I was an anxious child. I think I had experienced little flashes of it throughout all of my childhood, but it was when I moved up to senior school that anxiety really got its teeth into me.
I was quiet, and sensitive – and sensitivity hasn’t always been seen in the most positive of lights. I would feel overwhelmed by noisy and crowded spaces, I’d like to plan ahead and I was – and still am – an overthinker and a perfectionist. We also lived in a church building, which in many aspects was wonderful, but it did make me ‘different’ amongst my peers and it did pose its own challenges with regards to the overthinking; I’d imagine the building being set alight whilst we were sleeping or someone getting in to the building during the day and hiding until my Dad did his nightly checks.
You’d think then, that when a friend asked me for advice last week regarding his daughter who is experiencing severe anxiety after moving up to secondary school, I’d be a fountain of experience and knowledge and be able to give real, practical advice, having lived through it myself… but instead, I kind of drew a bit of a blank. I empathised of course, I gave some small words of advice about what could help anyone with anxiety, but it was only when I went away and thought about it and talked to my friend who works in mental health about it that I could really come up with some actual, relevant advice.
I think that this is for two reasons, firstly, I experienced all of this anxiety in the mid-nineties. We simply did not have the knowledge or the resources to deal with children’s mental health at this point in time. My experience was very much, go to school and deal with it for 6 hours, 5 days a week. My parents tried their best to help me, but without the resources and the education there for them to access, it was at times both frustrating and agonising. Secondly, I don’t remember whole years of this time period, or rather, I remember a few standout moments from when I was 10 or 11 to when I left school at 16, the rest is very blurry and jumbled up. I was bullied throughout my time at secondary school and this has had a long-lasting effect, even to this day. Just because the memories aren’t there, doesn’t mean the feelings within my body, my reactions to certain things and the way I have learnt to process this – what I now can recognise as complex trauma – aren’t.
So, what would have helped me back then? What advice did I go back to my friend with and if you have an anxious child – whether there is bullying involved, or not – how can you help them?
Acknowledge the Anxiety
For so many years people seemed to believe that mental health issues would magically disappear if they weren’t talked about. That somehow, if we didn’t acknowledge them and the damage that they cause, that they would just go away. That talking about them was somehow indulgent and self-absorbed. I can assure you, none of this is true.
What acknowledging anxiety does, is rather wonderful, for it helps to take away some of its power. Anxiety thrives on the unknown, it feeds off of ruminating thoughts. If, as someone with anxiety, you are able to sit down with someone you trust and talk about what is worrying you then that is half the battle won, for it gets it out.
Of course, talking can be a pretty big thing in itself when anxiety has dug its claws in. How do we make it make sense? We know that it is rarely rational. That so many people will, and perhaps have, told us ‘not to be so silly’, or have brushed it off, or even laughed at us. The best thing that you can do with someone with anxiety, is just listen. Don’t judge, don’t try and fix it, just listen. Very often, within that safe space of being able to talk about it and have these words heard, we can come to our own conclusions about how to deal with what is happening, or sometimes just giving our thoughts the space to come out means we can hear them logically when they aren’t all clamouring over themselves to be heard. Philippa Perry wrote a wonderful book, which was published earlier this year entitled ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did)’ in it, she talks about how validation is so, so important. That just acknowledging what a child feels can (rather literally) work magic. Instead of brushing what a child is telling you off, a different response could be ‘I understand how that could be upsetting, what do you think would help?’ this then opens up the subject for discussion, whilst also keeping the child in control of their feelings and emotions which will, in turn, enable them to better process these ‘difficult’ feelings as they encounter them again throughout growing up and into adulthood.
Observe How the Anxiety Presents Itself
This will be different from person to person and sometimes it will manifest in different ways for the same person. Anxiety can make you feel so restless that you can’t sit still, so fearful that the only way you feel you can deal with it is to be angry, or so numb and scared that it mutes you. Dealing with difficult emotions can cause some people to overeat, and it can cause some people to not eat at all (the lump in your throat? that knot in your stomach? These are very real feelings.) Anxiety can be as much physical as it is a mental, illness.
Anxiety may keep itself at bay all weekend and only come to the surface on a Sunday night. Or, it may be more prevalent on a Saturday when the week has come to an end and our thoughts start to ruminate. Anxiety sends us into ‘fight or flight’ – giving us an adrenaline rush which can make us appear sometimes manic, fidgety or forgetful. It’s also exhausting, sometimes the safest and most desirable option is to just go to sleep and black it all out.
Anxiety isn’t always a frowning, worried look. It could be any behaviour that seems out of character or alarming, especially before a big event. However, for some (like me) just the school environment with its noise, atmosphere and constant busyness could cause anxiety.
There are some great meditations out there for children (check out Insight Timer, completely free and with a huge library of mediations, music and even stories) but sometimes sitting still could be impossible. If there is restlessness or a huge adrenaline rush – encourage exercise or get outside, go for a run or go into the woods and jump about; scream, cry, pretend to be wild animals! Getting the cortisol out, is good and will help someone with anxiety rebalance themselves and be able to gain some control over their emotions in a calmer, more manageable way.
Encourage the Flow of Words
I have never been a big talker, even in therapy, I have felt at times that I have talked ‘too much’ after talking for an hour. But still, I love words, I love reading and I love creating worlds. Encourage your child to write and then even if they can’t say the most difficult or distressing thoughts out loud, then they could at least write them down. Writing is an amazing tool; it allows us to process emotions in a calm way, which no-one else has to see if we don’t want them to. It also allows us to keep some of these feelings on paper, so that when we go back and read what we have previously written, we can see how far we have come.
If your child doesn’t like the idea of writing about themselves, encourage them to create a character. This character could be based on them and have the same fears, but this character may also find ways to overcome these fears. Or, it may just be a really good insight into your childs mind (if they are happy with you reading it). Writing may also serve as a precursor to talking about it, if we become comfortable with the language used then we are more likely to slowly become comfortable with talking about it.
Allow Your Child to Be in Control
This can be hard – so often we, as adults, just want to swoop in and make everything better. But anxiety can sometimes make you feel like you have no control, and we need to retain what we do have. A good example of this would be coming up with a plan of what your child thinks may help when their anxiety is getting worse or when it is at its peak.
You could use a 1 – 100 scale, or even various emoticons, eg 😊 all the way along to ☹ but at each point allow your child to have input as to what it feels like and what may help stop it escalating. For example, at a level 50, they may find that they are fidgety and unable to focus, but getting some fresh air and going outside may help calm them. Or at a 100 (with 100 being peak anxiety) they may be able to tell you in advance what will help, so that you can be better equipped to help them when communication is hard, or even impossible.
It’s not foolproof and sometimes it can be very hard to remember or acknowledge what we felt whilst experiencing a panic attack or complete numbness, but sitting with your child and helping them work through these stages (even if you have to adapt them as time progresses) and allowing them to make the final decision over what steps you take will help them feel they have control over what can feel like a terrifying situation. It will also give them tools that will help later in life when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions.
Be Kind to Yourself
Having a child with anxiety isn’t your fault, it doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. No-one expects you to have all the answers, its ok (and perfectly normal!) to feel angry and upset at the situations that mental illness puts us into, and just because at times you may feel helpless it does not mean that you are.
However, you do need to look after yourself. Supporting someone with anxiety can be exhausting – we all absorb energy and we all, at different levels, empathise. At times, I think we have all wished that we could bear someone else’s pain for them – but, we can’t. What we can do though, is make sure that we are strong enough to help them carry the burden of it, and that includes keeping ourselves healthy.
Never be afraid to get help from your local GP. Just because you go there presenting with a mental health issue, it doesn’t mean that they will go for medication as a first (or only) resort. There are various therapies available and, if you can, its usually wise to let the school know of the situation aswell. Very often they have procedures in place to help children suffering with emotional or mental health issues.
There are also usually support groups available for carers and those who have children who are struggling with anxiety, along with other mental health conditions. Your GP or local mental health unit will have information about these.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it’s worth noting that I am not a mental heath professional. I have lived with anxiety for the majority of my life, and whilst I have learnt of things that do help, these can take years! If you have any other suggestions regarding what may help, please do let me know in the comments ❤
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