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March 25th, 2017

How do I talk to my child about terrorism and violence?

Sadly this is a question that parents have had to ask before. The attack in Westminster this week was exactly a year after the attack in Brussels by suicide bombers. A few months earlier there had been attacks in Paris and Beirut. What has happened in London on 22nd March is a very shocking and terrible thing and we thought it might be helpful to look again at how to talk to your children about such events.

This will vary a lot depending on the age of your children and their temperament and your own values. While everyone will be appalled by what has happened there may be different aspects of it that you would want to highlight to your children.

Age

If your children are under the age of 3 then hopefully they are unaware of what is going on. I would always try to make sure that this age group are not exposed to the adult content of news programmes and the pictures on the front of the newspapers.

If they are 3-5 then I wouldn’t raise it with them unless they ask questions and then try to do it without scaring them unnecessarily. We don’t want our children to be assuming that people they see in the street are ‘terrorists’ or even ‘bad people’ and we don’t want them to be afraid to go to sleep or to go out or to be terrified of you travelling. Calmly ask them what they know and don’t add to the list of horrific facts. If you can see that they are afraid then admit that this was a shocking thing to have happened and that it is natural to feel frightened at first. You will have to find a balance, determined by your child’s nature, between not promising them they will always be completely safe which is unrealistic, and making them jump at their own shadow. We face this balancing act already when we talk to our children about ‘stranger danger’. (Although we recommend you don’t use the word ‘stranger’ so that children don’t learn to fear everyone they don’t know. Teach them about ‘tricky people’ instead.) You could try something along the lines of “sometimes people get very angry and they do very terrible things and they hurt others. They forget to use their words to sort things out. That’s why it’s very important to learn to talk about problems and not hurt anyone.” This is putting it into words that they can relate to.

This theme can be used with older children too but they may be able to handle more information about what happened and they may be seeing for themselves some of the details in the media. School aged children will probably be hearing it about it at school so it’s good to discuss it with them. Ask your aged 10+ children for their ideas about why it happened and what world leaders can do about it. What can we do about it? This is important to prevent them feeling powerless. 

Temperament

Some of you will have kids who are oblivious to what’s been going on and you’re surprised to find that they knew about the attacks at all. Others may have been asking you questions endlessly and worrying about how it happened and being tremendously concerned for the families and perhaps for themselves, given that this has happened in their own city.

This doesn’t mean that the first child doesn’t have any compassion or doesn’t care. But it is an indication of different temperaments. The more relaxed child may not be able to relate to something that is beyond his experience and understanding. The latter child is just more sensitive than the former. It’s not good or bad –it just is. And we need to adapt our approach for each temperament.

For the former you may try to raise awareness a little if it feels appropriate whereas for the highly sensitive child you may be trying to temper it a little and to help him deal with his feelings. If you’ve got both in one family you may have to help one understand the other.

It will help to name the feelings overwhelming your upset child. Don’t try to brush it under the carpet or your child will not be able to tell you about his worries in future. “You are really upset, aren’t you? These events have really worried you. You’re a person who feels things in a big way and sometimes that is lovely and sometimes it can be burdensome for you. I know you felt really sad for those families of the people who were killed. I’m glad you care. Sharing your worries makes them a bit easier to deal with.”  It may help to use some kind of ritual to acknowledge the lives of the people who have passed away such as lighting a candle. This will give your child something practical to do.

If your child is very worried that something similar could affect her own family don’t tell her there’s no need to worry but acknowledge her worries and tell her about the steps that are being taken by the authorities to protect us. Sometimes it can help for children to have a worry box. Get them to write their worries down on a piece of paper and screw the paper up into a tight ball and then put it into the box. Then put the box away somewhere (not in the child’s room) until the end of the week. At the end of the week unfold the worries and see that they have not come to pass. You can put them back in the box or throw them away –whatever the child chooses.

Values

This was of course a terribly wrong thing to do. But there is an opportunity here for us to teach our children something about difference.

There is speculation that this atrocity was inspired by the organisation calling itself Islamic State and even though they do not represent the majority of peace-loving people who practice Islam many negative words have been and will be said about Muslims. Those of us who are not Muslims can teach our children that most Muslims are good people and that they don’t need to be afraid of anyone wearing a hijab or otherwise looking a bit ‘foreign’. We can teach our older children that the aim of organisations like IS is to make us afraid and to stir up dissension between faiths and that is exactly what leads to conflict. Encourage them not to give these bullies the satisfaction. Tell them that you will be going about your daily lives and will not alter what you do because you are not afraid and that you will be kind to any Muslim person you see who must be feeling very uncomfortable.

If your children have Muslim friends say to them “Ahmed is not a killer is he?”  If you meet a person wearing Muslim dress smile at them and tell your children why you’re making a point of that right now.

If you are a Muslim parent you may be feeling anxious for yourself and for your children. You may be feeling very angry about what is being in done in the name of your religion and tarnishing you in the process. You may have experienced prejudice. You may be clear what to say to your child about these events but wonder how to explain bigotry. It must be very difficult to explain to your child that others may judge and treat him unfairly because of his religion. I can’t tell you exactly what to say but I would acknowledge his pain and fear.

Whatever our faith, colour, physical abilities, social standing or level of education we can teach our children to respect themselves and others by how we interact with them and others. We can teach them not to fear difference or the unfamiliar by our modelling and by exposing them to different experiences and people.

Fear comes from lack of understanding and from feeling powerless. We can help our children to see that they can make a difference by taking small steps to build trust between different peoples. Taking positive action to address these problems and make the world a better place helps empower kids. When people of minority groups feel a sense of belonging in their community they will have no reason to act out their disaffection and they can feel accepted enough to speak out against prejudice. Whether Muslim or non-Muslim talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against intolerance. Talk to them about how this may be difficult to do if their friends are bad-mouthing Muslims. Practice with them how to say something like “I don’t believe that.”

This was a terrible thing to happen but perhaps out if it will come a generation committed to not fearing people who are different and to talking through problems. This may be a learning process for you too if you’ve grown up in an environment with little exposure to difference races or faiths. Let your children know that you are expanding your own horizons!

 

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December 02nd, 2016

Handling anxiety around the 11+

As many parents and children head into the last weeks before 11+ exams, final preparations begin. There is a long list of things to check before the day itself – test papers completed, tick, clear pencil case purchased, tick, arrival time and travel plans checked, tick, arrangements for siblings made, tick, nutritious breakfast and early night planned, tick….. 

Even with all your preparations, your child will probably still get anxious. This is the real thing; they have not done it before, they know it matters and they may well have picked up that you are nervous. They probably also know that getting nervous won’t help them. 

You might take your child aside for a quiet word….. “There’s no need to be nervous, everything is going to be fine, and you just need to breathe and stay calm so you can do your best”

This kind and practical advice might be reassuring. As the tummy flutters start you remember what Mum or Dad said, and you breathe and maybe it all settles down…. 

Maybe. 

But hearing that you need to manage your nerves is not the same as being able to manage your nerves. Managing anxiety is a really important life-skill, and it takes more than a few minutes of pep talk…… 

We need to directly approach our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But it will help them if we say things like “I imagine as the exam gets nearer you may well be getting nervous, perhaps it is rumbling away and you’re not sure what to do about it” or “Maybe you’re scared about feeling scared about the exam, even though you have worked so hard on all those tests.” 

Despite lots of practical and also emotional preparation, my son was overwhelmed by nerves on the morning on his 13+ exam. He turned as white as a sheet as we arrived at school, his eyes filled with tears, and he started shaking his head…. I so wanted to take these feelings away, I wanted him to feel better – not just for himself and for me, but for the results! I had to dig really deep to say “This is a very tricky moment, you have worked really hard and kept yourself very calm, and now it’s a few minutes away and the nerves have hit you hard and fast and big. Perhaps they have caught you by surprise and that is really tough….” This gave my son a moment to feel OK about not feeling OK, and I saw him trying to pull himself together, and I put my hand on his shoulder. We stood there for a few minutes, and then he dashed into the cloakroom to splash his face. And then he walked off to the exam hall. 

The truth is anxiety is already present in our homes – so we’re not going to introduce it or make it worse by talking about it.  In fact, when we NAME IT we have a chance to TAME IT. 

Let’s give our children a chance to recognise and acknowledge their nerves, by identifying them and then supporting them to work their way through their feelings. We may still give the advice about breathing, but we approach it in a different way. 

We can teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways. 

First, we can model our own approach to nerves– verbalise how you feel when you’re doing something new or difficult or important,  and show them how you handle this. (“I am so excited about driving Dad’s new car, and I am also worried. I think I need to get to know where everything is before I turn the engine on, and then maybe I should do a practice run around the block before we set off to Grandma’s house.” 

Be open about the benefits of anxiety.  Any performer will tell you that those tingling and jangling adrenaline-fuelled nerves are what can propel you further, keep you going and take to you to new heights – if you welcome and harness them. No nerves? That’s just not true. 

Discuss how nervousness feels – can we visualise or describe nerves?

When I asked my sons, I was astonished how clearly they could express their fear! One son said he feels cold and wants to stay very still; he described it as feeling blue and fragile, like glass. My other son described his anxiety as red and bubbling and it makes him want to run. 

And what are the early warning signals that things are building inside you? I realise now that I’m concerned about something when my fingers start twitching and I can’t settle to one task.  Ask where in their body do they feel the nerves? Tummy, head, arms or legs? 

We can refer to other people – it’s not just them. How does Tom Daley feel standing on tip toes at the end of a 10m diving board? They may look completely calm and relaxed – how do we think they manage it? 

Talk about various calming techniques that may work for them. They may need a different one to those that work for us. Some well-known options are breathing, visualizing a serene and happy place, or a balloon floating into the distance, or maybe they need to sing or talk to themselves, or have a mad dance around the house to release tension? Whichever one catches their imagination, give it a go and practice it, often. 

Obviously doing mad dances or tapping fingers or feet in the exam hall isn’t going to be an option, so it’s likely they will need some alternative calming techniques. (My son takes blu-tak into exams, he squishes it between his fingers in his pocket. )

The trick is to use these techniques early enough – hence the need to spot early warning signs. 

So, just as with revision preparations, emotional preparations will help your child deal with exam nerves but also with anxiety generally.

 

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November 15th, 2016

Trump Election shock

Many people were shocked and some were dismayed by Donald Trump’s election as president of the USA last week. But unless you live in America you may not have expected it to have had much impact on your children. I was somewhat taken aback when one of the 13 year old participants on the behavioural change programme I facilitate in Sydney anxiously asked me if I thought we’d go to war now Trump was going to be president. I also heard an account on the radio of principals calling special assemblies in primary schools to assuage children’s fears.

Some parents will have real fears themselves around the election of a man whose campaign was characterised by vitriolic hate-filled statements directed against women, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, his opponent, the media and anyone who disagrees with him. The few policies he identified were inward-looking, protectionist and xenophobic. His utterances seemed impulsive, self-focused and lacking compassion for any other. So it’s not surprising that many worry that this man will be in a position of immense power from January 2017. I personally am very concerned at the display of such bullying tactics and the normalising of a hate and blame-filled discourse, not to mention his vulgar sexualised messages about women, judging them primarily on appearance.

If adults have these concerns then their children will pick up on the vibe of anxiety and may hear things that they don’t fully understand. They will draw their own conclusions if we do not explain to them what is going on and what we think will happen in a calm way, in words they can understand according to their age.

Some children will have been just getting on with their lives and may not have been really aware of the adult interest in politics but may now be hearing things at school.

Even if you think Trump may be the breath of fresh air that the US needs and embrace his policies there will probably have been aspects of his behaviour that you find distasteful. If your children have become aware of this it could be a great opportunity to communicate your values to them.

The family is the source of your child’s values. They see how you treat others, how you disagree with others and how you resolve disputes, how you listen to other opinions. Your rules will count for a lot as they are a statement about your values, a guide to what is expected and acceptable behaviour. But it’s what they see modelled that counts for most. They will see whether in this family we give everyone a say, whether everyone is treated respectfully. They will observe whether people who are different from them are regarded with fear and disrespect or interest, an attempt to understand and enjoy. If we treat our partners or our children with ridicule, treating them to put downs or sarcasm, or bullying tactics then our children will learn that that is how to behave. Whenever we discipline our children they take away from that interaction “this is how you deal with things that you don’t like.”

When someone in the public eye behaves in a way or makes statements that are contrary to our values we need to let our children know that we disagree with that stance or conduct without putting down that public figure.

About this time last year sadly we wrote about addressing children’s worries in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut tragedies. Click here for our blog.  Here are some other ideas about addressing your child’s worries and teaching values:

  • Listen first. Your children may be anxious about what they hear or see on TV and online.  They may have questions.   Answer questions simply and honestly.
  • Ask them what they’ve heard and what they think about it. "What do you think of that?" "Do you agree or disagree with what was said?" "How did you feel when that happened?" "What do you think should be done?" "Is there anything you would like to do?" Your questions show that you respect their thoughts and feelings.
  • Give your point of view. If your children are young you don’t have to include all your adult perspectives but do be honest with them. When you don't tell the truth, they imagine much worse.
  • Young children are egocentric and are focused on how situations affect them. If they show signs of worry or upset, reassure them you will keep them safe. It is not your job to take away worries, fears, and anxiety. That is impossible. Your job is to be there and offer comfort, and to help your child process their worries.
  • Young children have a hard time understanding that someone can have both positive and negative qualities. Explain that you might not approve of certain words and behaviours of Mr. Trump, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have other good qualities.
  • With older children this is an opportunity to explain how the democratic processes work. Sufficient people believed in Trump’s ideas to elect him and we need to respect the choice of the people just as in Britain many who didn’t want to leave the European Union had to accept Brexit. Ask their opinions, including why so many people wanted Trump to be president. Don’t denigrate those electors and their choice. How about saying something like:
  • “This is a really surprising outcome.  I never expected it either.”
  • “It’s ok to be sad or scared.  What’s important, though, is that we always stay true to what is important to us.”
  • “I’m shocked too.  We have to trust that this is a man who really feels that he can do a lot of good for his country and will respect old alliances. We have to believe that he doesn’t want to stir up trouble in our region.”
  • “He hasn’t been a kind man during his campaign.  Let’s hope he now understands that to do this job he has to be respectful and collaborative.”
  • “It’s always important to talk about the things that scare us and to know that there are many people that care the same way you do.”

 

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August 31st, 2016

Helping your child with Change

Children often have difficulties coping with change. These could be everyday minor transitions such as moving from one task to another (such as packing up toys and coming to have a meal) or from one environment to another (such as home to school) or even from one person to another (parent goes out leaving a babysitter in charge). Moving from holiday mode to term time routines involves change and at the beginning of the school year additional change as children move up a year or move schools or even start school for the first time. 

Whatever the change children often need help dealing with a multitude of feelings which they frequently don’t understand. Their discomfort may be reflected in withdrawn, sulky, regressive behaviours or ‘testing’ behaviour. Or they may get physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, eczema, stomach cramps. 

Some children have more trouble with changes than others, depending on their temperament. Does your child really thrive on routine and need warnings of changes in routines? If they are flexible that’s great but if they’re not try to see this trait as stability and organisation. 

Preparing for change: 

Children, like all of us, find it easier to succeed/cope when well prepared, even if what we’re asking them to do is different or a challenge. 

Where there is change what is familiar and safe disappears and the future feels uncertain. Since there is a lot of fear in the unknown parents can help by talking a lot about the change, helping the child understand what is happening and making it more familiar. 

If your child is starting a new school (perhaps for the first time) you can help familiarise them with the new school by:

  • Visiting the school and viewing areas that will affect your child more than once, eg classroom, toilets, playground, etc
  • If you live close by go past ‘their’ school frequently. If not get a picture (off the website) and put it on the fridge or somewhere prominent. Look at pictures of the school and school life on the website.
  • Meet the teacher
  • If possible get to know some of the local kids going to the school-ask the school to let them know you’re interested in meeting up. 

For kids starting ‘big’ school:

  • Get the uniform and any other kit well in advance and practice putting it on/using it
  • Play ‘schools’ with your children so that they get used to the idea of sitting quietly on the mat or at tables, putting up their hands, forming lines –give lots of stickers for good behaviour
  • Practice essential skills for school like going to the toilet without help, using scissors, being able to read their name, sharing
  • Read books about starting school. 

Prepare by talking about common concerns:

    • Will the teacher like me?
    • Will the other children like me?
    • Will I be able to do what’s asked of me?
    • How will I know what to do?
    • What if I get lost?
    • What if I need to go to the loo?
    • I don’t like the look of the toilet block.
    • I don’t like the food at lunchtime.
    • How will I remember where to put my things? 

Emotion coaching

To be effective and helpful to our children we need to be able to look beyond behaviour which may be annoying or downright difficult to its causes -usually feelings of some kind – and help the child to deal with those feelings. We can help our children to express themselves in words. This results in better behaviour and a strong connection between parent and child. 

Emotion coaching isn’t about ‘making it better’ or making the child’s feelings go away. Instead it is about recognising, understanding and accepting their feelings and making sure the child knows it is ok to have them. It’s important that feelings don’t get suppressed or they may emerge later in behaviour or physical problems. 

Children often feel things much more intensely than adults as they don’t yet have the experience to gain some perspective on a particular situation. They usually need help to express in words how they feel and help dealing with them. 

The following behaviours indicate that a child is experiencing powerful feelings.

  • Appearing withdrawn or sulky
  • Refusing to do what s/he’s been asked to do
  • Being silent when spoken to, refusing to join in the group, talking back, using a disrespectful tone of voice, slamming doors, crying, hitting someone, throwing things or damaging property.
  • Mean-spirited behaviour with a sibling
  • Body language, eg no eye contact, clenched fists, hunched shoulders.  

Emotion coaching: 

Stop what you are doing and convey with your body language that you are listening.  Convey that you have the time and interest to listen to your child. You might sit close to him, cuddling him, maybe making eye contact if it is appropriate.  Some children will find it easier to talk when they’re doing an activity alongside you or when the lighting is low. Use empathetic noises, such as ‘umm’ or ‘I see’. 

Take time to look for the feeling behind your child’s action or words and imagine how he is feeling, reflect it back to him in words. Give your child the sense that this is manageable, that it has a name, it is recognised, that you’ve had that feeling too. 

Give wishes in fantasy Giving your child her wishes in fantasy shows you understand how she feels without suggesting that the fantasy is really possible. 

Don’t try to make it better children don’t need protection from feelings of sadness – they need to be able to express it. 

“You might be wishing you didn’t have to change schools.  I guess you feel sad about leaving your friends and teachers.  Maybe you are worried you won’t know anyone and you won’t make friends quickly.  You might miss your old school for a while and that is really normal”. 

To ensure good communication the adults must make opportunities to talk. Sometimes these come up when you least expect it and they may not be at very convenient moments. Your child may open up at bedtime or something may come up as you’re trying to get them to school or the childminder. You can invite opportunities for conversation through reading books, playing fantasy games or doing an activity together. 

Get your child off to a good start this year by understanding what’s going on for them.

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May 23rd, 2016

Preparing for exam season

While many of us are looking forward to half term, some families will be trying to combine having some fun with preparing for exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without adding to their stress? 

We all know that to ‘make a revision schedule and stick to it’ is a good idea in theory, but HOW can we do it in practice? What’s the right amount of revision? Too much, too little - how do we get the balance right? Our attempts to motivate them so easily slip into bribes and can also feel manipulative, so what can we say and do that will encourage our children to persevere and feel confident they can do what is required?  On exam day what will matter is to be organised, and to manage anxiety. Giving lots of encouragement through Descriptive Praise will be very important but below are three other ideas that we know will help, but aren’t usually mentioned. 

LET them do it their way and have a choice

And this doesn’t mean doing NO revision! Let your child revise his way rather than insisting he does it your way. Most children find it very hard to sit still and simply regurgitate facts and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful and not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – it doesn’t matter if these are wacky and not very serious. They just need to be memorable to your child. She remembers things differently to the way you do. 

DESCRIBE how they feel – name it to tame it!

This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some anxiety, and maybe poor behaviour.

Our instinctive reaction is to reassure and try to push them through to feeling better about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be fine soon, it will all work out” or “You poor thing, this is just awful and unfair” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, it’s just a test, you need to toughen up and get your head down, getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”

Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. For example: “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe you’re scared about what will happen after you’ve tried your best….”

This doesn’t make them feel worse, or feel anything they don’t already feel, but it does make them feel connected and understood. This in itself is calming. Take care not to add “but….” afterwards because this undoes everything you’ve said so far. It’s usually best to keep quiet and hear how they respond.

And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t usually make children perform better. 

UNDERSTAND their reluctance

We can understand how they feel about revising, and still require that they do it. But we need to understand why they don’t want to do it – we often start with the assumption they are lazy, not taking it seriously, etc, and when we approach it this way, it ends up negative and confrontational. And ineffective!

Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and they want to please us, though sometimes it may not seem that way!

If they start to believe they can’t succeed, and that we are not happy with them, they pull back from trying. Some children will bluster this out and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put in much effort.

Our best approach is to face this head on. So, try “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full, and not know whether you will achieve what you hope for. It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows the more you make it struggle with things.”  This isn’t the time to go on to lecture about how this is how life works, and they have to learn to knuckle down and get on with things…..

Their real concerns don’t come out with direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment in the question that they are wrong to be worried etc.  Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be working as they are.

Make sure they do have some down time.

Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe get them a joke book. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too…. 2 joke books. 

How does your child react to stressful situations? What do you do to inject calm? Let us know your thoughts.

 

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February 08th, 2016

Childhood Anxiety

Anxieties are very much on the rise in children and young people. 2.2% or about 96,000 children in the UK have an anxiety disorder.[ref:http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics]

Normal worries

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, a worry or fear. Children can be fearful of many things, some of them imaginary and many of them irrational. It can be hard for an adult to understand their fears.Many worries are a normal part of growing up.

0-2 years – infants and toddlers are often afraid of loud noises, strangers, separation and large objects

It’s very common for young children to experience separation anxiety from about 8 months. They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This normal stage of development tends to ease off at around age two to three.  

3-6 years – young children are frequently afraid of imaginary things such as monsters, the dark, sleeping alone and strange noises

It’s also common for pre-school children to develop specific fears or phobias of certain animals, insects, storms, heights, water, and blood. These fears usually go away gradually on their own. Gentle gradual exposure to the feared object can help.

7-16 years – older children have more realistic fears such as injury or illness, death and natural disasters, school performance and their future, social anxiety, identity and belonging.

Throughout a child’s life there will be times when they feel anxiety. 

What makes a child anxious?

  • Some children are more prone to worries and anxiety than others.
  • Playing certain computer games can trigger adrenaline rushes which may not get burned off if the child doesn’t get out and move around.
  • Children often find change difficult and may become anxious following a house move or when starting a new school or even if parents are using very inconsistent parenting approaches.
  • Children who have had a traumatic experience, such as a car accident or house fire, may suffer with anxiety afterwards. Some children who experience stress at an early age remain with elevated stress levels.
  • Family arguments and conflict can also leave children feeling insecure and anxious.
  • School can be a very anxious place for some, especially those who find school work difficult or social life tricky.
  • Sleep deprivation is a cause as well as a symptom of anxiety.
  • Parental anxiety plays a big role in a child’s worries.

When is anxiety a problem for children?

Sometimes anxieties are very big, very frequent and very consuming.

Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their day-to-day life. Example: a 10 year old girl who is so afraid of being on her own that she won’t sleep in her own room but sleeps in her parents’ room. This is obviously disruptive to both her parents and her.

Paul Stallard, Professor of Child and Family Mental Health at the University of Bath says “If you go into any school at exam time all the kids will be anxious but some may be so anxious that they don’t get into school that morning…. Some will sit in an exam and their mind freezes and they can’t get anything down on paper. This is when anxiety starts to interfere with what children need to do or would like to do in everyday life.”

Severe anxiety can affect children’s self-esteem. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious. Anxiety disorders that start in childhood often persist into the teenage years and early adulthood. Teenagers with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop clinical depression, misuse drugs and feel suicidal.

This is why you should get help as soon as you realise it's a problem.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

When young children feel anxious, they cannot usually understand or express what they are feeling. They may become irritable, angry, tearful, clingy, withdrawn or have difficulty sleeping, waking in the night, wetting the bed or having bad dreams. They may start or revert to thumb-sucking, tics or stammers, hair pulling or nail biting. They may experience eczema or headaches or stomach aches. They may engage in ritualistic, repetitive or obsessive behaviours. They may ask many, many questions, not because they really want the answers but because they’re seeking connection.

Older children may:

  • lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges and may avoid everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • have problems with sleeping or eating
  • be prone to angry outbursts
  • talk about their negative thoughts or the bad things that are going to happen
  • engage in comfort eating

What can parents do?

It doesn’t work to tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, not to be worried or to pull themselves together.

Emotion Coaching

This helps children cope with their uncomfortable feelings, to understand them, be able to verbalise them and to find ways to manage them or alleviate them. Emotion coaches recognise and respect children’s feelings and reflect back to the child what they are experiencing. Giving the emotion a label helps the child to manage it. Name it to tame it.

When your 3 year old won’t go to bed because she’s afraid of monsters don’t say “don’t worry about it” or “don’t be silly-monsters aren’t real.” This will not work. You could say something like “even though monsters aren’t real they can feel very real in the middle of the night. I can see how frightened it has made you feel because you’re crying.  This won’t dismiss her feelings but nor does it suggest that there is actually something for her to be afraid of. Sometimes it can work to get her to shrink the monster or give him a funny face. Some families will work with magic ‘talismans’ that can ‘magic’ away monsters –these can be any object that can be invested with magic properties. 

Alicia Eaton (Words That Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything by Alicia Eaton) suggests using a worry box. She describes worries as emotional messages that our minds send us to take care of us. This is ok where you can take action about the worry such as revising more for an exam. But it’s a problem if there’s nothing you can do. To make the message go away we need to acknowledge receipt –trick the mind into believing action has been taken. Get your child to write down or draw their worry, fold up the paper and put it in a box. Keep the box out of sight, not under their bed. At the end of the week review the worries-most will have taken care of themselves or won’t have materialised. Acknowledge that they didn’t occur without saying “see I told you there was no need to worry.” The child can then decide if they want to put the worry back into the box or throw it away.

Prepare
You can help by preparing children in advance for new situations; talk through what’s going to happen and maybe practice in role play.

Build confidence
Encourage children to feel capable by giving credible descriptive praise for the strategies they use to cope with life. “I like the way you tried again when your first attempt didn’t work. Looks like you’ve found a solution.” Do this all the time. Give them lots of opportunities to be independent and support them by training in small steps. Make your focus be less on results and more on effort and tactics used. Don’t ask ‘did you win?’ when they’ve played a match. When kids think all their parents care about is results they get very anxious.

Failure
When kids make mistakes or fail let them know that mistakes and struggles are a normal part of learning and an indication that their brains are growing. Model an attitude of ‘what can I learn from this?’

Consider environmental factors
Food –can affect stress levels and create mood swings, especially toxins like caffeine and sugar

  1. Exercise –regular exercise soaks up excess adrenaline and releases endorphins
  2. Laughter –do a lot of it
  3. Relaxation –teach your child relaxation and breathing techniques

If you think your child is suffering from greater than normal levels of anxiety consult your GP.

 

 

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