How to help your children tackle anxiety as schools go back during pandemic

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It has been a tricky few months and, with many schools set to return in September, children are understandably beginning to feel uncertain and worried.

One in eight children and young people aged five to 19 are now reckoned to have a mental health disorder, with 7.2 per cent of children having an anxiety disorder.

While your child may not suffer to this degree, it’s important to give them the tools to regulate their emotions and to grow into healthy, confident young people.

Anxiety can present quite differently depending on age group.

Younger children may have stomach aches or tantrums, while older children and teens more commonly experience social anxiety or a fear of failure.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion but it can still often be irrational – and when it starts to become overwhelming it can impact our quality of life, physical health and relationships.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of ways you can help your child.

The right kind of listening will mean your child feels safe expressing themselves to you.

Let them have their say and respond by using body language to show you are listening and understanding.

When the moment is right, paraphrase what they have said to show they have your full attention.

It’s important to remember that you do not need to agree with your child – a lot of worries can be irrational. But you can still affirm and empathise with them.

Try saying things such as ‘I hear you’, ‘I can see why that would make you feel sad/worried/upset’, ‘That makes sense’ or ‘How does that feel in your body?’

This is called active listening and is used by therapists to encourage the speaker to open up.

Don’t try to solve the problem without actually addressing your child’s anxiety.

Hearing these messages, your child will believe that their feelings are not valid, making them less likely to express themselves.

Times of day, situations or even a particular person might cause their stress levels to rise.

Try to identify these triggers and talk to your child about them.

Ask them how they feel when something happens. If there are many triggers, look for a unifying theme – for example social situations, changing clothes or perhaps speaking to adults.

Rather than avoid these situations altogether, see if you can take some pressure off and make your child more comfortable.

Ask your child for their ideas and make suggestions.

Try to work together to come up with solutions, letting your child take an active role in managing their anxiety.

Research has found repeated, rhythmic activities work to relax and rewire the link between a child’s brain and their nervous system, making it easier for them to regulate their emotions.

Rhythmic activities that help can include walking, dancing, running, bouncing on a trampoline, drumming, singing, yoga and breathing exercises.

You could also make a calming playlist of their favourite music, do some colouring or try a one-minute meditation.

Encourage them to make a den – they could even make signs to hang up such as ‘I need a hug’ or ‘Do not disturb.

If possible, try seeking out some animals for them to spend time with. Animals are often used to reduce anxiety in both children and adults.

Take a moment to ask your child (or remind them to ask themselves) this sequence of questions:

Let your child know it’s OK to cry, to express anger, to curl up, to need a hug, to refuse a hug, to speak or to be silent. It’s also OK to smile, laugh or dance.

Remember not to judge or take your child’s emotions personally.

Moving negative thoughts out of the mind and on to a physical object is very therapeutic, especially when you get to throw them away.

Use chalk to write on a stone, then throw it into the sea or write worries on a scrap of paper and tear it into tiny pieces. Disposing of troubling thoughts in a more literal way like this can help break negative thought cycles and give your child relief from a mind that’s too busy.

Anxious children often spend a lot of time worrying about things outside of their control, such as other people’s words or actions.

Help your child to understand what they can and can’t control – you could even print out a list and stick it on the wall. Try adding your own ideas too, specific to the things that your child worries about.

School can bring much to be anxious about – complex social dynamics, tests, workloads and bullying.

Let your child know you’re their ally in all this. Even though you’re not there with them day to day, when something causes them distress take the opportunity to show you are on their side.

Talk to their teacher or the parents of other children involved. Ask for changes and brainstorm solutions with your child. Let them see you’re taking them seriously and they will feel safe coming to you with their worries.

Extracted by Debbi Marco from 101 Tips to Help Your Anxious Child by Poppy O’Neill, £9.99, Summersdale

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