Fears and anxieties are a normal part of growing up, but sometimes children can become so anxious it begins to dominate their life.
Thankfully there’s much parents can do to help their children emerge from their anxious shells. Family and adolescent psychologist Collett Smart says parents should keep an eye out for signs of excessive anxiety in their children, such as:
- Avoiding new activities
- Avoiding doing things they used to enjoy
- Retreating from friendships or family relationships
- Physical worry symptoms like sore tummies, headaches, tiredness or sleeplessness
- Mood changes and emotional outbursts
- A need for regular reassurance
If you notice some of these signs recurring, Collett suggests taking the following steps.
1 – Acknowledge the Fear
Acknowledge the fear, don’t criticise or minimise your child’s anxious feelings with phrases like ‘don’t be silly’, or ‘there’s nothing to worry about’.
2 – Have a ‘Worry Time’
Allow your child an outlet for their worries, so they don’t feel they have to bottle them up. Collett Smart suggests a ‘Worry Time’ where children can talk about their fears, draw or write about them, or put their worries in a ‘Worry Box’.
2 – Model Calm Behaviour
Teach your children how to cope calmly with anxious or stressed feelings by demonstrating these behaviours yourself, when you are stressed. Teach them to talk positively about situations.
3 – Avoid Taking Over
Children who suffer anxiety are usually very happy to let someone else do things for them, and it can be easy as a parent to ‘rescue’ a child from their fears. However when a parent takes over a situation, this stops the child from learning how to cope on their own, holding back their development.
4 – Encourage ‘Having a Go’
By gently encouraging your child to ‘have a go’ at something difficult, or to try their best in a situation they’re afraid of, they will learn that they can in fact cope. This will equip them for facing difficult situations in the future.
5 – Practice or Role Play Anxious Scenarios
Help your child learn ways to deal with their anxiety, by coming up with strategies together, and practicing how they can respond. Role-play scenarios. This will help give them a ‘script’ to fall back on when they become nervous or scared.
6 – Don’t Label or Embarrass Your Child
Speak kindly to your child and to others about their anxiety. Don’t label them as though their anxieties are a life-long sentence, especially in front of others. Collett suggests using phrases like, ‘We’re still working on that at the moment, but it’s getting better all the time’.
7 – Stepladder Approach
‘Graded exposure’ is a big technical term for the baby-steps approach to overcoming fears. It’s also known as the ‘stepladder’ approach. By allowing your child to take small steps that break their fear down – rather than pushing them to face their whole fear at once – they will gradually learn that they will be ok.
For example, if they’re afraid of swimming in the ocean, try getting them used to simply standing and watching the waves, or getting their toes wet in the foam. Celebrate the small wins, and praise the effort rather than the end result. Don’t move onto a bigger step until they’re comfortable with small steps.
The above tips are adapted from the Parents and Carers notes by Collett Smart, in the back of the children’s book, Gemma Gets the Jitters, by Katrina Roe.