The last three months have been really tough on everyone. Our lives have drastically changed, there is so much uncertainty around the summer and around going back to school. Our freedom to move has been compromised and with this a lot of our familiar routines have gone out the window. We know that routines protect and help children to feel safer and more secure, so it’s no surprise that anxiety in children is on the rise.
Experts are telling us that the effects of this pandemic may be seen in our children and teenagers for up to 10 years, so I think it’s really important to help them develop the skills they need to deal with anxiety when it arises and we can do that much more effectively when we speak in their language. Let me tell you a little story to demonstrate what I mean….
A couple of years ago my husband and I bought a small house in rural southern France. The first time we went to stay there, I went to the local boulangerie to buy some croissants, as you do. While I was waiting to be served, I caught the eye of an elderly gentleman standing beside me. I smiled, and in my best schoolgirl French said hello and made a comment about the beautiful weather. Bearing in mind that I left school 30 years ago, my French was far from impressive, but the gentleman smiled broadly and then started speaking to me in very rapid French, gesticulating and laughing….
I stood there with a blank expression on my face, feeling completely useless. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I muttered in French that I was sorry but I didn’t understand, so he obligingly raised his voice – now he was shouting at me in rapid French! My brain scrambled to pick up some words I understood. I tried to make sense of what he was saying but I couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t formulate a response. I felt frustrated and annoyed. I really wanted to understand and communicate with this man, but I didn’t understand the language. This is what happens when we speak to children about anxiety as if they were adults.
Recent research has shown that emotional regulation is not fully developed until the age of 25, in children’s brains the connections between the emotional part and the rational, decision making part are still developing. That’s why when children experience overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking – they weren’t thinking, so much as they were feeling. So, if we tell a child to “stop being silly”, “stop crying”, “calm down” when they are overwhelmed by big emotions, they will want to, but in that moment their brains can’t process how to do that and they will feel frustrated and annoyed…. Cue meltdown!
So, lets look at some ways we can help. The most important thing we can do is really listen and pay attention to our children. Anxiety displays in different and sometimes subtle ways in different children & age groups, so tune in. Give your child your full attention. At a time when you are both calm and relaxed ask your child what it is that is scaring them. Take their worries seriously and answer their questions…. But remember, they are children. Check in with yourself and your own stress levels. What messages are you giving your child through your behaviour and your body language? Fear feeds fear, so be mindful of that.
Just Breathe: Teach them about breathwork and how much breathing deeply can help to slow down their heart rate and slow down their racing thoughts. Some children love blowing on their thumbs – there is a pulse point there, so it slows the pulse quickly. Older children enjoy box breathing – breathe in for a count of 4, hold it for 4, breath out for 4, hold it for 4, repeat for at least 2 minutes or for as long as it takes. Counting like this inside their heads will help because this takes their attention away from the anxious thoughts. The only power anxiety has is attention, it’s just a thought, so if we can distract their attention using breathing techniques, it’s a win-win situation. There are dozens of breathing techniques, do some research and find what suits your child.
I Can’t Sleep: How many times have you heard that recently? One issue that has been coming up quite regularly in child coaching over the last number of months is problems with sleep. Our children’s routines are out of sync. They are getting up later and staying up later. Children need plenty of exercise during the day in order for their bodies to feel tired enough to sleep. If they’re not getting enough exercise during the day they will still be full of energy when it comes to bedtime so run them around as much as you can.
Manage their environment:
The evening routine is also very important ( not just for the kids! ) so ensure that they have enough time to wind down before they get into bed. Remove all screens and encourage them to read or to use guided meditations or relaxations to help them to slow their thoughts and prepare to drift off. Youtube has lots of free relaxations – Peace Out is a really good, free series of around 50 relaxations for different times and situations, kids love them. I know this because I use them at my children’s yoga classes and it’s very rare that a couple of them are not asleep at the end! Put the phone or tablet out of the reach of the child and face down, they do not need to see the screen.
When children go to bed feeling anxious, it can be difficult for them to slow down their thoughts and settle. They may develop a habit of jumping out of their beds and coming back downstairs to check that you are still there. This is because they are worrying about their security and the safety of the ones they love. One way to get around this is to take the child back to bed, tuck them in and reassure them that you will check on them in 15 minutes. It’s really important that you do, in fact check on them when you said you would, as this builds trust and reassures the child that everything is ok. After a couple of nights, you may wish to stretch out the time between visits to 20 minutes or 30 minutes but make sure you discuss this with the child and whatever you decide, remember it is vital to check on the child when you tell them you will, otherwise you are compounding their anxiety and making the situation worse .
There’s a Monster in the Corner: remove any triggers that may be creating anxiety – for instance, is there a dressing gown hanging on the wardrobe that is creating a shadow which looks like a monster in your child’s head? Take away the dressing gown and close the wardrobe. This can be terrifying for a child in the dark when their thoughts get away from them, so get rid of it.
Use a night light: A small salt lamp for example would provide a comforting glow and can increase feelings of relaxation and security. If a child wakes up and can see that everything is ok in the room they will be more likely to drift off again. This applies to all ages, not just the younger ones.
There are many other tips and tools that we, as parents, can use to offer a feeling of calm and security to our children. Join me on Wednesday June 17th for an online workshop for more advice and discussion of how to empower your child to be the boss when it comes to anxiety!
Tracey Blanchfield, The Confidence Clinic