Anxiety in children

Everyone is scared of something. Whether it is bugs, new people, public speaking, a fear of death, sickness or feeling trapped, there is usually something that gets each of us worked up. Recent statistics suggest that up to 10% of Australians will experience some form of clinical level of anxiety at some point in their lives. That’s a lot of anxiety!

It’s the same with kids. They can get scared about all kinds of things. I have worked with kids who are scared of going to school, scared of meeting new people, scared of going to bed at night, scared of eating new foods, scared of sharks, scared of everything! I’ve even had kids who are so scared of going to the toilet that they will hold out for over a week!

So what do we do for an anxious child?

Emotions are tricky things. Often as adults we don’t feel comfortable with them ourselves. It is important to remember that in general, kids will model what they see in their parents. In other words, if you are a worrier and constantly talk about your stressful days at work in front of the kids, then they will most probably start to mimic you. You might find that pretty soon your child can’t sleep properly because they’re worrying about their exams, fights with friends, or their hair – the list goes on!

Manage your own stress and anxiety first

So the first thing to do, if you want your child to manage their fear well, is learn how to manage it well yourself. If you have dysfunctional or unhelpful ways of dealing with anxiety I can almost guarantee you that your children will follow. So before you challenge your child on how they manage their emotions, take a good look at what you are modelling to them.

Deal with significant stressors at a family level

Secondly, be aware of the effects of chronic, or ongoing, stress on your family. Kids are sponges. If there is stress and anxiety in the family, your child will absorb it – just like a sponge. So if you are under significant financial strain, your marriage is rocky, or you are struggling with your health – get help. It is normal to encounter these stressors in life but it is not healthy to bottle it up at a family level and not get the support that you need. We are designed to be part of a supportive community. Protect your kids from chronic stress. So many anxious kids that present for therapy are simply reacting to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety at home.

“Enough about me” – I can hear you thinking. “Surely my child needs help too!” Of course, but these next suggestions need a committed and supported parent who has enough energy to carry them out. Make sure that you have heeded the advice above before continuing.

Identify their feelings

A handy thing about being a parent is that you are much older than your child. This is very useful because when it comes to emotions and being scared, you should know more about these things than your child. It is your job to help your child organise their feelings and learn positive coping skills.

If your child is scared about something, don’t dismiss it. But don’t become hysterical about it either. Tell your child that you know they are upset and help them put a name to their feeling – for instance; “You’re a little bit quiet at the moment – I think that you might be scared of all these new people.” Don’t punish your child for being upset but don’t make a huge deal out of it either. Remember, we all get scared.

Teach them positive coping skills

Once you’ve helped your child organise their feelings it’s time to lovingly take charge. When I was 8 years old, I didn’t know that if I was scared of something I could do the following things to cope: say positive statements to myself, tell a trusted person, tackle it one step at a time. And I didn’t know that I was stronger than anything that I might be scared of. As a child I wasn’t born with those coping skills – my parents taught me.

As a parent your child wants you to show them how to manage fear. Empathise and organise their feelings but then take charge and walk them through some positive coping strategies.

Emotions, in and of themselves, are not a bad thing. Emotions guide us and often let us know when something isn’t right. But emotions are not made to control us. When it comes to anxiety – be the parent. Model how to deal with it well and lovingly walk them through some positive coping skills when your child is struggling to do it on their own.