How to Help a Child With Anxiety

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.

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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.

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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 ❤

Useful Websites

Related Posts

The Impact of Bullying

Validation Isn’t Just For Parking Tickets

Too Sensitive

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Codependency was a word that I never fully grasped; it was something I never fully understood and something that – even now – I struggle to spell!

And yet, I was it, I was it to the letter. If anyone wanted an example of what a co-dependant person looked like, they could just bring me forward, with my phone firmly planted within my hand and my attention off elsewhere, and show me off as a good and fine specimen of someone who has fallen into that trap…

I hadn’t become this way intentionally of course, I hadn’t even become this way consciously, but I had become it all the same. It had happened over years, namely with one person, but there are little glimpses and tell-tale signs with others too. However, with this one person it was powerful, it was overwhelming and it was becoming very, very damaging.

This was a person who I had never met and who I had no real intention of meeting. He was a man who I had met online years ago, our conversations had started out regarding a shared interest in mental health and we had formed a friendship of sorts. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the hard stuff with someone if you don’t have to look them in the eye… and so, we gradually opened up to each other. He told me things that he had (allegedly) not told anyone else and I listened and advised the best that I could. When I suffered dips in my mental health, I turned not only to my husband and closest friends, but also to him. He always replied, always acknowledged my feelings… and then always reciprocated with his own.  

This isn’t a writing about how a friendship turned sour though, far from it. We don’t talk now, after a very difficult conversation we decided to have some time apart and whilst I admire him in many ways and still sometimes feel like I have lost a huge pillar of strength within my life, I also know that he has to address his own problems before we could ever hope to build a healthy relationship.

I also know that I need to address mine.

Because co-dependency doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I became co-dependent because I had a need for something, something that was lacking and something that even now I struggle to identify. My over whelming desire within this friendship, was to fix; I wanted to make everything better, I could see the damage that was being done by my friends behaviours, but I could also see the things that would help him and I could see such potential – if only he would listen!

But he was listening, wasn’t he? We would have these long conversations; we would talk our way round the same situations day, after day, after day. He would ask me ‘What do I do?’ and I would reply with logic and compassion. I harnessed everything that I had learnt in therapy, everything that I had read about mental health and addiction. I would read articles online to try and improve my knowledge of the specific things he was struggling with. I would talk to my best friend – a qualified mental health nurse – and relay information, I would find song lyrics that resonated with his struggles and send him the music so he didn’t feel so alone. I would speak to him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I would engage in behaviour that was damaging to my own mental health, in order to prevent him from either a) getting what he needed in that moment from someone who was potentially dangerous for his mental health or b) hurting someone else. But this was friendship, right? This was helping him, surely?

No, and no.

I remember very clearly the moment that it all clicked. It was on a day off, so I had been at home by myself all day and, yes, talking to him via text for a good part of it. I was feeling pretty tired – this was at the end of last year, so very much still combating my own medication withdrawal and Fibromyalgia symptoms. I ran a bath, loaded up Insight Timer and I saw a talk on the homepage by Michelle Chalfant about codependency…

I led in the bath and listened to her describe the behaviour I had been exhibiting, for years. Not just ‘oh, that kind of applies’ but every, single, item on that list I could identify and relate back to something I had done. I realised that I was not ok, if he was not ok – and he, was never ok.

It was like my empathy with this man had gone into overdrive, I wanted so desperately to make everything better for him that I had completely neglected myself in the process. He hadn’t specifically asked me to, he hadn’t directly put this stipulation on our friendship that I must behave in this way or he would leave – but I kind of felt that way all the same. I am learning the reasons now why I did that, I am working through my own feelings and my own motives for that behaviour – but it’s not easy.

We carried on talking for a while after that, but something had shifted. Truthfully, I was scared, I was scared to let him go because if I didn’t have him to ‘help’, then what would my purpose be? I was also very scared that actually, he wouldn’t care. That he would just say ‘ok then’ and go and I would end up with the weight of rejection upon my shoulders. I was also scared that all of this, all of these conversations, all of this kindness, this empathy, this care that I had willingly and freely given over months and years would be for nothing.

I was scared that it made me selfish.

Co-dependency is complex. My motives for my behaviour came from a number of different places – from the need to be heard, to my need for validation and also my natural desire to help and to empathise. The times that he would say ‘yes, this makes sense’ were the glimmers of light and the behaviour he continued to exhibit that went against that very same piece of advice, extinguished those sparks. But he would learn from that for next time, right? So I kept on, persevered and tried to be a good friend. In the end it just exacerbated those ingrained feelings and beliefs of being unheard, but to me, that was familiar and so it was ‘safe’. It was known behaviour so it was comforting even though it stung like ripping off a sticking plaster each and every time. I found that I couldn’t trust him, and yet I confided in him still. I found that I got angry with him, but it felt more like being angry at a child. I found that I was sinking into his problems whilst my own screamed at me from the surface…

Letting him go would also mean I didn’t have a distraction from my own problems anymore.

Eventually, it was my decision to end contact with him. It wasn’t pre-meditated, it wasn’t a thought out ‘I am going to have this conversation and it will be resolved by X, Y and Z’. It was a row – it was an insensitive comment made by him about my husband on a day when I was feeling depressed and in pain and having to brave it out at work. It was the argument that ensued and this voice that bubbled up inside me and screamed ‘this is not ok!’.  I had been ignoring this voice, my own voice that said repeatedly, for months, ‘I am done…’ but I should have listened to her; my inner child may be small and gentle but I was doing her no favours by not hearing her – eventually she screamed, a scream of pain, a scream of frustration and a scream so powerful that my decision was made in that instant. I was done.

Afterwards, it felt worse than any romantic break up that I had ever endured. I spoke to friends about it; I spoke to my husband and my therapist about it. I meditated on it, I questioned what I had done, and I checked his social media profiles to see if he was ok… but I didn’t go back.

One thing I noticed in those first couple of weeks was how much time I had! I wasn’t tied to my phone anymore. I also noticed that my confidence improved – I wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s problems. Yeah, sure, this meant all of my problems came to the surface but I could own them now. I tried to turn some of that care and affection back onto myself – and some days I manage it, some days I don’t, but at least I am trying. It’s something that will take months, if not years because it isn’t straightforward and this type of behaviour has roots that are buried deep.

I still miss him. I still wonder how he is, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am learning the importance of boundaries and the importance of true friendship. I am learning to listen to the voice of my inner child because she knew what was up before I had even registered it. I am learning to forgive – both him and myself and I am learning that we cannot, ever fix someone else.

We can love them, we can support them, we can validate their feelings and we can send them all the articles and song lyrics in the world.

But we cannot fix them, for that is a path they must walk alone.

What I Have Learnt from 100 days of Meditation

Meditation… the blissful calming of the mind, the lotus position, straight backed and neck elongated. Breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. The calming of the turbulent thoughts, the easing of the racing mind, the chakras aligned and cleansed. The one single act that instantly transforms us from irritable, hangry, frustrated mortals into enlightened, calm and mindful beings, right?

Um, no… sorry. Wrong.

Meditation isn’t a cure all, meditation isn’t the answer to all of our problems in the western world. It isn’t a secret passageway that some people take on a shortcut to enlightenment. It is hard, it can be physically, mentally and spiritually uncomfortable. It can make you cry like a baby without even knowing why, it can leave you feeling more confused than when you first started…

But it is pretty wonderful.

I have meditated on and off for the past few years. I went through a spell a couple of years ago where I tried to meditate every day (as well as doing an hour of rigorous exercise, eating healthily, drinking my protein shakes, working full time, being sociable, trying to write and maintain a perfectly ‘balanced’ lifestyle) unfortunately… something had to give, and ironically (or perhaps not) it was that time that I dedicated purely to the benefit of my own mind and self-worth that flew out of the window first.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m sat at my desk at work, in a room where I spend 42 hours a week of my life. I am bored, I am exhausted, I am in physical pain and emotional pain. I blank out my own thoughts, fears and feelings by helping others (in particular, one other), I’m not exercising regularly, I’m not eating all that well… I am crumbling. This was last year, last summer. I wasn’t in a great place and it did all come to a head when I literally could not stop crying at work – that’s one thing when you can slip away from your desk and hide in the toilet for ten minutes, its another when you solely man reception for a company of 800+ employees.

So, for the second time in my life, I stopped. I stopped everything – work, the performance I was putting on every day. I went home, went to see my Dr, rested, talked to friends, took some time out and re-evaluated my entire life.

And it was hard. It was hard financially for a little while, it was super hard emotionally and it was hard physically as I learnt that what I was suffering from wasn’t just a recurrence of my depressive symptoms, I now had a physical condition too. My medication changed – or rather, stopped. I came off of the anti-depressants I had been on for 7 years – and let me tell you, medication withdrawal is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, if I had one. The plan was to switch to a medication that would not only treat my depression but also the Fibromyalgia that had reared its pretty nasty head. However, I am not someone who walks the easiest path, so I decided to not go on the other medication, and instead to try and find my way without it.

Let me clarify one thing here – I am not anti-medication, for anything. For mental or for physical health. I have actively encouraged others to take medication and of course, I have been on long term medication myself. I have seen and felt the benefits and I highly doubt that I would be sat here today if it wasn’t for pharmaceutical intervention earlier in my life. However, I felt I was at a crossroads and also, as a woman in her thirties, I knew that if I wanted to have children at some point, I could not do that whilst on the medication that was being prescribed for me.

I mean, I couldn’t do that if my depression symptoms were terrible either – so I picked up the prescription ‘just in case’. I decided to do a week without meds, then two, then a month…

That was 5 months ago. The meds are still in the cupboard under my stairs – if I need them, I have them, but not once have I reached for them.

And that’s not just meditation (oh yeah, lets get this writing back on track…) it’s a whole supportive network of things. It’s the vitamins and CBD I take every day, it’s the therapy I attend once a week, it’s the toxic relationship I have cut completely out of my life, it’s the different hours I’m doing at work, it’s the support of my closest friends and my husband and the snuggles I get from my dog…

But, it’s also meditation.

Ironically, it was the toxic person that I cut out of my life that suggested it to me in the first place. I know that doesn’t sound very grateful of me, but there was a lot more going on there than what it looked like on the outside and I’m sure there will be more writings about that in the near future. And I am grateful, immensely so. I thought he was fucking joking when he said to me one morning to meditate – I was in a very bad, and dark place – going through withdrawal and feeling like my world was falling apart. The thought of sitting cross legged and in silence seemed like torture, but he insisted I listened to a talk on a meditation app at least… so, I did.

I didn’t meditate regularly at all for the first few weeks. I found the odd one and put it on, half listening whilst I did something else (not always eyerolling, but sometimes) and then I listened to a talk on co-dependency, and something clicked.

I started meditating every day… sometimes for just ten minutes, sometimes for an hour. Sometimes when I woke and sometimes when I went to sleep and sometimes even both! I wasn’t entirely sure what, if anything I was getting from it, but it felt like a little glimmer of positivity in my darkest days and I was willing to grasp hold of that with both hands if I thought it would pull me through.

I listened to talks too – I listened to other people’s experiences and their journeys. If I just wanted to lie quietly, I’d listen to the sound of rain or waves crashing upon a shore and regulate my breathing. I listened in the bath, I listened in bed, rarely I listened in lotus position…

Because there is no correct way to find inner peace. For me, sitting upright hurt my back (thanks fibro) and still does on bad pain days, so I find that now I meditate best when I am lying on my bed and my mind can focus on breathing or voice, and often both, rather than being distracted by pain.

I have cried through entire meditations. I have cried even before they have fully begun! I have switched guided meditations off halfway through because they just weren’t working for me, I have found myself laughing partway though, I have found my mind wandering towards what we are having for dinner or what happened at work that day. I have meditated in the moonlight, sunlight, candlelight and pitch dark, I have meditated outdoors and in. I have meditated to past life guided mediations and I have seen myself in widows’ wares burying a child. I have fallen asleep during many meditations, I have gone for weeks where I haven’t listened to anything guided but just used gentle music or rain sounds to help me calm my breathing and get me to sleep. I have listened to meditations designed to give me more confidence, to help me connect with my inner child and to help me cut ties and find peace with people….

But I have done it every, single day.

I can’t say that I have wanted to do it every day – some days the reason I have done it is purely because I am a perfectionist and I don’t want to lose my continuous day streak! (Yes, really!) I mean – as marketing goes, it’s a pretty good incentive.

However, for what I feel I have learnt (other than perfectionism is a weirdly great motivator for inner calm) I’m not sure it can be summarised in a neat little package – but for the purpose of this writing, and because I have taken so long to get here, I will try.

I have learnt that we all need more time, we need time to just sit, and listen – and I mean really listen. I have learnt that it’s perfectly ok to take time for yourself and in fact, its more than ok, it’s vital!

Our own voice is the one we hear the most, it is in our head constantly. It’s our thoughts, it’s the way we see the world. It comes from our current form, it comes from our child selves, it comes from our family members, our friends and our ancestors – it is everything that has had a hand in creating us and it is constant. If we ignore than voice, what does it do? Does it quietly go and sit in the corner and wait until we’re a little less busy so it can have a quiet word with us?

Ha, no!

It shouts. It throws a tantrum, it knocks things over, it says things to get a rise out of us, it criticises, it makes a nuisance of itself until we are forced to pay it some attention.

And that’s what meditation does. It allows us to hear that voice within us – the child that is lost, the memories we have buried and squashed down and sat on top of for so long. It forces us to come face to face with the quiet and in the quiet, the parts of ourselves and our pasts that we fear the most. It allows us to see what is real and what matters, without the distractions that we greedily absorb day, after day, after day…

And it is, at times, terrifying. And sad, and overwhelming.

But my god, it is worth it.

Because when you see yourself, and I mean really see yourself, it triggers something within. Some primal need for understanding and authenticity. When you stop using busyness, or alcohol, or sex, or Netflix, or running, or gambling, or food, or other people to stop distracting you from yourself it is weirdly freeing and completely empowering.

I’m not saying its not hard, or that I don’t have days where all I want to do is curl up into a little ball and hide from the world – because I do. But I also know that I am working towards something bigger, something that is going to help me become a different and hopefully one day, a more enlightened version of myself. For now, I will focus on keeping my daily streak going, I will focus on learning and reading and listening and finding out more about what I have been hiding and numbing and running from  – and some days I will have the courage to face those things down, and some days I won’t, but 100 days is a start and we all have to begin somewhere.

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