It’s not uncommon for children to feel anxious from time to time, so it’s encouraging to know that there are a lot of practical things that parents can do to help. No two children are the same, so it may be useful to try a few of the suggestions out and see what suits best for your child.
- Normalise the worry or anxiety. It’s so important for children not to worry about their worry! This leads to an added level of anxiety. You can reassure your child and encourage them to adopt a low-key attitude of curiosity whenever their anxiety surfaces. Validate their feelings first and foremost, listen to them and empathise with how they feel. You might remind them that worry is part of life and that some people worry more than others and that’s okay. Tell them that there are lots of ways to deal with their worry and give them the self-belief that although their worries might pop up from time to time, they can learn lots of ways to deal with it. Perhaps your child worries because they tend to over-think things and are sensitive by nature. By presenting these characteristics in a positive light, children can feel better and understand why they might worry about things.
- Allocate a set ‘worry time’ of around 10 or 15 minutes daily. Use this time to allow your child to express their worries and discuss them with you. During this time, you may be able to help your child to make a plan to deal with particular challenges or problems that may be worrying them. If your child expresses worries at other times of the day, remind them that they can leave it until ‘worry time’ and then discuss it. This helps the child to compartmentalize their worries to an extent and stop them from spilling over into their entire day. End ‘worry time’ on a positive note whenever possible by asking your child to tell you some of the positive events of their day also.
- Encourage your child to use their problem-solving skills to deal with particular worries that they can do something about. You can brainstorm solutions together and try out different ideas. It’s important to encourage your child to think of ideas themselves, rather than you just presenting them with your solution – that way they learn self-belief about their own abilities to cope. Role-play various situations to allow your child to practise what they might say or do if a particular event happens so that they feel more equipped to deal with it.
- Teach your child about the skill of healthy distraction. If your child has a worry that they can do something about, encourage them to use their problem-solving skills. Sometimes, children worry about things that are outside of their control. In these cases, they need to give their ‘worry mind’ a break by distracting themselves and immersing themselves in an enjoyable activity of their own choice. For more ideas on this, see my article https://www.alustforlife.com/mental-health/children-and-adolescents/how-distraction-can-build-childrens-resilience
- Equip your child with strategies for physically releasing the symptoms of stress and worry from their bodies. Physical exercise of any type is very beneficial in this regard. Gentle yoga stretches can also help. Encourage your child to try 444 breathing to help to bring a feeling of calmness to their bodies – they breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, and breathe out for 4. Doing a few rounds of this can be wonderfully calming – doing it with your child will benefit you both!
- Remind your child of all the times they coped with difficulties in the past. Ask them what they did that helped when they felt like this before.
- Encourage your child to tune into their self-talk. What are they saying to themselves when faced with a worry or difficulty? Help them to have a ready-made selection of helpful self-talk phrases that they can use to help themselves feel calm and strong, for example, ‘This is tough but I can handle it’, ‘I’m stronger than I feel’, ‘It’s okay to be worried, I don’t need to be afraid of my worries’, ‘I don’t like feeling like this, but I can take some deep breaths and cope with it.’
- Try some mindfulness meditation with your child. This can have great benefits when done regularly for a number of weeks. There are lots of websites offering free guided mindfulness sessions for children, including a full set of free meditations which support the Weaving Well-Being programme https://www.otb.ie/weaving-well-being-mindfulness-script-guided-meditations
It’s really important to support children in developing a sense of self-efficacy in dealing with their worries – a sense of belief in themselves and their own abilities. Allowing them to express and accept their worries and having a toolkit of constructive ways to deal with them can really help them to feel strong and supported.