Helping an anxious child: Cultivating emotional wellbeing in children

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In recent years there has been a noticeable rise in anxiety among children and it is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in today’s fast paced and demanding society. As caring adults whether parents, carers or educators, we have a responsibility to provide support and guidance to help anxious children navigate their sometimes difficult emotions. In this blog post we will explore effective strategies for helping an anxious child by addressing the origins of anxiety in children, how to recognise the symptoms of anxiety and provide practical interventions that can be implemented in their daily lives.

Understanding the Nature of Anxiety in Children

To effectively help an anxious child, it is crucial to comprehend the nature of anxiety and its potential causes. Anxiety in children can arise from a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental influences, traumatic experiences, and imbalanced brain chemistry. Recognising these potential origins establishes a foundation for empathetic understanding and responsive intervention.

There are several types of anxiety disorders that commonly affect children. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by excessive worry and apprehension about various aspects of life, even when there is little or no provocation. Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is marked by an intense fear of being away from their primary caregiver or loved ones. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) involves a persistent fear of social situations and the fear of being embarrassed or judged by others. Additionally, specific phobias are characterised by an irrational and overwhelming fear of specific objects or situations.

Recognising Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Anxiety often manifests in children through physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomach aches, rapid heartbeat, and difficulty sleeping while emotional symptoms may appear as persistent worry, fearfulness, and excessive sensitivity. Behavioural symptoms might include withdrawal from their usual social activities, underperforming at school and avoidance of unfamiliar situations. Being able to recognise and acknowledge these symptoms is crucial to identifying children who may be struggling with anxiety.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Creating a safe and supportive environment is the first step in helping an anxious child. Understanding that anxiety can be distressing for a child to experience allows us to cultivate an atmosphere of patience, acceptance, and understanding. Not diminishing their worries or pushing them away is key to cultivating open and honest communication with the child, as is emphasising their value and worth, and creating a routine with clear expectations which can provide stability and comfort and help to reduce anxiety levels.

Promoting Emotional Intelligence

Helping children develop emotional intelligence is essential to managing anxiety. Teaching them to identify and articulate their emotions enables them to better understand their triggers and initiating factors. There are lots of free resources on the internet to help children categorise different emotions and increase their emotional language. Encouraging the use of healthy coping mechanisms (see below) or engaging in creative outlets provide children with effective tools to manage their anxious feelings. Additionally, engaging in regular conversations about emotions and modelling positive emotional expression cultivates emotional awareness and resilience in anxious children.

Establishing Healthy Coping Strategies

Teaching anxious children effective coping strategies is vital to their emotional growth. Implementing cognitive-behavioural techniques, such as reframing negative thoughts, challenging irrational fears, and replacing them with positive and realistic thinking can assist children in reducing anxiety levels.

Simple relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, visualisation, yoga, mindfulness, meditation and Emotional Freedom Technique (Tapping) are all proven techniques to manage anxiety by reducing cortisol and encouraging nervous system regulation, grounding and present moment awareness. Many free resources can be found on YouTube as well as paid for apps such as Moshi Kids, Calm, Cosmic Kids Yoga, Headspace and Ninja Focus.

Limiting use of screens and access to social media is essential. There is much evidence to support the negative effects of screens and social media on children and teens especially in relation to their mental health. As well as issues such as cyberbullying, constant checking of phones, comparison and negative self-image, blue light emitted from phones can disrupt brain activity and sleep patterns, significantly impacting emotional stability, making them more susceptible to anxiety and stress. Reducing the amount of time spent on screens, monitoring social media usage and activity, encouraging breaks and promoting alternative hobbies, sports and spending time with friends in person are all good strategies for reducing anxiety.

Empowering an anxious child

Anxious children often feel a lack of control over their emotions and thoughts. Empowering them to know they can take charge of their anxious feelings can be highly beneficial. Encouraging children to set achievable goals and providing them with opportunities to challenge their fears in a controlled and supportive environment can boost their self-confidence and resilience. Celebrating their successes, and asking them to recall times in the past when they’ve overcome their fears, however small, helps to reinforce their ability to tackle anxiety and fosters a sense of personal agency.

Professional Support

In some instances, anxious children may require professional intervention. Consulting with mental health professionals such as child psychologists or therapists as well as speaking to school providers and support staff can provide additional tools and strategies tailored to an individual child’s needs. Utilising these resources ensures a comprehensive support network for their emotional growth.

Helping an anxious child requires patience, empathy, and a multifaceted approach. By fostering a supportive environment, promoting emotional intelligence, establishing healthy coping strategies, encouraging personal agency, and involving professionals when needed, we can empower anxious children to navigate their emotions and develop resilience. Through our commitment to their emotional wellbeing, we can provide them with the necessary tools to flourish in childhood and beyond, equipped with the knowledge and skills required to manage their anxiety and lead fulfilling lives.

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