Supporting A Child With Anxiety

Guest post by Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg.

It is completely natural for children to worry from time to time. As they grow up, they have to navigate many new challenges and experiences, from starting new schools and taking exams to attending birthday parties and after-school activities, so it is normal for them to occasionally feel apprehensive.

If you are concerned about the level of stress and worry that your child is experiencing, it is important for you to take the time to speak with them so that they understand what’s happening to them and why it is happening, and are also aware that they can turn to you for comfort and support.

It is also recommended that you have a good understanding of childhood anxiety, so that you are fully aware of the signs and symptoms, and understand the treatment that is available.

Signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety

Some of the symptoms that could suggest that a child has anxiety include the following:

  • Being unable to think clearly
  • Feeling sweaty
  • Quick breathing
  • Suggesting that they feel sick or have butterflies in their stomach
  • Trying to avoid doing certain things or going to certain places
  • Staying awake at night worrying
  • Wetting the bed or having bad dreams
  • Becoming irritable, tearful or clingy

Explaining anxiety to your child

Feeling anxious can be a frightening experience for a child, so it is important to explain to them what is happening. You may want to describe it to them in the following way:

If we were to see something scary, such as a tiger in the street, our brain would send a message to our body to move fast.

Our body would then pump more blood to our heart, muscles and lungs – the parts needed for moving quickly. This would cause our heart to beat faster and our breathing to quicken.

As our body focused on pumping blood to our heart, muscles and lungs, it would pay less attention to the things we didn’t need at that moment such as our stomach. This could leave us being or feeling sick, or with butterflies. With our brain and body focused on moving rather than thinking, we’d also find it difficult to concentrate in those moments.

These feelings are very important when in danger, as they make sure we react quickly. For some people, they can feel this way when a real danger isn’t present, for example, before going to a friend’s birthday party, before school or during playtime. These feelings can cause us to try and avoid places when we don’t actually need to.

During this conversation, let your child know that they can always talk to you or another parent, carer or teacher if they ever feel this way. They don’t have to struggle on their own.

You can want to use Priory’s guide on childhood anxiety when explaining this to your child, as the illustrations can help them to understand what is happening to them and why they feel this way.

Supporting an anxious child

When supporting a child with anxiety, it is important to listen carefully to find out what is causing them to worry. Is it the thought of everyone ignoring them at a birthday party or the idea of everyone laughing at them in the playground? When they tell you why they feel anxious, use this time to explain to them why they are feeling this way. Their body is made to protect them from dangers, but they are seeing dangers where they don’t exist.

Express confidence that your child will be okay. Also give them examples of times they have managed well in the past, such as making lots of friends at a party they previously went to. When anxious, a child is likely to unintentionally block out evidence that they will be okay, so it is important for you to voice this.

Also, try not to let your child avoid the situations they are anxious about. When they go and get involved, they have the opportunity to recognise that they can cope in the situation, but if they avoid the scenario, their anxiousness can be reinforced.

Seeking support and treatment for childhood anxiety

People often hope that a child’s anxiety will reduce overtime. However, it can intensify as they grow up, so it’s important to help a child get access to the right level of support.

Remember, anxiety is treatable and the earlier a child seeks treatment, the easier it can be for them to manage and recover. Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your child to get a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings. It can also provide them with a toolbox of strategies they can use to manage their worries. Family therapy can also be a good option, as it gives everyone the opportunity to work together to support the young person and help them remain well in the future.

Information provided by Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford

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