Unfortunately, stress and anxiety seems to be increasing in children. Whether it be due to Covid-19 and events in the world around us, worries around starting a new school or overthinking daily tasks, children of all ages can feel anxious and uncertain.
Anxiety may manifest itself in ways such as avoiding situations, resisting separation from parents, complaining of tummy pain or headaches, clingy behaviour, refusing to leave home, perfectionism, sleeping poorly or mulling over issues. At school or daycare/kinder, anxiety may affect your child’s interactions with peers and educators as well as limit their ability to learn. After all, if a child is not feeling mentally safe and secure, it is unlikely they will be able to fully focus on what is being taught in the classroom. This has the potential to lead to gaps in a child’s learning, which could become a further source of anxiety.
While some degree of stress and uncertainty is normal in everyone, if it begins to impact the daily life of a child or family, you may wish to explore ways to alleviate underlying cause of the anxiety.
Here are some practical ideas to focus on:
1. Foster Emotional intelligence
In order for children to deal with ‘big’ feelings, it helps for them to be able to name them. Work on naming emotions and identifying emotions as they are being experienced. Young children can learn emotions using pictures, drawings and being encouraged to watch the facial expressions of those around them. For example, you may point out to your child that their friend is feeling ‘sad’ and you know this because you can see it in their face. Primary-school aged children can discuss scenarios that may lead to certain emotions and role play ways to handle them. Puppets, picture books and feeling cards are helpful tools to explore different emotions.
It’s important to stress to children that it is ok to feel all kinds of emotions. In addition, what is really important is for them to learn to deal with emotions in a proactive way. When a child can feel an emotion, name it and then know how to alleviate it, they will work through their emotions in a more positive way and reduce any anxiety associated with it. For example, if a child can feel angry, verbalise (to themselves or others) that they are feeling angry and decide to go for a run to lessen the anger, they are on their way to emotional self-regulation. When children have confidence that they can handle the emotions they will experience, emotions become less scary and will become less of a cause of anxiety. Adults can play an important role in this by modelling emotional intelligence. For example, if an adult is feeling worried, they can express that to their family and explain that they are going to take 5 deep breaths to help them feel calmer. Children will come to understand that everyone experiences emotions and there are ways to deal with emotions they do not like.
2. Build a positive mindset
Positive thinking can be a powerful took in alleviating mild anxiety. While it’s important to acknowledge situations and feelings that may be difficult or scary for a child, it’s also important to teach them how to find the positive aspects of life. One way to do this is to reflect on your day by asking, “what made you smile today?” or “what was your best part of today?” By discussing this together as family, emphasis is placed on happy emotions and small wins that may’ve been experienced. This is a particularly powerful routine to implement before bed as it ends the day on an optimistic/a positive note and can aid in peaceful sleep.
Similarly, families may find positive affirmations useful. By using positive affirmation cards, children’s attention can be drawn to the good things around them, or their awareness focused on a particular idea. You may wish to start the day by choosing an affirmation to focus on; for example, “I have people who love and care for me.” Selecting and discussing an affirmation will focus the mind on this idea and children will pick up on situations reflecting this throughout their day. At the end of the day, it is meaningful to take time to reflect on ways the positive affirmation was echoed in their experiences
(for example, “my teacher took time to read my story and helped me make it even better,” or, “my friend helped me to find my hat”). Alternatively, positive affirmation cards can be drawn upon in a moment of stress to fill a need. If a child is worrying about not fitting in, you may choose to display the card, “It is okay to be different to my friends.” Over time, the messages that the affirmations convey will lead to a more positive mindset, meaning children approach difficult situations with more resilience and positivity, leading to less anxiety. You may be surprised to see how quickly your child learns the affirmations and uses them independently (sometimes saying them back to you when you’re having a moment of stress!).
3. Take time out each day to relax
Between daycare/kinder/school, co-curricular activities, birthday parties, seeing friends, and family time, kids can get pretty busy! Always being on the go leaves little time for the mind to settle and thoughts to be processed, which has the potential to lead to anxiety. Incorporating relaxing activities into each day can give your child a way to destress and clear the mind. Examples of mindful activities include:
- Rice play or the use of sensory trays
- Listening to relaxing music
- Mindful colouring or drawing
- Using a calming jar
- Kids yoga (such as Cosmic Kids Yoga)
- Blowing bubbles
- Kid-friendly meditations (I recommend Smiling Mind)
- Going for a walk
- Spending time outside barefoot
- Deep breathing
- Cuddles and a book with a parent or sibling
- Writing or drawing about things they are thankful for
- Enjoying a bath (perhaps with calming oils or bath salts)
As well as encouraging children to engage in these activities, it’s also important to model your own self-care so that it is normalised and valued.
These are a few ways of assisting your child if you feel they are showing signs of anxiety. If you believe the situation is worsening or beyond what you or your child can manage, please seek professional help.
Where To Get Help Helping your child overcome anxiety issues is easier if you seek help. You can find help and support from:
Brianna is a mother & teacher and has previously held the position of Assistant Head of Student Wellbeing