When it comes to helping our children manage their anxiety, our role as parents is to guide them in adopting a certain attitude towards their worry feelings, to give them some skills to manage their anxious symptoms and to ultimately help them to understand that they have the skills to manage it themselves.
Everyone can relate at least to worry feelings. For some little ones this is all anxiety will get to but for other kids, it will go beyond that and turn into something that could have the potential to interrupt their life in bigger ways.
That is why an early intervention approach is the absolute best!
If our kids are prone to getting anxiety, it’s better to think, 'Ok this is something I’m going to have to learn to manage, as opposed to, this is something I want to get rid of'.
From here, we need to notice when they are feeling anxious. If we know our little ones and we know their signs of anxiety, we can say things like: 'It looks like you might be worrying a little bit at the moment'.
At this point, it would be great if they would say: 'Yes I am, please help me through it'. But there is a good chance they won’t!
Instead they might display some of the behaviours that tend to go with feeling anxious – irritability, agitation, crying and pushing you away. If you know your child may be feeling anxious at the bottom of it all, give them some time and try not to get entangled in the behaviour they are displaying.
The first and foremost aim in managing anxiety is to calm the body down.
The best way to calm down is breathing properly, and that is slow, deep breaths through the nose. Getting the breath right down to the bottom of the lungs is the key.
So after noticing your child is anxious or, more ideally, starting to get anxious, you can say things like:
- 'How about we sit down and have a cuddle for a little while?' And while sitting together you can breathe together
- Perhaps provide guidance by saying things like: 'Breathing is always good to make our body feel better. Let’s breathe in slowly through our nose, fill our tummies and let it out. As you breathe I’ll count. Breathe in 2, 3, 4, and breathe out 3, 4, 5, 6.'
- After breathing for a bit, soothing talk can be used. This involves saying statements that will calm rather than continue to create chaos in the body. Statements like: 'It's OK; You will be OK; You can get through this; This feeling will pass; You are safe.'
Once kids are calm, then we can start to talk to them about their anxiety, what might’ve been happening to make them anxious and also what they did to manage it.
So basically, what anxious chatter was in their heads? They might not give us a lot, but we can assume that they were thinking something and we can say general statements like: 'Sometimes our thoughts chatter away to us to make us feel a bit funny in the body; make us worked up a bit'.
You can then help to increase their awareness about their anxious body by asking things like: 'What did you notice happening in your body? Did you notice your tummy getting butterflies? What did you notice in your arms and legs? Did you just feel a bit sick? What was happening in your head?'
Then you can shift them over to focussing on what they did and can do to manage their anxious chatter. Reinforce the use of breathing and soothing self-talk. You can also ask questions like:
- 'What do you think you could’ve said to yourself to help you stop worrying?'
- And then something like: 'Perhaps we can brainstorm some ideas together'.
Ultimately when it comes to anxiety it is crucial for us to know what anxiety is and to observe our little ones for when they might be becoming anxious.
We need to ask ourselves: 'How would I react to my child if he or she was scared?' This is to put us in a more appropriate mindset to help them rather than us getting caught up in our own anxiety about them being anxious.
The aim is to help calm our kids down and have effective ‘go to’s’ such as breathing and soothing messages (self-talk). It is only when they are calm, that we can talk to them about their feelings, so that they can learn more and more about their anxiety and how to manage it.