The World Health Organization (2022) reports that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety worldwide. In our day-to-day practice at Sensational Kids we have seen a huge increase in the children presenting with anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are well recognised as the most common psychological problem for children and adolescents. It is suggested that children as young as three and four can present with persistent anxiety disorders. For children with anxiety disorders, common thinking themes are an increased perception of danger and threat, coupled with a decreased perception of their own ability to cope with that danger.
The changing goal posts of the COVID-19 pandemic affected children in different ways. There is no doubt that children have experienced a series of anxiety inducing life events from the Covid-19 pandemic, to the exposure of a war in the Ukraine, to the recent shooting in Texas. As parents we cannot change the outside world for anxious children, but we can change their inner world by providing children with solid coping strategies. We need to try to give our children roots so that they can weather whatever storm comes. It is all about helping your child to build resilience and emotional regulation so that they can respond to challenging life events.
If you have a child with anxiety, it is important to introduce some new habits. Introducing new habits in a busy household is challenging but try piggybacking or as psychologists we call this scaffolding the new habits onto existing routines. Try to introduce new habits during the school run or at the dinner table. As parents we need to empower children to first be aware of their thinking patterns, try to replace negative thinking patterns with some more positive ones and then to empower our children with a sense of resilience and self-belief that they can deal with the challenges of life.
- Firstly ‘name it to tame it’. The first step in dealing with a child that is presenting with anxiety is talking to the child about how they are feeling. Help your child to become a ‘feelings detective’ and identify their feelings. Then let your child know that these feelings are normal. We all feel anxious sometimes. Ask your child if they have butterflies in their tummy, how does their heart feel, can they feel it beating very fast in their chest, etc. Help your child become aware of what anxiety feels like in the body. Then teach your child that there are ways to reduce these feelings of anxiety.
- Encourage children to think about their thinking. It is so important that children understand that thoughts are not facts they are just thoughts. Encourage children to think of their thoughts as clouds passing in the sky or logs and river; they come and they go, it is important to attend to them, notice them but know that they are not all real. We can change our thinking.
- Encourage children to think of their brain as a google search engine. The more positive, brave thoughts we consciously have, the more children can ignite positive thinking pathways in the brain. When we speak about neuroplasticity, we are talking about the ability of the brain to form and recognise synaptic connections; what you use gets bigger and what you don’t gets lost. We call this synaptic pruning.
- Remember the power of the breath. Engage in deep breathing exercises together. It takes just five deep belly breaths to bring the central nervous system from the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system (a relaxed mode).
- As parents, we need to flood our children’s central nervous system with feelings of love and connection. Play with your child for ten minutes a day in a game or activity of their choice.
- Establish a routine. There is great comfort and security in routine. If your child is young, a visual schedule can be very helpful to reduce anxiety. Children who are anxious cope better when they are aware of expectations and of the activity schedule and plan for the day.
- Develop a calming toolbox that your child can use in the classroom or at home. It might include the use of a squeezy ball, fidgets, blue tack, playdoh, pictures of some stretches, deep breathing reminders.
- Remember the importance of developing opportunities for positive interactions with your child throughout the day (Every positive interaction is an intervention)
- Instil a sense of competence and confidence in your child by giving children age- appropriate chores and valuing their contribution to the running of the home.
- Try to introduce short sessions of mindfulness into the family routine. Mindfulness slows down the brainwaves and promotes relaxation.
- Through techniques such as self-monitoring of thoughts, feelings, we can help children to modify anxiety-related thoughts to produce changes in anxiety symptoms.
- Teach your child progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Simply put, if your child squeezes and relaxes different parts of their body, it will promote relaxation.
- A great strategy for alleviating anxiety is to move the emotion out. Exercise produces positive endorphins and allows the anxiety to move out of the body. A short walk outside and in nature will help. Research proves that being in nature reduces stress, increases mental energy and creativity, provides opportunities for problem solving and improves mood.
- Reduce time spent on screens. Excessive screen time reduces a child’s ability to observe and experience the typical everyday activities they need to engage with the world.