Seeing a child in distress is not easy for any parent or caregiver. Quiet frequently you yourself may experience a sense of panic when the child starts showing any sign of emotional distress. Though having fears and worries is expected as a part of your child’s development, when these feelings become persistent or too intense, addressing them becomes a necessity.
Before we go on to discuss few ways of helping your child through anxiety, let us first attempt to understand all that there is to know about it. Being a natural emotional response, anxiety is a form of fear or worry about the future which stems from any kind of uncertainty or uncontrollability about the future. More specifically, it involves having a sense of some perceived danger which may or may not even exist in reality. To some extent, these fears are hard-wired in our minds and are necessary for our living. For example, a child being afraid of strangers or of being away from his parents is an adaptive fear which is vital for his survival.
Despite being a normal response, anxiety can also pose as a problem when it persists beyond what is expected or becomes overwhelming and unmanageable. When this happens, with these exhausting feelings of anxiety come excessive avoidance of the feared tasks/situations or hey engage in some safety behaviours. For example, a child feeling anxious about attending a class would keep making excuses for not attending it (avoidance) or might insist for a parent to wait outside the class every time he has to attend it (safety behavior). Hypervigilance is another marker that accompanies anxiety. Anxious children are constantly on an alert mode, carefully scanning the environment for any cues of danger and thereby feel exhausted.
Now one may wonder where these unwanted fears and worries come from. Of course there are various reasons for how and why a child feels anxious. Literature suggests that when a child experiences extreme levels of anxiety, it’s safe to assume that something is not right in their life and needs immediate attention. Here are some underlying concerns that may manifest in the form of anxiety in children:
• When any close family member tends to be very anxious, the anxiety gets picked up by the child as well.
• When the child is to take up roles and responsibilities beyond his age.
• When there are excessive and unrealistic expectations held by the family members.
• When the child is facing difficulties at school, academically or with peers.
• When the family is going through hardships or stress.
• When the child has to endure sudden, unexpected changes.
• When the child encounters traumatic events or extreme emotional distress wherein their safety is threatened.
Remember, irrespective of the underlying concerns, anxiety can manifest in various ways and can take up any form of anxiety disorder. Selective mutism, phobias, panic disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety, generalized anxiety are some of the anxiety disorders seen in children. Describing each of them here would be exhausting and so I will leave that perhaps for some other time.
With a clear picture in our minds about what anxiety is, let us now try to understand various ways in which we can help children deal with anxiety. Here are some things to remember:
1. Be mindful of how you are responding to the situation
As mentioned earlier, children are very likely to pick up anxious behaviours from significant others around them. Needless to say, it then falls on our shoulders to make sure that we do not pass along our own fears and worries on to our children. A simple way of doing that would be to keep children away from concerns they have no role to play in. For example, bringing to the child’s attention any financial issues or interpersonal issues between the family members. Of course we cannot keep them immune from the hardships every time but make sure to reassure their safety.
2. Have open conversations about anxiety
Talking to your child about their fears or worries is very important. Helping them understand and make sense of their experiences is necessary. Normalize having anxiety without being dismissive of their concerns. Keep them informed about what are few signs and symptoms of anxiety that they need to look out for and what might be appropriate ways of coping with anxiety. Encourage them to ask for help whenever they find it necessary. Ensure that you have these conversations with your child when they are feeling calmer and not when they are actively experiencing their anxieties.
3. Help them learn and explore relaxing activities
There are few established ways that help anyone feel more relaxed and in control. Deep breathing, grounding techniques and mindfulness practices are a few techniques that might be of aid to cope with the anxiety for child. Help them learn these exercises and engage in it together. At times when the child is actively experiencing anxiety, it would be helpful if you try to keep your calm and not panic or feel frustrated yourself. For some, it might also be of use to offer physical comfort like sitting close to them, holding hands or a cuddle.
4. Encourage them to face their fears
Be gentle. Do not dismiss their fears rather validate them. It is our natural instinct is to protect children when they are anxious or in distress. It may so happen that in an attempt to cease their distress one might reinforce the avoidance of feared objects or situations. When this happens, children fail to learn that things may seem scary at times and that’s ok, they need to go through it anyways. Not everything can change at ones, it is important to take tiny steps and help them build confidence in being able to tolerate anxiety. Remember, not to push to far that it breaks them entirely.
5. Seek help from a professional
It might be the best to seek professional if you find it difficult to manage your child’s anxiety. Engaging in counseling or therapy can be an effective way of helping your child in a systematic and evidence based manner. Moreover, as many of the signs and symptoms of anxiety are physiological in nature such heaviness of chest, excessive sweating, difficulty breathing and so on, consulting a pediatrician to ensure that there are no underlying physical concerns is crucial.
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