Many children struggle with anxiety. It’s a growing problem as the pressure on our children is getting greater – socially, academically and personally.
What is Anxiety?
Worrying about things is normal. Worry helps us sort in our minds the things we might need to do something about. Anxiety is the physical response we can sometimes experience as a result of our worries.
And it can be frightening!
Both for the child, and us as parents to witness. We can feel so helpless and frustrated. Especially when the cause of the anxiety is something that seems irrational or trivial to us.
But it’s not to them. It’s really not.
Anxiety & Your Child’s Brain
There’s lots of information on our website that deals with the topic of anxiety in depth. For now, what’s important to understand is that your child has no control. They are not doing this deliberately!
Our ability to reason - and behave rationally - lies in the Frontal Cortex. This doesn’t develop fully until we are around 25 years old. So even before we add anxiety into the equation, our children are still figuring all this stuff out.
The Amygdala is the source of anxiety problems. It is the part of our brain that keeps us safe. It controls the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ reaction. We need this! It serves us brilliantly when we are in danger and sends signals – in the form of chemicals – our body needs to act to keep us safe.
Anxiety happens when the Amygdala tells us that something is a ‘danger’. Our brain is screaming RUN or HIDE, but the people around us, our environment, even our own experience, is telling us not to be silly. The Amygdala has gone into overdrive – warning of a danger that isn’t really a threat.
That’s utterly confusing, and the fear remains real.
The physical symptoms our child is experiencing are a result of those chemicals being shipped frantically around the body. So how can we help our children through these anxiety attacks – through the physical symptoms – to a place of calm?
Tip 1: Breathe
The fast, shallow breathing that appears panicked is your child’s body trying to get as much oxygen into the system as possible - the oxygen needed to pump muscles and leg it!
Your child doesn’t actually need that right now.
The aim is to slow your child’s breathing. Children rarely respond to requests to “breathe slower”! What they might respond to is a fun distraction that has the same effect.
Blowing bubbles is often a winner, even for older children. You can start things off by blowing them yourself and they will probably want to join you.
Another game you can try is to blow a ping pong ball, a feather, or just a scrunched-up piece of paper, across a surface to a target. The very act of doing this encourages slow, deliberate breathing as you aim and guide the object with your breath.
Tip 2: Move
Some children become physically frantic when they are anxious. They might pace, kick or hit out, rock or move around in other ways.
The idea here is to make a space and a place for that movement, in a safe way that gradually allows them to vent and exhaust the adrenaline that’s coursing through their body.
You could kick a football, bounce a basketball, or any other sporting activity that might appeal to them.
You could offer a trip to the park and go on the swings (as HIGH as you DARE!), or take them into the garden if you have something they can climb or swing on.
They might like tickling – so play tickle chase! Or a play fight with a carer or an older sibling.
Tip 3: Listen
Some children, particularly older children if their anxiety is based on something we ‘probably wouldn’t understand’, just internalise. They might be obviously anxious to you, because you know them.
They might be agitated or talking rapidly but insensibly. They might be screaming and ranting and trying to explain what the problem is.
In any of these cases, you can just ‘be’.
If they are not in danger of hurting themselves (and so need a ‘safe’ movement outlet), they may be willing to continue to express their fear this way. The temptation - as an adult who cares about them - is to try and ‘fix it’ or make them feel better.
Just to reiterate (because it’s actually incredibly liberating once you realise this as a parent): your child is reacting to a flood of chemicals including cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline that’s been pumped into their body.
YOU can’t get rid of it. Your child’s body will do that – in time – so you just have to keep them safe and let them know they are okay.
That doesn’t mean “everything is going to be alright”, or “you’ve got nothing to worry about”. Those messages just add to the confusing messages that your child is already dealing with!
(Click here for 49 Phrases to Calm an Anxious Child - free download)
Your only job is to be there, be still, be quiet, and be a safe space.
You can acknowledge what they are going through, acknowledge that YOU don’t know how THEY are feeling right now. Tell them it looks really tough, and that you’re here for them.
Your child might want to be held, or you could get them a soft toy or something from a relaxation box if you have one. The main thing is you can literally just be their ROCK. This will pass. Let them know that. Let them know that you will still be there. That this is all okay and it will pass.
Support For You
None of this is easy. None of it.
Making the time to kick a ball around or have unlimited cuddles is really hard - sometimes impossible. As a parent, I’ve made the difficult choice between shoving them out the door to be in time for school – and accepting we’re going to be late. Only a year ago, I used to give in to the panic myself: herding them down the road, telling them not to be so silly, all of us angry and grumpy, all tears and tempers.
Last week I kept a client waiting for 2 hours while I sat at the school gates with my son.
I only had the strength and the courage to do this because I have learned the power of trust and safety, and made a choice to stick by my child, no matter what. It’s working. While there is still anxiety, there is no more anger or screaming. There is tentative conversation while the body does its job. I know my son had 4 hours positive school time instead of 6 hours furious, hurt and let down. And the client? Amazingly understanding. She’s a parent...
Bridge the Gap can give you all the support you need to get through this.
You can look through the free resources for coping strategy ideas; take our ‘parenting an anxious child’ course or include your child by bringing them along to one of our light-hearted creative sessions.
You can join our monthly membership scheme for free access to ALL our emotional literacy courses, webinars, afterschool sessions, bedtime relaxation sessions and a wealth of invaluable information, tips and tools to help you and your family grow together - strong and connected. This connection is really important when it comes to supporting them to develop positive mental health.
And please remember: make time for yourself whenever you can – they drink from your cup!