Parenting can be hard but parenting children with anxiety brings it to another level.
When our kids suffer, we suffer. So when our kids have anxiety we are always on the lookout for how we can support and help them go back to being happy and stable again and just enjoying life as kids.
When our kids are experiencing anxiety it involves some level of perception about danger, and their anxiety thrives on unpredictability. So the first thing we need to do is create more predictability in our children’s lives. Your child needs predictability to feel safe.
• Together, agree a clear and realistic routine for the day. Try to maintain a normal routine but be flexible and aware of how much child can take at a time. Be particularly sensitive around stressful times. i.e. if your child gets anxious going to school try to have less tasks to do in the morning; get them done the night before so there is less to get worked up about in the morning.
• Have a chat about your expectations about their behaviour and actions: It’s important that we don’t stop having expectations for our child’s behaviour otherwise they may feel ‘worthless’ and think they can get away with certain behaviour IF they feel sad or anxious (in danger of encouraging ‘manipulation behaviours’ in our child, where they have ‘learned’ to get what they want or get out of what they don’t want to do with certain behaviours/motions or actions etc). But we can still be sensitive their situation and make sure our expectations match the situation i.e. give them responsibilities, but make sure they are simple to carry out and help them get them done in a step-by-step way. They still have to accept the screen and bedtime routine/agreement and so on, but we can give warnings, support the process etc. So we can still have expectations as long as we modify them to the child’s needs and the situation.
• Plan for transitions: for example, allow extra time in the morning if going to school is difficult. Sit down before a transition (i.e. school. shopping, activity etc.) and talk about what will happen, what he will and can do. This way it is not new to him and he can prepare himself and his emotions for what lies ahead. Try to let him do most of the talking/planning, you can ask, ‘Sam, you are going to school today (or tomorrow), talk me through it – how is it going to look like.’
• Be a predictable parent: make sure that you are consistent with your rules, how you deliver them and follow through with them. If you are measured (not impulsive), assertive (not aggressive but he knows you mean it) then you will become safe company for your child to be with. He will pair your calmness and be more open to receiving your support and cooperating with you. Communicate any change in your rules and parenting strategies so your child is prepared for it, i.e. ‘Jenny, I want you to know that from now on I will stick to our screen agreement so you get to bed on time and not tired in the morning. I will give you 2 warnings and then remove the remote until you come home from school tomorrow.’
2. Create a validating and non-judgmental home
• In calm times, talk about feelings: When and where they feel them it. i.e. where in the school do they feel worse or best? With whom do they feel safe or not? And so on.
• Where do they feel it? Anxiety manifests itself physically, help them identify where it starts and recognise the physical signs so they know when to ask for help or help themselves. Anxiety might make them feel sick, find it hard to breathe or make their heart race. Getting to know these signs can make them less frightening and overwhelming when they do happen.
• Thoughts: it’s easy to talk ourselves into a spiral of negative thoughts – teach your child to challenge these feelings. And think of something nice. A happy place. Something they look forward to. A fun memory of doing something they love. STOP and THINK positive!
3. It’s OK to feel
• I know it hurts when your child is upset, but try not to STOP them feeling or tell them how to feel instead i.e. don’t get sad, no need to be angry or worried about that; cheer up, you will be fine etc.
• Instead, explore the feelings together, talk them into them with listening, understanding and accepting: I can hear you are worried about going to school because of X and I understand that this is how you feel right now, I get it, we all get upset at times. Then you can move to problem solving if he is ready, i.e. is there anything you can do about it, can you ask for help from the teacher or me and so on.
4. Send a signal that he will be OK
• An anxious child is often on the lookout for some future threat, and often lives in a constant state of exhausting watchfulness and attentiveness for danger. So, we need to reassure them that life is OK. We can do this by sending a signal that we can contain their state of mind, that WE are OK. This will not only help them to accept how they feel (without shame, blame, criticism or pity) but we also send a signal that ‘we can take it’ and they are more likely to think, ‘it cannot be that bad if mum and dad are so chilled and open about it all’. We offer hope, plus they are more likely to pair our calmness and positivity. So, get control of your own emotions; don’t pair yours with theirs. Stay calm, natural and open minded.
5. Boost their self-worth
• Daily one2one time: life is about more than their state of anxiety. Create a safe place and time every day when you can connect and relax together. Try not to make the conversation about anxiety or challenges – just connect and BE. Of course, if they open up about how they feel, welcome it and listen. Do something your child likes to do and feels confident and relaxed about. Where you send a signal that they are worth your time, that you love being with them and that you are OK and connected.
• Let them do more of what they like: Build their strength and self-belief: do more of what they are good at, like, calm them, i.e. art, music, sport etc. You can also give them family jobs where they contribute to the wellbeing of the family doing something they like and enjoy i.e. cooking, baking, setting up a game/movie night etc.
• Don’t over protect them: the more that you allow your child to avoid certain things that they don’t like, want to do or are scared and worried about the more you are teaching them that there is a reason to be anxious or afraid. It’s sending the signal: ‘you see, I was right, there IS potentially a danger here!’ Instead, talk them through that, yes, things are sometimes going to be difficult in life. Things CAN be scary. Say; ‘You can feel scared. That’s OK. We’re going to do it anyway’. Here we send a message that we trust in their ability to cope and recover. You need to push them a little bit but there’s a fine line; if you push them too far they could break down and fall apart even more. YOU know your child the best and know when to accept and when not to accept a NO from them. i.e. you might accept that they skip the school disco but they have to go to school; you might want to accept that that don’t like to go into shops but they can go to friend’s house etc. If we give in to what they ‘think; they cannot do or cope with we empower this feeling by agreeing…
• Help them do what is important for their mental health: physical exercise, sleeping well, eating healthily, drinking plenty of water and spending quality time with loved ones. Regular exercise is particularly important for anxiety because it can help to reduce the symptoms in the body.
• Encourage them to cut out stimulants: Reducing caffeinated/ sugary drinks can help because these can all trigger the physical symptoms of anxiety. Make sure you have a balance with screen time too since too much screen time can have a negative effect on wellbeing.
What to do DURING an anxiety attack:
• First, control yourself: don’t join the worry tornado: Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event. Control your ACTIONS: your child will observe your body language to interpret your emotions, so watch your tone and body language. Keep facial expressions neutral, calm and non-threatening, and avoid showing pity.
• Then you need to calm them down: breathe with them, give them space, sit next to them. DON’T tell them to STOP feeling.
• Validate feelings: I can hear you are worried, I understand that this is how you feel right now. Less is more, try not to talk too much or try to make the situation better or fix it all – just listen, validate and BE there for them.
• Help them verbalise their emotions: translate how they feel: they might not have the maturity or confidence to say how they feel out loud. So help them: ‘I can see that you are feeling stressed, sad, angry etc. I get that you don’t like school right now. I understand that you don’t like me for the moment etc.
What to do AFTER an anxiety attack
• Reconnect after an outburst – no matter how big it is, don’t over pity them, just show that you are both OK and still connected.
● Don’t keep reminding them about previous emotions – ‘are you ok?’ ‘do you feel better?’ – show them that you trust them to be OK.
● You can set time aside every day to worry – so that their emotions don’t take over yours and their life (and the rest of the family’s) – you can agree to a ‘worry time’ and place by teaching them to ‘park’ their anxiety and worries and take them up later. This is a really powerful tool you can use to support your child.
● Rewards that are small but meaningful: when going to school –they can pick dinner or a movie to watch together. Or after school you can go to the park. Don’t buy lots of stuff for them, just show that you acknowledge that it was hard for them with small gestures. If we over reward them for calming down or coping they will not want to change their behaviour and “lose the rewards”.
When things are calm you can sit with your child and come up with coping strategies:
• 1 2 3 breath: teach them to STOP and BREATHE when they get the physical sensation of worry (talk about these sensations beforehand). Pausing gives them time to think about what to do or not do with their feelings.
• Make a worry box or self-soothe box. It might help your child to write down their worries and put them in a worry box. Or they might prefer a self-soothe box, which they can fill with things that help them when they feel anxious – like photos, fidget toys, scented oils and positive quotes.
• Problem solving time: you can set a time aside everywhere you can go through the worry box (if needed). This teach the child to set aside his worries (do they don’t dominate too much), but at the same time we send a message that we do understand that this is how he feels and we are open to support him.
• Think of a safe place: it might help your child to STOP, BREATHE and visualise a place where they feel happy, calm and safe.
• Have a calm stone or a safe conker: you can find a small object that they like the feel of that they can have in their pocket and hold when start feeling worries and think calm, coping thoughts.
• Say names alphabetically: A for Ann. B for Ben. C for Charlie and so on.
• Count backwards from 100.
• Time travelling to something they look forward to such as Christmas, birthday, etc.
Best wishes, Mette Theilmann, Director of Predictable Parenting and founder of the Parenting Community app