The majority of calls I get nowadays are from parents worried about their child or teens’ anxiety – probably 9 out of 10 cases I see, are anxiety related. It’s off the scale how much this crippling thing called anxiety is stopping our kids living a normal life. Why is this? I know one mother who often says to me ‘Is it the social media?’ However I don’t think it is. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think it helps the situation; as kids become teenagers, and see all those ‘perfect photos’, have unrealistic expectations of themselves, or feel excluded. However, I have kids as young as 6 and 7 coming to me with anxiety – they are not on social media. You may ask what would a 6 or 7 year old have to worry about? Well everything and anything; it can be the scary faces they see at night from the shadows in their room, separation anxiety leaving Mum at the school gates, social anxiety – that fear of not knowing anyone or not having anyone to talk to.. there is no one thing. Everyone has their own stuff.
The problem with anxiety is if we don’t teach our kids some coping tools, then it can get worse and worse. I currently know of about 3 teenagers who won’t go into school due to anxiety, they’re all different – have different issues, go to different schools and have different levels of motivation to help themselves. Some teenagers can’t get out of the car or make the journey to talk to me because the anxiety takes over. I know this is only a very small tip of the iceberg. So while I don’t know why anxiety seems to be endemic among our kids and teens, I do have a few tips below for coping with it.
Halloween is a fantastic fun holiday, and I’ve really grown to love it as my kids are growing up… we have gone all out this year with a few proper decorations. However, I had to be careful what I bought because I think some of the stuff on sale is terrifying, and I find this time of year can bring up some issues for kids. I think around the age of 7/8 (sometimes younger) kids can start to get very scared of things. They remember something very scary – a movie, a costume, a story, a fece, whatever it may be… and they re-live it over and over in their heads at night time (which is one of the worst times for anxiety and worry because we have no distractions, and all night to think and over think!) So then they find more things to be scared of, their imaginations run riot. They remember watching ‘The News’ or hearing bad things that have really happened… I’ve had more than a dozen kids tell me about real news stories, that have stayed with them – Madeleine McCann, Break ins, House fires, missing planes, escaped pedophiles! Sure it’s enough to give us adults anxiety, never mind being a young child.
Anyway, enough of the doom and gloom, how can we teach our kids to cope:
Helping kids cope with Anxiety:
- FEARS: We have to remind them that it’s our job (the parents job) to keep them safe and they have to remember to trust us. Even as we start to let go and give them independence, they will only be allowed to do the things that we decide are safe for them to try (and only if they stick to our rules).
- FEEDING THE MIND -We have to remember that kids can become great at listening in (ear wigging) at adults conversations and the news. Be careful with young children around what you are feeding their minds with – especially if they are prone to worry. Its also always a good idea to let them wind down, and switch off all screens at least an hour before bed time and do something else like playing, reading or drawing. Monitor what they are up to on the internet of course too.
- REAL / NOT REAL – Make a list of all the things that they worry about and then divide it up into what is real and not real. For example in relation to scary things; monsters, werewolves, witches, killer clowns, zombies are all fake and made up.. whereas there are criminals who will break in and rob houses etc. Once you have the list – you have to come up with what you want your child to remind themselves of, for example: ‘its not real’ or ‘Mum and Dad always keep me safe’.
- AWARENESS – Our inner talk is the key to breaking the anxiety. Most people know what its like to get caught up in a loop of worry.. going around in our head. As soon as we are aware of what we are telling ourselves or thinking (I call it catching the thought)… then we can separate ourselves from it, then we are on our way to helping ourselves. Its all about self awareness.
- UNDERSTANDING IT: FLIGHT OR FREIGHT – The feelings that come from anxiety are due to the adrenaline (and other stress hormones) we get from a flight or freight situation. We used to find ourselves in situations a long time ago, where we had to face predictors entering our caves to attack or eat us, so the adrenaline gave us the ability to run for our lives or fight, but we still have the same response to things that we fear. We often want to run away or just get out of the situation. The fighting part is no longer socially acceptable or the right response. But we’re left with these feelings of restlessness or agitation.
- DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS – There is no one answer that will help everyone who suffers from anxiety. We are all different with different experiences of life. We have to figure out what works best for us or our kids. Some people need to practice mindfulness and staying in the moment instead of allowing our minds go into the anxious thoughts. Others like to work on deep breathing, something like counting deep breaths can be very helpful because it calms us down and distracts us. Some need to move or take physical action to rid themselves of the restlessness.
- CHANGING – The most important thing is that the person suffering from anxiety wants to change and feel better – I often tell parents this is more than half the battle. The inner talk as mentioned above is the key because it can help us to get in control before all those hormones and feelings are released – it sounds very simple but its about replacing the negative with the positive. For example moving from saying to yourself ‘I hate school.. I don’t want to go’…. to realizing what you’re thinking or saying to yourself. Try to find an affirmation that resonates with the child (they have to come up with it themselves), which they replace the old one with – such as ‘I enjoy seeing my friends in school’. Or with the example above of having fears or night terrors the child has to move from saying ‘There’s something in my room, its going to get me’ to ‘Mum and Dad love me, I trust them to keep me safe’. Generally talking it through with an outsider is the best way to help them to move towards having coping strategies. It’s very hard to do all this as a parent – we are so close to the child and situation and (as we know too well) they also don’t always listen.
- KEEP TRYING – Teach your child or teen to keep trying and trying…. keep working on it. Find what works best. It’s like a bad habit that needs to be broken, you only fail if you give up. Teenage years are fraught with what others think of you, the peers of a teenagers become their world. Worse again this starts in the pre-teen years (you can see it creeping in with the Halloween costume choices and face paint!). If you teach them to catch those thoughts and start to tell themselves that their own opinions are the most important ones of all. It’s hard but we have to keep trying…
I hope this helps some of you and your children to realize that we can control our anxiety.
Also I hope you all have a fantastic Halloween and Mid Term Break.
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Caoimhe is a Child and Teen Life Coach and Founder of The Confidence Clinic.
Call: + (353)833425364