Keep Calm! How parents can help children beat anxiety
Vigilance, understanding key to helping children overcome anxiety
The further we move away from childhood, the less we can truly remember what it was like. That unbridled innocence is eroded by the cares the adult world inevitably places upon our shoulders, but it is highly likely that many of the behavior patterns you exhibit as a grown up were indeed laid down in those all-important formative years.
That is why, after treating children with anxiety for over two decades, I believe it is vital for parents to be able to spot the signs and deal with the issue head on.
There is always a root cause of anxiety; it always begins somewhere. It could be a traumatic event or something that happens at school, but in my experience it always begins with an intense feeling of either fear or vulnerability.
When the fear hits
I’ll give you an example of what I mean: A case springs readily to mind, where I treated a teenage girl for acute anxiety which was linked to the thought of her getting sick. In this case, some years previously the girl had witnessed her mother choking. In this short but dreadful space of time, her brain made the connection between the fear of losing her mother and the gag reflex.
Though her mother turned out fine, this one moment created a set of behaviors that were all designed to prevent her from ever feeling that fear again. She shunned her school friends, never having them around to her home because she was afraid they would bring illness back to the house. Fear of infection drove her to develop obsessive hand-washing routines, and she also felt deep anxiety about catching a bug from what she ate. Any hint of nausea immediately kicked off a full-blown panic attack.
I’m pleased to say that this young woman now has all of this under control and is pursuing her academic career successfully, but she absolutely represents how anxiety can grow and take control in a young person’s mind.
Of course, our kids don’t come with handy guidebooks to help us parents navigate the often-choppy waters of childhood. Something that happens to them might seem quite insignificant to us on the surface, but it is important to be vigilant so that you can spot the signs that they are worried.
If your child begins to exhibit behavior that is out of the ordinary, it is important to try and get to the bottom of what’s going on in their heads. Becoming withdrawn from their peer group, making up excuses for not wanting to go to school or participate in other group activities, or displaying excessive anger when they feel vulnerable may be signs that something is really troubling them. Their sleep may also be disturbed by bad dreams, or they may develop separation anxiety and become very clingy.
In trying to address anxiety in a child, parents may need to seek the support of a professional therapist, but there is also a lot they can do themselves to bolster their child’s ability to become resilient when anxious feelings threaten to overwhelm.
Recognizing the signs and taking time to objectively discuss them with your child can help them step outside of their feelings and assume control. Try to set aside time to talk to them in a calm manner. And, most importantly, give them the safe space to tell you how they feel and reassure them that you understand. Together, try to work out strategies that might help them deal with what is happening.
During periods of intense stress, such as exams or starting a new school year, modify your expectations so that the pressure of having to achieve parental approbation does not add to the child’s worries.
It’s also vital that that a parent remain calm in situations where their child is panicking. It’s so easy for your own feelings to become mixed in, because seeing your child in distress also raises your own anxiety, but keeping yourself calm and not overreacting will help in the long run.
It is important to note that one of the most effective ways of strengthening your child’s inner confidence is through praise. Recognizing small accomplishments can have a huge impact on their sense of well-being: that feeling of success will be so compelling for them they will want to feel it again and again.
Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs in the world. That may be a cliché, but it just happens to be true. We all get things wrong sometimes. But when it comes to anxiety, keeping the lines of communication between you and your child open is vital, as is recognizing that we all need a little extra help sometimes.
Dealing with childhood anxiety is never easy, but it is crucial, because one of the main jobs of a parent is to grow a new generation that can take on the challenges the world will throw at them.
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