Breathe in, breathe out.
Everyday life can take its toll on even the toughest of adults, so it’s completely understandable that our kids also have their difficult days. Navigating friendships, school and home life can be hard to juggle, and so experienced psychotherapist and counsellor Cherrie Chung, of Insight Counselling, shares three ways to help your child deal with everyday anxiety.
Spotting the signs
It speaks to the stigma that is still attached to anxiety that you don’t “have anxiety” unless you fit the image of a nervous wreck, uninterested in doing well for oneself. It can be easy then, especially in the busyness of everyday life, to dismiss anxiety as attention seeking behaviour in children. They can easily go through the routine of getting up, going to school and chatting with friends. But, while life might look relatively ordered, this doesn’t preclude them from experiencing anxiety that is distressing.
We often forget that anxiety serves a useful function for us, by signalling when we might be in danger and need protecting. Put this way, anyone, adult or child, can experience anxiety. It’s far more accurate to define it as whenever we feel fearful, and are not sure we have the ability to cope.
This misconception leads to expectations placed on ourselves to just “be positive” and be (or at least appear to be) worry-free. We create a set of beliefs in our mind such as “There is a right way to feel in every situation” or “Uncomfortable feelings are bad and destructive”. These misguided beliefs reinforce the idea that if we cannot fix ourselves, or if we feel anything less than happy at any point, we must be inadequate. Children hear these messages and very quickly internalise them as expectations. They think they should simply know how to fix their worries or otherwise dismiss anxiety unless it is serious. By then, it will have already caused much distress in their lives.
Learning to cope with anxiety is a skill that is developed over time, not an innate talent we’re born with. Very few of us were ever explicitly taught how to deal with overwhelming feelings of worry and how to cope when it strikes. As parents, our job is to teach children how to deal with their anxious feelings. By doing this, we reassure them that there no shame in not knowing and also that it is something they are capable of learning.
Read more: Raising Calm Kids In A Crazy World
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel your child needs help, consider these three things you can do to help develop their skills in coping with anxiety:
1. Notice the mind-body connection
The mind and body are inextricably connected. When we’re anxious, we might feel shaky, out of breath, nauseous or have difficulty thinking straight. In turn, the more we don’t feel well in our physical bodies, the more anxious we feel.
Observing the link between your child’s mind (the story running through their head about the anxiety-provoking situation), their heart (how that makes them feel) and their body (how they are physically reacting), will help them develop greater awareness about how their mind and body work together. The greater the awareness, the easier it will be for them to explore ways to calm and soothe themselves.
2. Encourage active reflection
Taking the mind-body connection one step further, encourage your child to actively process the patterns they observe in how they react to stress and anxiety through reflection. When done actively, reflection is more than just thinking about thoughts that cross one’s mind and comes in many forms; keeping a scrapbook or journal, scheduled uninterrupted time to chat.
Active reflection is about channelling what is often a jumble of thoughts and accompanying feelings into a different form. This process helps children step back and look at difficult situations objectively as well as giving them the distance to evaluate how they responded. Start by acknowledging how they reacted, without attaching any judgements about whether it was good or bad. This active reflection gives children headspace to freely think of other possible outcomes and strategies to use in the future. When these are ideas that they have come up with themselves, they’ll be more likely to experiment with using it the next time they encounter feelings of anxiety.
3. The power of language
The language used when we’re worried can determine how we choose to see and deal with it. Black and white, extreme terms such as “I always end up failing so this is definitely going to end badly,” or blameful and critical language (to others or to ourselves) like “They/I just mess things up! How stupid can they/I get?” sends a message of hopelessness and fear that it’s out of one’s control.
Instead, encourage kinder and more encouraging language. Statements like; “This feels similar to last time when things didn’t go so well. I’m going to take things slower to make sure it doesn’t end the same way again,” or “The situation is messy at the moment. It looks like I need more time to figure this out,” helps kids understand that things can be resolved even when situations are worrisome. It also makes a difference when kids hear you frame your anxiety and stress in a more positive way. Start by noticing how you tend to talk about your own stress and anxiety and don’t be afraid of correcting and reframing things if you have to.
Ultimately, children (of any age) need to feel relaxed and safe when communicating how they feel. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. By offering your kids support and equipping them with the right tools, they’ll be able to navigate tough times with more confidence than ever before.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally written by Cherrie Chung on 29, January 2018 and updated by Alex Purcell Garcia on 25, May 2019.