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.

Image credit: Blossomedcherry.com

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.

Image credit: https://ccp.net.au/suds-thermometer/

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

https://youngminds.org.uk/

https://www.kooth.com/

Related Posts

The Impact of Bullying

Validation Isn’t Just For Parking Tickets

Too Sensitive

Main image credit: Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash


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Validation Isn’t Just For Parking Tickets

Image by Jason Rosewell @ Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted to something inappropriately – I dismissed something that my husband was feeling and I realised as soon as the words left my mouth what I had done, but by then of course it was a little late to take it back.

I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately surrounding vulnerability and validation. I think vulnerability may come up more in its own post about the subject, but validation is so very important.

And I neglected that.

A bit of background information would be helpful here… My husband has an old Mk 2 Golf that is very much a project car. We have named her Christine after the Stephen King novel as she is, lets say, high maintenance? (Although she hasn’t tried to kill me yet, so I’m taking that as a bonus 😉)

Anyway, Christine has some relatively nice alloy wheels. On this particular Saturday we had to pop out to pick up some toilet seat hinges (such a glamourous life we lead!) and also a few grocery bits. However, before we got to Screwfix, my husband had to do a three-point turn which was tighter than anticipated and he scraped the front passenger side wheel on a curb. He got out to check and it had left ‘a huge gouge’ in the paint. He was pissed off – mostly at himself, but also because of all the time and effort he has put into that car, and now something else, so easily avoided had gone wrong. It had already been a hugely stressful week, he wasn’t looking forward to fixing the toilet seat, it was hot, we were tired and hungry etc etc…

We went around to the supermarket and as we got out of the car, he came around to take another look, I also looked and… I couldn’t see anything. I was expecting ‘a huge gouge’ out of the paint. I’m not into cars in the slightest, to me it just looked like a regular alloy wheel. He pointed it out to me – a scrape along the outside edge and… well, I did the worst thing I could possibly do, I laughed.

Not in a cruel way – I wasn’t laughing at him, but in more of a relived way. I told him that it wasn’t that bad and hardly noticeable. I did the one thing that I always try not to do, I minimised his feelings, I invalidated his concern.

Of course, this did nothing to improve his mood. I tried to explain to him that my initial reaction was just relief – for him – that it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. But it was too late – the fixing of the toilet seat when we got home was punctuated with swearing and the slamming down of screwdrivers, which was completely understandable. I hadn’t heard him, I hadn’t realised that actually, it wasn’t about the wheel at all.

It was a build up of things, of worry and anxiety that had filled our week off. It was the driving to and from Bristol which had stressed him out for a number of reasons. The additional driving down to Dorset to a specialist vets appointment which was anxiety inducing, hot and once again gave no real conclusion to an ongoing concern with our dog. It was the social obligations which had taken their toll, it was the thought of going back to work after not exactly having a relaxing time off. It was the lack of decent sleep on and off for a fortnight due to stress. It was the thought that Saturday and Sunday should have just been two days to finally chill out – and now because of an error of judgement, there was something else to ‘fix’.

But… it wasn’t my job to fix this situation, and it is never our jobs to fix other people’s problems. My job – which I neglected to notice – was just to hear his frustration. To recognise it, acknowledge it and act accordingly. Because when we feel heard we feel empowered, we may not realise it at the time, but we do realise when we aren’t heard and the space that it puts us in.

I should have said sorry and bought him chocolate 😊

My husband, upon reading it to this point

However, this ‘trying to make things better’ is something that I think we have all been guilty of at some point or another. Its horrible to see someone we love and/or care for upset, angry, or frustrated so we try and do what we can to bring them out of the situation. It can also sometimes be uncomfortable for us and so we want to move past those feelings quickly so that we can get on with our day and put whatever unfortunate happening that has just occurred behind us.

Is that selfish? No, I don’t think so. I think that we all experience uncomfortable feelings – definitely in adulthood but we would have done so as children as well. We all have our own feelings about feelings – I am uncomfortable with anger for example. If I am ever angry then I don’t know how to safely hold and sit with that emotion, and if someone is angry at me or around me then I don’t know how to react, so I go very quiet, very small and just take it. But we would have all had instances in childhood where we felt strong emotions – such as anger, resentment, sadness and also the extremes at the other end of the scale such as love, generosity and giddying waves of happiness. How those feelings were reciprocated by parents and caregivers when we were at the cognitive developmental stage where we didn’t know how to express ourselves, will undoubtedly shape how we learn to deal with them as adults. This also applies to when we see someone else expressing these emotions that we struggle with – we react in the ways that we were reacted to.

With the incident with the car, I just wanted to make it better for him – but he was also angry, and I didn’t know how to deal with that and so my innate reaction was to get us both out of that situation as quickly as possible.

It didn’t work – and why would it have done? Making light of the situation wouldn’t have made the scrape in the wheel go away. We could have held hands and laughed and skipped our way into Morrisons, but his feelings of frustration and anger would have still been there. The situation that caused the discomfort wouldn’t just disappear if we ignored it.

Our feelings – whatever they may be – need to be heard. Talking about feelings, with a partner, friend, parent, child etc is such an important step in honouring our true selves and opening up those bridges of communication. If I made my husband feel silly over the car or if I repeatedly tried to distract him or judged or minimised his feelings every time something went wrong – even if its not about a subject that I am particularly knowledgeable on – then he’s going to stop communicating when he is upset, and this won’t just apply to what is happening in the garage. However, it is also important to realise that his emotions aren’t mine – I don’t have to crouch down and hold my head in my hands and get angry and frustrated at instances like the scrape in the tyre, I just need to communicate that I can see that he is upset and angry and keep the dialogue going.

Instead of laughing, I could have said something like ‘Oh dear, that must make you feel frustrated’ – and then instead of storming off into the supermarket ahead of me, he perhaps would have said ‘Yes, I had just got the car how I want it/its going to take time to fix/but its not just that…’ etc. It would have opened up the space for him to communicate and to have his feelings heard.

It isn’t dangerous to have our feelings out in the open – even the ones that can feel really difficult to express.  No bolt of lightening is going to come and strike us down if we dare to actually feel these difficult emotions and communicate with each other about them, in fact, much the opposite will happen. Learning to recognise our feelings and our emotions for what they are allows us to be more in tune with ourselves and with those around us – it allows us to communicate honestly and openly and it teaches us that our emotions – whatever they may be – are valid. In turn, this plays an important role in being able to trust our own instincts, for example if we begin to recognise fear or unease for the emotion that it is – instead of squashing it down and ignoring it because ‘it doesn’t feel very nice’ – then we become better at protecting ourselves and those around us.

I’m not there yet with anger. I can now recognise it as something that I need to be mindful of and work on – and I am very fortunate that I have some wonderful friends and a wonderful husband that are more likely to encourage me to talk about my anger when I feel it and help me unpick it, rather than try and ‘fix’ it with platitudes, but these things do take time and a lot of patience. When I have been angry in the past and I have pushed it down and tried not to feel it because I have had that belief for 34 years that ‘anger is bad’ – where has it gone? It hasn’t come out of me, no, it has stayed and whispered in my ear that what I feel doesn’t matter, that what I feel is ‘wrong’, that what I feel makes me a bad person… and do you know what other name we have for that voice? Depression.

So, encourage people to talk – those that you love, those that you care about. Let them know that it is ok to feel what they are feeling and that no emotion – however hard it may be to experience is ‘wrong’. We cannot be shining beacons of light and grace at all times; life doesn’t work like that.

In order to appreciate the light, we must also experience the dark – and the dark can look different for each any every one of us.

Philippa Perry has written about this subject in her wonderful book ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did)’ and during my most recent round of therapy, I have found this book – and some of her talks on YouTube to be highly illuminating.

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