Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Anxiety is a big issue in recent years, especially among young people. Youth mental health charity Jigsaw supported 4,300 young people with anxiety related issues in 2017; that is 150 more than the previous year.
Camilla Marks and Joanne Connolly give their advice on how to support your child when they are suffering with anxiety:
Parents As Influencers - Start With Ourselves!!!
As parents, we are the most influential people in our children’s lives. What we model to our children is what they will imitate. The first step to helping children begin to manage their own well-being, is to be aware of how much time we are mindfully orientated towards them.
Being a parent in today’s world can be a busy and frantic job. We often spend a lot of time making plans, organising after-school activities, planning for all the “things to do” for the week ahead, and the one after that.
But sometimes we can get so caught-up by day to day demands, that we forget to be mindfully present with our children. By switching off the “to-do” record in our heads, by putting the ever-present smartphone away, and by orientating playfully towards our children, we are showing them an alternative way of responding to the world and its stresses.
Your Sympathetic Nervous System Needs Your Help: “Rest and Digest”
When we are always on the go, and busily ticking the boxes of the stuff that needs to get done, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tends to start working overtime. Historically this was the system that we required when we needed to emit a flight, fight or freeze response to perceived threat in our environment. The physiological symptoms of that overdrive include rapid heartbeat, a knot in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, and dry mouth.
Today we don’t require this level of activation, but the SNS system isn’t always so great at identifying when to slow itself down. If there are multiple goals and objectives in our day to day lives, the endless box ticking and daily rush to achieve our goals can accelerate activity within our sympathetic nervous system. So we need our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to step in and help with that.
Our children will tend to reflect what they are sensing from us, but can also learn how to deal with stresses: The job of our PNS is to help calm us down, and to support us to take the time to reflect, and process the events of the day. It is our “rest and digest” system. Physically the parasympathetic nervous system helps us to calm down, digest our meals and re-orientate our sensory systems to a more restful state.
Take The Pressure Out Of The Morning Time Routine.
The morning time routine, and the pressure associated with transitioning from home to school to work can be a trigger point for our sympathetic nervous system.
If we can make a choice to be playful in those moments of mounting pressure, we will automatically switch on our parasympathetic nervous system. By doing this we can counterbalance the physiological symptoms associated with heightened anxiety.
A very lovely friend of mine recommends switching on music first thing in the morning. Songs with joyful lyrics and playful rhythms will help to take the rush and anxiety out of the “getting out the door” routine in the morning.
Embed Moments Of Peace And Breathing Throughout The Day
Introducing some yoga poses into the day is a great way of helping us to stop, take a breath and have some fun.
A delightful book to introduce children to the benefits of yoga for relaxation is Fearne Cotton’s Yoga Babies. My little girl has great fun being the yoga teacher as she demonstrates the poses from this book. She is very fond of showing me how to “breathe deeply to help your muscles relax, Mammy”. Having fun with yoga poses can be a delightful way to introduce and embed moments of relaxation, playfulness and peace into a busy day.
Children As Zen Masters
Within that playful context, we can also start to teach our children how to self-regulate when they experience intense sensations resulting from rising anxiety levels.
In our day to day interactions with our children, we can point out all the lovely sights, sounds and sensations associated with the beauty of nature all around us, (such as the golden glow of the sun rising in the morning, the soft sound of the wind as it blows the falling leaves around the pavement, or a beautiful photo of somewhere we visited during the holidays). Showing children how to orientate to those sights and sounds whilst breathing mindfully, will help them to identify grounding strategies to alleviate the physiological sensations associated with anxiety and worry.
Read Next: How To Nurture Your Children's Mental Health
When School Is A Trigger
Often in their day to day life, children can become overwhelmed emotionally by the behavioural systems in place in schools.
Although they may not be in “trouble” themselves, they may become affected by heightened tension in a busy classroom when a teacher gets cross, or is obliged to apply a behavioural sanction.
All schools are different, they all apply different behaviour management systems at different levels across the school. Ideally a system based on the principles of positive reinforcement of “safe” and appropriate classroom behaviours tend to work best, and evoke the least amount of negative emotional responses within children.
In some classroom settings, there may be a negative consequence approach to managing classroom behaviour. Children will often experience negative emotional and physiological responses to this type of system. Subsequently a child may become more anxious about going to school, and/or may present with anxiety related symptoms at home.
Children may find it difficult to self-identify moments of heightened anxiety. A nice way to help them with that is to show them that grownups feel like this too.
We can model for them how we feel when we are anxious, or as my little girl tells me “when your nerves are rattling, Mammy”. We can show them where we feel the anxiety, and talk about what that feels like in our body.
We can invite them to draw what it feels like. Simply draw an outline of a body and ask them to mark or point out the spot where they might feel “fizzy”, or a “rock in their tummy” or “knot in their chest”. All children are so unique that each child will have a different representation of what an activated SNS might feel like to them. A little boy once told me it felt like “spiders on his skin”.
If they show reluctance to engage with that process, that’s totally ok, as we don’t want them to feel that this is a task with a right or a wrong answer. For very young children, we can tell them a story about a boy or girl who felt like that, or we can draw their attention to a character they are familiar with from a favourite movie.
We can invite them to consider what might help that character in their moments of anxiety or trouble. Or we can tell them a story about what we may have done as children, when we felt troubled.
Make A Well-Being Tool Kit Or A Feel-Good Tree
Let children know that they have a toolkit. Invite them to consider all the “tools” that are available to them to help them when they feel anxious.
Perhaps, if you are good at arts and crafts, you could help them make a 'toolbox'. By taking a photo or draw a picture of those tools (however you and your child imagine them) and pop them into the toolkit. Alternatively, you could make or draw a 'Feel-Good Tree': They can draw or write on separate leaves, all the ways that help them when they feel anxious.
Close our eyes for a moment and think about our favourite place - breathe out slowly, and feel our insides melting away the worry.
On the playground if there is a tree, we could go there and put our hand on the tree or lean against the tree, then breathe out while feeling the reassuring sensation of the strong tree trunk.
We can also lean against a wall and push our feet into the ground, feeling the strength of our big leg muscles, our big feet, strong on the ground; breathing out, and allowing our insides to relax and melt away our worries.
As a way of supporting classroom wellbeing, they could share this with their friends and their teacher during “Show and Tell”. As much as possible, support them to generate some of their own individual strategies. If possible, try and draw a representation of these strategies with your children for the toolkit.
If you can, try and practice at least one of these tools with your child, daily.
Joanne Connolly is a Chartered Physiotherapist and BD Craniosacral therapist. She is also a Mum to Sophie, Reuben and Teagan.
Does your child suffer from anxiety? Let us know your coping tricks in the comments.