Children, like adults, experience feelings of worry. However, it’s helpful to remember that children do not process their experiences as adults do. Anxiety is a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. It’s a reaction to a stressful situation that can be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, when children cross the road, the brain sends a warning signal, which causes anxiety. It allows them to be careful and look out for impending danger. However, it becomes concerning when anxiety becomes a big part of a child’s life—almost taking over through excessive interference in their day-to-day experiences. This can make the child feel stuck in a state of prolonged anxiousness resulting in unmanageable and distressing experiences.
Furthermore, it can also impact interactions and relationships with their friends, peers and parents, leading to a further state of isolation. It’s not unusual for children with anxiety to suffer from lack of sleep, loss of appetite and general deterioration of their physical health, which is marred with exhaustion and tiredness. It can limit aspects of a child’s life. However, you can help your child manage anxiety and feel in control with proper support and practical strategies.
Here’s how you can help children with anxiety.
1. Using the five senses together – One of the most practical ways of easing an anxious moment is to connect the child to the present reality, resulting in an instant reduction in the intensity of their anxious thoughts, feelings and sensations. As a parent/caregiver, you can try this exercise with your child. So, what do you do? Think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Doing this with your child will ease their anxious thoughts while making them feel safe.
2. Normalizing how the child is feeling can help even if you cannot normalize the event. When children experience big feelings like anger, anxiety, confusion or frustration, you can help them by normalizing their responses. According to research, when children believe their response is not normal, they are more likely to struggle with events that are traumatic because they can interpret the ‘not normal’ response as a sign of breakage. So, as a parent, you can normalize their feelings by saying, “It’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling.” or, “There is no wrong way of feeling things. If you are feeling scared/angry/confused/ etc. It’s okay.”
3. Power of touch – We often underestimate the power of touch. Did you know that children who suffer from anxiety have low oxytocin levels? Also, did you know that the part of the brain where anxiety happens, also known as the amygdala, not only gets influenced by oxytocin, but it adores this hormone that’s also known as the chemical for calm and connection? Finally, when we experience closeness to someone we care about, oxytocin is released. So, if you are their identified safe person, and your child is alright with touch, holding their hands, staying close to them and soothing them through a gentle voice can be extremely helpful and calming. Your assurance that they are safe and have the situation under control further enables them to feel less anxious.
Anxiety at any age can be debilitating. However, watching a child struggle with these emotions can be distressing. You are not alone. Millions of parents all over the globe share your experience. Reach out, talk to someone. Remember, in order to be there for your child. You need to be looking after yourself. Self-care happens in micro-moments- sleep well, eat well, hydrate, get outside, and find some time for yourself. Your well-being is important, and when you fill your own cup, you are more likely to be able to fill your child’s cup.
If you want to learn more, the Institute of Child Psychology is here to help you with concrete, research-backed strategies that can be implemented immediately at home or in the classroom.