Suzy Cato’s 10 tips to help reduce your child’s anxiety

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1 January 1970

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If your bundle of joy turns into a bundle of nerves, there’s lots you can do to help. Get them talking and really listen, for a start.

We all get anxious from time to time – it’s a normal, natural emotion to experience. Anxiety and worry are essential to human survival, keeping us alert and forward-thinking. The problem is that if prolonged, they put strain on our bodies and compromise our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, our tamariki are increasingly showing signs that they’re coping with excessive anxiety and worrying. It’s normal for kids to experience a little separation anxiety when parted from us, especially the first few times. Meeting new people, going to new places and trying new things can see little ones clinging to their parents’ legs like chewing gum in hair! But, ideally, with our support, they work through their feelings of anxiety to become more resilient, confident and accepting of change.

Our babes go through various stages in their development that may bring about higher states of anxiety or make them worry more. Do you remember being blindsided by the realisation that life is finite, then worrying about what would happen if you found yourself left alone in the world? It’s perfectly natural to have a sleepless night or 10 while coming to terms with these huge concepts, but usually the calming reassurance of a trusted adult will help kids process those realities.

Dealing with the challenge of changing schools and making new friends can give children one level of stress, dealing with the challenge of moving to a new house or town can take it up and notch, and the upheaval of divorce or a change in the family’s financial situation can send it off the charts. All of these things would see an adult riddled with anxiety, let alone a child, who can feel things more acutely because they’re even less in control. They often have difficulty articulating what emotions they’re feeling, and they may lack the ability to use reason to compare their previous experiences or those of others to their own, to help them find pathways to navigate these uncharted waters.

Last year’s lockdowns had us all experiencing various levels of anxiety, with all the unknown we were facing, and how we react to challenging circumstances such as these can play a part in how our children respond. Remaining calm might feel almost impossible at times, but if we can take a deep breath and take stock before we react, it lays great foundations for how our tamariki rise to their own challenges.

How we react to challenging circumstances can play a part in how our children respond

That’s not to say we should ignore our own emotions – far from it. We need to ensure we work through our concerns and ask for help when we need it.

Sometimes, we need to give ourselves a quick big hug, then give our children the long hugs they need.

1 Kids’ anxiety can present itself in myriad different ways: sleeplessness, changes in appetite, headaches, tummy aches, moodiness, clinginess, anger, frustration, tears, acting out, nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawing from others, sulking… the list goes on. If your child is too young to tell you what’s worrying them, you’ll often notice a change in their behaviour. Reassure them that everything’s going to be OK as you help them work through what’s bothering them. Once they hit their teens, anxiety can be masked by normal moody “teenage” behaviour – we’ll discuss this further below.

2 Talking is often the best thing for everyone. Ask your kids how they’re feeling. Explain that being anxious, nervous or worried from time to time is normal. Tell them you understand how they feel and that you’d like to help them work through their concerns so they can feel better again.

3 Sometimes our children’s worries can feel unfounded and trivial to us, but to them they can be monumental. Respond respectfully, the way you would to an anxious adult family member or friend, and show even more patience, as it can take a child much longer to process what’s going on for them.

4 A major cause of anxiety is uncertainty – the unknown. If your child is feeling anxious, try to provide them with as much routine and structure as possible. Instructions, timetables, plans for the day/week/ school term and a list of contact details for key people can all be very useful tools for those who get comfort from feeling as if they have some control over what’s happening in their life. If your child is anxious about a new situation, talk them through it. For example, if they’re worried about a sleepover, start with playdates. Extend the playdates until bedtime, then once they’re ready, let them stay over for as long as they can – but be ready to scoop them up and take them home halfway through the night if need be. It’s OK, and if you celebrate how far they’ve come, hopefully next time will be easier.

5 Emphasise that everything will be all right and give reasons why – in ways and with words they’ll understand. For young children, use stories, pictures and books to provide examples of children who’ve had similar concerns and worked through them.

6 With older primary and intermediate school children, try suggesting alternative ways to look at what’s making them feel anxious and giving them some options. Offer strategies they can try, and maybe role play them. Allow your child to come to their own conclusions, so the understanding belongs to them and they feel comfortable with their decisions. Remind them that the first attempt to resolve an issue might not work, and that’s fine – there’s usually more than one approach to try.

7 Don’t take it personally if your teenager isn’t keen to talk. An extended family member they’re close to, trusted family friend or school counsellor could be another effective choice for a kōrero. Or give your teen the contact numbers of helplines that are available for young adults. Several organisations offer peer support, and often knowing that someone has recently been through something similar can be of great benefit. Just remind them that you love them unconditionally and will be there for them whenever they need you.

8 There are many things you can do to ensure any anxiety in your life remains healthy and helpful. Good food, good sleep, regular exercise, self-care activities (active and relaxing) and breathing exercises that signal to your brain that you’re safe can all be effective. Plus, there are lots of apps and online resources that outline simple day-to-day activities you can implement to restore and maintain your mental health and physical wellbeing.

9 For some people, children included, anxiety can be overwhelming. In this case, it’s crucial to ask for help – for your child and yourself. Talk to their teacher so they’re on the same page as you and your child, and contact your GP, who may refer you to specialist support.

10 Remember that you and your child are never alone. Beyond your own family and community, there are numerous organisations staffed with people who are trained to work with children, teens, youth and adults who are experiencing anxiety. If it starts to feel as if the anxiety you or your loved one is experiencing is more severe than it should be, continues for a long time or is stopping them from achieving their goals, it’s time to get more support, and you won’t be the only one doing so – we’re all in this together.

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