per­spec­tives

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.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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