Hey Parents: Here’s How to Help Your Anxious Child
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Every morning before school your child approaches you and complains of a stomach ache. Perhaps your child’s grades are slipping or they are having trouble sleeping at night. Although you may not realize it at the time, your child may be experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. As a parent or caregiver, it is important that you not only know the warning signs, but ways to help your child cope.
What Should I Look For?
According to child psychotherapist Katie Hurley, parents often confuse anxiety with behavior problems because anxiety tends to surface in the form of behavioral changes in younger children. While a little anxiety is a good thing when it warns your child that they should move out of the way if a car is coming, it becomes a problem when it interferes with their daily living for at least two weeks. Pay attention to changes at school, home, and among friends. What exactly are some of the symptoms and signs you should be looking for?
Meltdowns or tantrums could be a sign, especially for children who don’t know how to cope or vocalize their anxiety. Although your child probably fights their bedtime to the end, look for sleep disturbances such as difficulty falling and staying asleep, nightmares, and sleepwalking. Keep a tally of the frequency of your child’s physical complaints such as headaches, stomach issues, shortness of breath, racing heart, and shaking, as these are common symptoms of anxiety. Some of the symptoms are a little more discreet such as avoidance behaviors. You may notice your child bailing on a birthday party, asking to take the season off from their favorite sport, or getting “sick” on big test or project days. The avoidance is your child’s way of finding relief from their anxiety.
Use the FEEL Method
How many times have you found yourself telling your child, “There’s nothing to worry about,” only for it to fall on deaf ears. The truth is, your child hears you, but their anxiety is creating a mental block. When your child is feeling anxious, there is a quick dump of brain chemicals and mental transitions happening within their brain in an effort to “survive” the stressful situation. Unfortunately, this causes the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for logic and reasoning – to get put on hold while the emotional brain takes a front seat. Rest assured, your child doesn’t have cotton in his ears. Rather than going blue in the face trying to convince your child that there isn’t anything to be anxious about, use the FEEL method:
· Empathize – For anyone experiencing anxiety, it is a real and scary thing. Let your child know that you understand what they are going through. Perhaps use this as an opportunity to explain a time when you were anxious and how you successfully coped with it.
· Evaluate – After your child is calmed down, figure out solutions together.
· Let Go – Let go of your guilt and rest assured that you are a good parent giving your child tools to manage their anxiety.
Build a Coping Toolbox
Your child will inevitably feel anxious, so why not create a coping checklist. Just like a trained pilot works through an emergency checklist when facing an emergency, children can work through an anxiety checklist when they are feeling anxious to help them calm down. What should they do first when they feel anxiety coming on? If breathing helps, put that as the first step. Perhaps they have a favorite place that they could imagine or something fun to squeeze such as a stress ball or silly putty. Create a hard copy and paste it in a lunch box, along with the appropriate tools, that they can carry with them wherever they go.
Although people can’t fit in their toolbox, there are various helpful individuals that can help your child cope with their anxiety. For example, a tutor will be helpful for children struggling with a particular subject or test anxiety. Professionals such as therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists will be valuable in developing a treatment plan, as well as suggesting further coping mechanisms. Building a support network for your child is one of the keys to their success.
You can’t talk your child’s anxiety away, but you can help them cope with it in a healthy manner. Build an anxiety toolbox and get them the support and help they need to keep being a kid.
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