I need to start by saying that I’m no expert in this field! I’m going to share my ideas, based on being a primary school teacher for many years, the things I have learnt from my Mum who specialises in adoption, and my own experiences as a child that suffered with anxiety, in the hope that it might be useful in these times of sudden change and uncertainty.
I think it’s probably helpful to point out the obvious, that every child is different, and will react in different ways to changes around them. It will be up to you to work out the best way to help your child through anxiety, and probably involve a little trial and error!
Some, like me, will find it easy to share their emotions and explain how they’re feeling. They will be happy to discuss it and talk it through. Others, like my sister used to do, will internalise. They’ll become quieter than usual and they won’t want, or be able to talk about how they’re feeling. Some children might become angry, or sad, or even laugh a lot! Some won’t even notice that things are different, and will continue as normal. Just as you can’t predict how you’ll react in new situations, don’t expect to know how your children will react either!
The other thing to point out is that children are far more resilient than we often give them credit for. Try your hardest not to assume that they’ll feel or react the same way as you when things change, and try to remember that just because they’re down one day they probably won’t feel the same the next. Remember, they’ve got you as their constant after all. Even when everything else around them changes, you’ll be their normality.
Some Ideas For Helping Your Child Deal With Anxiety
Honesty Is Usually The Best Policy
In my experience, honesty is usually the best policy when it comes to talking to children. They are much more switched on than we often give them credit for. Even children who can’t yet talk themselves are listening and absorbing. They can feel the mood in the room, they can sense your tone of voice, and they are learning from you how they should react.
I’ve been asked A LOT of difficult questions by children over the years, usually at the most inappropriate of times. Questions that I really haven’t wanted to answer, about very sensitive and tricky subjects. I won’t go into details, but I will say that the honest answers have always been the most effective. Sure, they have been simplified answers to complex questions, so that a child can understand, and sometimes the honest answer has been that I simply don’t know the answer. But the honest answer has been the one that’s stopped them worrying.
If you can, be honest about what’s happening in the world right now. I thought this video explained the situation perfectly, and there are plenty of similar ones out there if you’re not keen on the style of this one. There are also stories that have been made. Just make sure you watch the video together, or that they hear it from you, so they know you’re happy to talk openly about it. Do it even if it’s already been discussed at school, because you’re the only one they can ask questions to now.
Watch And Listen
Follow your instincts when it comes to your children. Even in a class of 15 I could often work out if a child was worrying about something, just from the way they were acting. Take the time over the next few weeks to watch and listen.
As I said before, some children will just come straight out with it. They’re the easy ones! Other children will sit with it, trying to figure it out on their own. That’s sometimes absolutely fine – they might just need a bit of space. Sometimes they’re crying out inside for help that they don’t know how to ask for. Offer it to them so that they don’t have to ask.
Pick Your Timing
Remember that for a child who doesn’t like to express their emotions, picking a busy lunchtime or a time when they’re distracted might not be best. Pulling them out of the room in front of peers or siblings won’t work great either. Try to stage time with them when you’ll be alone ‘naturally’, and show them you have time to talk.
I used to ask children to help me tidy something up while the others left for another lesson, so I could ask them if they were ok. A lot of the time they said they were fine, and we had a nice chat about something normal, but it showed them I was available and that I cared, just in case there had been something on their mind.
As I said before, children like to ask questions at the most inappropriate of times! If you don’t feel you can answer their question straight away, try not to dismiss it altogether. Tell them you’ve heard them, and be honest with them. ‘I can’t answer that question right now but I’m going to have a chat with you about it in just a little bit’. And make sure you follow it through. They might have spent ages plucking up the courage to ask you, don’t make them ask you again. Find them at a time that’s convenient and start the conversation for them so that they don’t have to initiate it.
Leave your phone in another room and make sure their sibling is out of the way. The last thing you want to do is get a text from work in the middle of a deep and meaningful. Even if you ignore it, children can sense your mind wondering elsewhere!
Setting Is Important
Sounds like a strange bit of advice, but it does make a difference.
When my sister had an argument with my parents and got sent to her room, she would come down with a towel over her head when she wanted to say sorry. I used to think this was hilarious, but I think she had a good little strategy going on. Covering her eyes helped her to express herself, as she couldn’t see the reaction of others and she didn’t have to share the reaction on her face either. She felt less embarrassed. And it was super cute too, so she got away with a lot more!
I don’t know how many of you share the same love of talking to someone on a walk. Walking side by side I share a lot more than I would sat opposite someone in a cafe. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s often easier to have hard conversations when we don’t have to make eye contact. Children open up on car journeys, when you can’t look at them, and when they know they have your undivided attention. I would often talk to children on the stairs. Sat side by side somehow feels less invasive, giving them a chance to open up.
Don’t Hide All Your Feelings
If the news has been sending you into a panic, they’ll know. No matter how much you try and hide it! That’s not a bad thing. It’s important for children to understand that all emotions are normal and ok, but it will seem a whole lot scarier to them if they don’t understand why. Discuss some of your feelings with your kids and make it normal. Talk about the fact that people often find it hard to deal with change, and unusual situations. Discuss with them what you do to feel better and suggest you all give it a try.
My Mum cries really easily. She cries at everything! And she had the good grace to pass that skill on to me. I didn’t get her great teeth or her clear skin. I got the ability to burst into tears over pretty much anything. I remember her crying at things when I was a child, and feeling anxious and worried about it. Until she talked to me about it, explained it and reassured me that it was normal and that it would pass. Every time it was something different, a sad advert or a bad day at work, but every time she was honest with me and I could stop worrying.
Along with picking up on the things you’re stressing about, your children are going to learn ways to cope with stress from watching you. If they can sense you’re stressed, but you never show them how you cope with in a healthy way, then they won’t be able to model your healthy habits. I’m not saying you shouldn’t down that bottle of wine once they’re tucked up in bed (well, I probably should be saying that, but I’m trying to be realistic here!)
Just try really hard to model healthy behaviour when they’re around. ‘The news is making me all stressed out, shall we go for a jog around the garden?’, or ‘I feel a bit frustrated about what’s going on in the world today, so I’m going to go and talk to your Dad for a bit because that always makes me feel better’.
Get In The Hole With Them
Reassure your children that it’s ok to feel worried and anxious. That it’s really hard, that it’s normal and that it will, eventually, pass or get easier. You can tell them this with authority, because you’ll have lived through similar at times in your life. Let them know that you understand how they’re feeling, and that you’re there for them no matter what. They just need to know that you’re there.
I think it’s important to say here that your role isn’t to make their ‘problems’ go away. You can’t possibly make all their problems go away through their lives, so don’t start trying now! Your role is to make it clear that you’re going to be there for them and help and support them to push through their anxieties.
I heard a good analogy on some teacher training course, about helping children with depression. They showed a video of a man in a deep hole. One of his friends walked past, looked in the hole and gave some helpless words about how horrible it looked and poor them. Another friend got a ladder, and climbed down into the hole with them.
You can’t ‘rescue’ your child from emotions that are normal and understandable, but you can get in there with them. You can give them big hugs and kisses. You can tell them you’re there for them. You can sit with them. You can suggest things you could do together that might help them a little bit.
Suggest Things That Might Help
Try not to ‘belittle’ their anxiety by telling them that doing some exercise will make it go away, brushing off a problem that can seem huge to them will only make them feel like they can’t be open about it. Instead, suggest things that might help, and suggest you do it together and see. Here are some ideas of fun things you could try and do to help relieve anxiety.
- Talk, about the problem or about something completely different. Talking with others is an important skill for coping with anxiety.
- Find some peace. One of the most effective parts of the outdoor lessons I used to give was the quiet time. The children would choose their favourite tree and stand beside it. They’d give it a hug, or a name, and sit with it in silence. Sounds very hippy, but it worked for a lot of them. I would even see them do it at playtime, or during outside activities, when they recognised they needed some quiet.
- Use a ‘worry doll’. My Mum used to knit little monsters that she called ‘worry guzzlers’. The story goes that if you tell them your worries before bedtime they gobble them up, and then fart out good dreams while you sleep. Children thought the farting was hilarious, and I’d play up the fact they were really helping the worry guzzlers by feeding them their worries. I think have something ‘special’ just for them and their worries was a big part of their effectiveness.
- Watch a film or read a book. A really good film might be the perfect distraction, even if it just works for an hour or two.
- Do some exercise. It’s the last thing I want to do when I’m feeling anxious, but if I can be persuaded then it does really work. Kids love to get outside and run around, or dance to some happy music.
- Try meditation. There are lots of YouTube videos that guide kids through meditation in a more fun way. I used some with my class when they were particular ‘high’ and they worked wonders at calming us all down!
Make Sure You Seek Help From Others
If your child’s anxiety is worrying you then please remember you’re not alone. One of the best things you can do to help your child with their anxiety is to seek help from other people. Get your child’s teachers on board, speak to your family and friends, and never hesitate to get professional help.
Obviously there are times when you can expect your child to be feeling anxious – this time right now being a key example, but also things like exams, year group changes, starting new clubs and activities etc. But if it becomes an ongoing thing then it’s important to get outside help. It doesn’t have to be anything permanent, but just talking to a doctor or therapist will probably help you work out what the best course of action is for your child.
Finally, Remember Your Own Well Being
When we look after children it’s very easy to put their needs first and completely forget about our own. When I’ve found myself caught up in the problems of a child, my mental health has definitely suffered. It’s hard to separate the two. Remember that if you’re not in a good place then you’ll find it harder to be strong for your child, so look after your own well being as an important part of the process.
It’s a new situation for you too, and it’s important that you go easy on yourself. You won’t always know the right thing to say or do, there is no rule book for things like this. I’ve had many conversations with an anxious child and come away kicking myself for not saying something different. In reality, the things I’ve said have made very little difference. What has made a difference is me just being there.
Try to keep in mind that you really can’t ‘fix’ anxiety. It isn’t something you can stick a plaster over or kiss better. Just by being there you’re helping more then you’ll ever know.