Breathe in, breathe out
Cherrie Chung is a psychotherapist and counsellor at Insight Counselling. She is experienced in working with both adults and young adults in her therapy practice. Cherrie shares with us three ways to help your child deal with every day anxiety.
It speaks to the stigma that is still attached to anxiety that one doesn’t ‘have anxiety’ unless they 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. That they get up, go to school, chat with friends and live a relatively ordered life does not preclude them from experiencing anxiety that is distressing.
We often forget that anxiety serves a useful function for us- signalling when we might be in danger and alerting us to the need to protect ourselves. Put this way anyone, whether adults or children, can experience anxiety and it is far more accurate to define it as whenever we feel fearful yet 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, creating a set of beliefs in our mind such as ‘There is a right way to feel in every situation’ and ‘Uncomfortable feelings are bad and destructive’. These misguided beliefs reinforce the idea that we must be inadequate if we cannot fix ourselves or if we feel anything less than ‘happy’ at any point. Children hear these messages and very quickly internalise them as expectations that they should simply know how to fix their worries or otherwise dismiss anxiety unless it is ‘serious’ enough. Byy then however, it will have already caused much distress in their lives.
We overlook the fact that learning to cope with anxiety is a skill that is developed over time instead of an innate talent that one is 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. We need to do a better job of teaching children how to deal with anxious feelings and reassure them that not only is there no shame in not knowing, it is in fact, something that they are capable of learning.
Consider these 3 things you can do with your child to help develop their skills in coping with anxiety:
Notice the mind-body connection: The mind and body are inextricably connected. When we are 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 the link between their 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 children 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 sooth themselves.
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; journaling, keeping a scrapbook, scheduled uninterrupted time to chat. Active reflection is about channeling 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 and concretely as well as give them the distance to evaluate how they responded. Without attaching any judgements about whether they responded in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way, active reflection also gives children the headspace to freely think of other possibilities and strategies to use in the future. When these are ideas that they have come up with themselves, they’ll be more likely to remember it and to experiment with using it the next time they encounter feelings of anxiety.
The power of language: The language we use around when we are 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 have to mess things up! How stupid can they/I get?” sends a message of hopelessness and fear that it out of one’s control. Instead, kinder and more encouraging language such as “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.” and “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 if situations are worrisome. It makes a difference when kids hear you frame your anxiety and stress in this way. Start by noticing how you tend to talk about your own stress and anxiety around your children and don’t be afraid of correcting and reframing things if you have to.
Featured image sourced via Getty Images.