus 2 will make 5. You can start by talking to them about times when you have noticed they seemed nervous or not themselves – “I noticed you were a bit quiet earlier, what were you feeling?” Talk to them about the things that you were nervous about at their age – “You know I used to really hate the dark when I was your age – it always gave me a funny feeling in my tummy.” “I know some kids are scared of …” When your child expresses anxiety or worry let them know that it is ok to feel that way. Be reassuring but try to resist the temptation to tell them to stay calm as this is rarely helpful.
STEP 2 – Teach them about anxiety
Let them know that anxiety is a normal feeling and everyone experiences it from time to time. It is important to tell them than anxiety is not dangerous even though it can give you uncomfortable feelings in your body. Explaining the fight, flight, freeze response helps children to understand what is happening to them and that anxiety is adaptive.
For younger children – “Imagine that you are walking round a zoo and as you pass the tiger cage you see that the door is open suddenly a tiger walks round the corner. What would you do? If you froze this wouldn’t be helpful. You would most likely try to run away or try to fight the tiger. Now this is not going to happen, but if we find ourselves in a situation were we are in danger our bodies have a special way of helping us to deal with that danger. As soon as we notice the danger our brain switches on a special response which allows us to send all the energy we need to our arms and legs to allow us to run away or fight.This is why we might feel a bit shaky, we might notice our heart beating faster or we might breath a bit faster. Our body stops doing things that are unnecessary like digesting our Frosties so your tummy may feel funny or you might even need to run to the loo to get rid if anything you don’t need. Sometimes we feel this way when there isn’t really any danger and this is just our bodies making a mistake. Once we know what is happening we can do lots of things to make ourselves feel better.” “Have you ever felt this way?”
For teens and older children – Explaining that when we sense something dangerous or threatening our bodies automatically go into a state of anxious arousal and go onto talk about the symptoms of anxiety – “Does this ever happen to you?”
STEP 3 – Recognising anxiety
Teach kids to recognise anxiety. Describe the symptoms of anxiety heart racing, breathing faster, tightness in the chest, butterflies in the tummy and feelings of dread. It can be helpful to split anxiety up into three parts:
Thoughts (What do you say to yourself?)
Feelings (What are you feeling in your body?)
Behaviours (What do you do?).
Younger children – can become anxiety detectives looking for the thoughts, feelings and behaviours caused by anxiety, if appropriate you can come up together with a name for anxiety like Mr Wobble or Mrs Worry.
Older children can keep a journal or chart of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
STEP 4 – When is anxiety a problem?
Anxiety is normal and even adaptive in some cases and it is something that we all experience from time to time. Given the uncertainty of the current situation we find ourselves in it is natural to have feelings of anxiety. Anxiety is a problem when it begins to interfere with everyday functioning, for children this might mean struggling with school work, withdrawing, and avoiding certain situations.
STEP 5 – Tackling anxiety
Once your child can recognise anxiety they can start to do something about it. See my previous blog for information about how to help your child cope with anxiety. This is a very difficult time for all of us and it is likely that you are feeling some anxiety too. It is ok to share this with your children as long as you are calm when doing so. Children will pick up on your anxiety so if you are feeling that it is interfering with your day to day life seek help, contact your GP or find someone to talk someone. Organisations like Anxiety UK are available to support you.
If you would like to know more about anxiety or how hypnotherapy can help please call me on 07769892376.