The Expert Parent's Guide to Childhood Anxiety

Talking to your child about anxiety: Top tips

Myth buster: Teaching a child about anxiety will GIVE them anxiety. 

One thing you have to keep in mind is that a lot of people experience anxiety or some other mental illness at some point in their lives, and they aren’t anything to be ashamed of. It is integral that your child knows that it is normal to feel anxiety, and it is possible to find positive solutions to help. 

1. Talk about some of your worries as a child and how they made you feel

This is key to helping normalise conversations relating to fear and worry. When broaching the subject of anxiety with your children, it’s important that you use words and scenarios they can relate to. 

If you speak about your experiences of worrying as a child and how you were able to use techniques to help you overcome the unhelpful thought patterns you experienced, your child will feel empowered to take on their worries too.

Pick your moment. Make sure up talk about physiological symptoms of anxiety when your child is open to the conversation. If children learn that anxiety is normal before they experience any worsening panic, they'll be more likely to seek help, because they know it's something that they can talk about: if mum and dad can talk about their how they felt as a child, so can I!

You could have a conversation about times you’ve felt scared or worried, to show your children that it is perfectly normal for worries to crop up. It is best not to expect a particular response from your child in this circumstance, you are just wanting to start making an association between strength and feelings of anxiety.  

If you see that your child is suffering, or you sense something isn't right. You could say, do you remember when I told you about me feeling that funny feeling in my tummy, and dizzy feeling, have you got these feelings? 

2. Help your child spot the difference between thoughts and feelings

It's important you help younger children distinguish between thoughts and feelings, so you can help pinpoint why exactly they're feeling a certain way. Your child might say that their thought is "I'm frightened," when in reality, this is a feeling. You can help your child discover what the thought is behind the feeling.

In this example, a real thought behind the feeling of being frightened could be - "The dog jumping up on me means he might bite me."

Find a comfortable spot to sit with your child, and talk about taking a step back. Try to help them see their thoughts as just words that are going through their mind. They are not facts, and it is normal for your brain to think about lots of things (that may or may not happen.)

3. Explain why worrying happens 

Our internal alarm system is called the Sympathetic Nervous System and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response.

With real alarm situations, (e.g. a bear hurtling towards you), the Sympathetic Nervous System helps your brain and body to communicate, allowing you to react to the danger by running to safety - or fight for your life.

The alarm system kicking into action is your body's way of trying to protect you from danger. Muscle tension, your heart rate increasing and changes in breathing when in a "fight or flight" situation is your body's way of trying to make it easier for you to run away. These changes allow for enhanced levels of oxygen in the body, which fuel the muscles and organs, making you better prepared for survival.

The Worry Cycle

Sometimes thoughts in the brain that are not based on real-life situations, or that are actually "what-if" statements in the mind can cause you to feel frightened as if something very scary is about to happen.

Your innate way to react to these scary thoughts is to go through the same motions to prepare you to fight or run away from the thought. The thought essentially caused a false alarm to be alerted in your body. 

When you worry about something that hasn't even happened yet, many of the physical changes created by the fight-or-flight system can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, stomach pain, hot or cold flashes, headaches, shakiness, and chest pain - this experience can be really scary for children. 

Helping children understand the cycle is the first step to enabling them to break it. After all, it is really hard to stop a cycle you didn't even realise was there. When a scary thought comes into the brain, there are two main things it is important to know:

1. Thoughts are not necessarily facts

2. If you think about something a lot, it is NOT more likely to happen or come true

What is Ironic Rebound?

Engaging children with research and interesting studies is a great way to approach conversations about thoughts and worries - they help children understand that children just like them will be experiencing the same thing and that the brain sometimes needs to be retrained to work a different way.

Ironic rebound or the white bear problem is a psychological process where attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.

An example is how when someone is actively trying not to think of a white bear they may actually be more likely to imagine one.

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."

— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863[3]

Essentially, you can't tell your brain to not do something. Which means that if you're anxious about something, you can't tell your brain to stop worrying about it, you will only think of it more and become more frightful of it each time. This repetitive nature almost feels like the thought is becoming more embedded in the mind and much more real. This is not the case.

A good exercise to show reflect this theory is to ask your child to think about a dog, then ask them to not think about a dog.

When you asked them the second time not to think about a dog, an image of a dog still probably popped up in their mind.

When your child worries, they'll try to a) Try to convince themselves that said event won't happen b) Avoid said event. However, by doing so, they're approaching the worry as if it is real. This means that when they think about the event again, they'll go through the same motions, and their anxiety will be heightened. 

Explaining this to your child on a simple level will help them understand that there is no benefit in trying to block out your worries, instead recall when they happen and how they make you feel.

 Afterall, worries are just strings of words in the mind!

4. It's okay to not be okay

Children can often feel an immense amount of guilt when it comes to anxiety. When they're at school and see other children looking happy, it's easy to think that they're the odd one out. Let your child know that a lot of children and adults feel funny when they think, or go to certain places, but you just can't see it.

It’s okay to be sad, and it’s okay to worry, it’s okay to have a lot of worries in your head, it’s okay to think that school is going to be bad, it’s okay to think you’re going to fail.

It's also okay to talk about every way you feel. It’s okay to talk about every thought you think. 

Now you know what anxiety is, it's important you know how to recognise the best solutions for your child's anxiety. 

Up next: Opening up: How to encourage your child to confide in you

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