Statistics show kids are more anxious than ever before. But how do you help soothe the little worrier in your house without trying to solve all their problems for them? Dr Lucy Hone has some tips.
I’m often asked for tips about how to help children who worry. There’s now such a demand from teachers and parents for such advice that there has been a national roll-out of Sparklers – online resources aimed at reducing anxiety and promoting wellbeing among primary school kids – and I’ve been involved.
This year I had the pleasure of working with Mel Churton, an upbeat, extraordinarily enthusiastic educational psychologist. Given that childhood anxiety is the fastest growing mental illness condition, I thought I’d dedicate today’s column to relaying the basics from one of her fantastic resources, Kids who worry… and how adults can support them.
WHAT IS WORRY ANYWAY?
Worry is the state of feeling or being anxious and troubled over actual or potential problems. It is a normal and natural part of life. As adults, we can be so consumed by our own worries we fall into the trap of believing children have nothing to worry about. Childhood is a carefree, stress-free time, devoid of responsibilities and pressure right? Sadly not.
Children worry about all sorts of things – stranger danger, school tests, the cross-country, their changing bodies, fitting in with friends, not being invited to parties, making speeches, bullying, moving to high school, their parents’ relationship... And that was before the internet brought previously remote events such as wars and terrorism into their bedrooms.
WHEN SHOULD WE WORRY ABOUT WORRY?
When anxiety stays at a high level for a long time, it can make everyday life difficult to cope with. “The difference between normal worry and an anxiety disorder is severity: although feeling anxious is a natural reaction to a stressful or dangerous situation, a child may need help if his anxiety is out of proportion, if it persists or if it impedes the activities in their daily life and constrains their healthy development,” explains Mel Churton.
Knowing how to respond to childhood anxiety can be hard for parents. If they are staunch by nature, they may dismiss or minimise a child’s anxiety, but if they are a worrier themselves, they might inadvertently reinforce it. Parents might also be embarrassed by their child’s anxiety and the “fuss” it causes, especially in social contexts where children are supposed to just fit in and cope.
IT IS THEIR WORRY, NOT YOURS
Once you’ve established this is anxiety (and not a worry that will pass), the trick is to listen, acknowledge and offer the reassurance of support. Don’t confuse this with giving advice or attempting to fix the problem. I really rate Churton’s suggestion not to “rush to rescue the child to alleviate the distress you feel”. Remember, it is not your worry, but theirs.
Support them to identify (and use) behaviours that will decrease the intensity of their feeling – talking to a friend or family member, doing physical activity or another engaging activity. Help and educate, but don’t tell, direct or take over; all that teaches them is they cannot manage their own worries and have to rely on you. Keep your language simple, the talk short and follow a basic discussion structure that, used regularly, will become safe and familiar: • What is the worry? • Can you solve it by yourself or do you need help? • Have you been in this situation before? What did
you do last time? How did that work for you? • What type of help do you think you need this time? • Who do you think is best to give this? • What do you want from me?
Above all, don’t tell them not to worry or minimise their worries as silly. Once we’re worried, we’re worried, end of story. If we make people feel they have no right to worry, they will stop talking. Teach children that setbacks are part of life. They are not insurmountable, but a chance to problem solve, to learn more about themselves and others and to work out which coping strategies work best for them.