6 ways to help your child with anxiety
It’s Alana (co-writer of this blog) here with some words about having a child with some anxiety.
I remember when I registered him, at 3 years old, in a weekly sports class. Each week they would discover and play a new sport. Naturally, I thought he would love it. And he DID love the idea of it, and that was about it. He would be excited to go, but as we drove up to the building, it was a sweaty fight to get him in the door. And then he was belligerent and the kid laying on the field refusing to participate and yelling at anyone that came near. He didn’t like them looking at him, he didn’t know what to expect and each time was different. Looking back, I can now see that he was having major anxiety.
My kind hearted and intuitive boy has always exhibited a careful demeanor. It was as though his toddler brain thought things through completely before he acted and if he couldn’t think it through, he wanted no part in it. I never thought much about it, until he started pre-school and the obviousness of his anxiety reared its ugly head. It took me by complete surprise, and I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it. He didn’t NEED pre-school, but kindergarten was just a year away, and was this something we could deal with 5 days a week, or should I just try to figure it out for 2 days a week? I decided on the later.
Let me tell you just a few ways that anxiety displays itself in my kids, and this list is probably incomplete and may or may not be similar to your child:
Anger and being mean
Shutting down (remember that kid lying in the middle of the field, or sometimes its hands over their ears)
Running and hiding (they say that some people respond to anxiety with fight or flight responses and I have seen that).
So, what has helped?
Let me preface all this by saying that I am in no way a professional at anything, and especially not in anxiety in children. What I am sharing is what happened to help us, what I found from doing my own research, and honestly a lot of what came from answers to prayers and motherly instinct, which I found to actually be backed by a lot of articles I read online (no clue who those people are, or if their studies are peer reviewed or not, but I what they said rang true with my momma heart).
1. Talking. So much talking. Like SO much talking. Honestly, not all just talking about things that made him anxious, just a lot of talking in general. I really wanted to open the door to conversations with him so that he would always want to talk and be open with me. Talking about what mattered to him, a lot about Donkey Kong and TV shows that are there on the double. I really felt like I needed him to know that whatever was important to him, was also important to me. Of course, we would also talk about HIS worries. Let me say that again - HIS worries. Projecting my own ideas of what he might be worried about could create extra worry. I try to help him identify his feelings, but not attach them to aspects of the situation and as we talk, if there were certain parts or words he keeps bringing up, that helps me to know what is wrong.
For example, there was a preschool Christmas performance and he would come home singing the songs. Then one day he declared that he wasn’t going to perform. I was not completely surprised, but I couldn’t seem to understand why. We talked about that performance a lot, and then he started talking about the risers and how his teacher said they had to stand still, or they would fall, and he was sure he was going to fall. I tried countless times to talk to him about it, but nothing I said made a difference. On the day of the performance we went with the promise that I wouldn’t make him perform, we would just check things out. When I pointed out the risers on the stage, he couldn’t believe it. “Those are risers? I think we should just call them stairs.” In his mind, he had imagined that he was going to be standing on something that rose up in the air, and he had to be completely still, or he would fall who knows how far down off of them. No wonder he was so scared.
2. Preparation. Whenever I know that something out of the ordinary is going to happen, I start to talk to him about it as far in advance as I can. I have struggled with this as sometimes I feel like if I tell him that something will be different this will cause MORE anxiety and more time for that beast to grow. Would it be better to just not tell him and then let him deal with it? Sometimes that is what we do, but usually when I know that I will be there to help him cope or ease into the activity. If it is something that I won’t be able to hold his hand through or know that I can’t give him the attention that he needs, then I try to prepare him for it. For us, this looks like telling him what I know about what is happening, the order of how it will happen, who might be there, etc.
3. Helping your child to grow. Knowing when to help him push through his anxiety and knowing when to let him sit out was initially really tough. Even now, sometimes I feel like we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. When he started school and he would be crying about going, I would be crying too because I felt mean for making him do something hard. But hard can be good. His teachers at school said that they had never noticed anything troubling behaviorally he was always happy and involved in class, it was just getting him in the door that was tough. I told myself time and time again, if it is still hard at the end of this month, then we will stop, but deep down I knew that he needed to learn to cope and that this was his time to grow and learn. We have a lot of years of school ahead and going two times a week was really the perfect opportunity to grow. The best part is that it only took about two months (8 days of school) for him to adjust to going to school.
4. Being a support. Once a year our church has a Sunday meeting where the kids sing songs and talk about their testimonies. Each child has a part that they say and, it is arguably the best and cutest Sunday of the year. I was a little worried about him and how he might deal with this situation, but, once again, he seemed to be excited about the whole thing. The Saturday before, we had a full rehearsal in front of an imaginary audience, and he did awesome. We talked about how great he did and how I couldn’t wait for the real thing. The very next day, he was starting to get anxious. And once he got to his spot, I could tell he was over it. After about 5 minutes he came and sat in the congregation. He mostly didn’t like everyone being able to see him, and he didn’t understand why he had to do it two days in a row. This was one of those times that we let him sit it out and made sure he knew that it was okay. Maybe next year he will actually perform, but maybe not, but either way, it’s okay.
5. More talking. So, once the anxiety has subsided or the event is over, I try to talk about it all with him. I help him to identify how he is feeling about it all and give him help naming the emotions he felt or is feeling, but (I am repeating myself here) try not to project what I THINK he is feeling or felt. Sometimes this includes making plans for the future, or goals for what he wants to do next time.
A few other things that helped us out along the way:
Routine. Set bedtimes, mealtimes.
Limiting screen time - this is hard, but is seriously worth the effort
Support from things you can buy, i.e. weighted blankets (we are HUGE fans of these), or books for your kids about anxiety or for you as a parent.
6. And lastly and maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to get professional help, we certainly haven’t ruled that out and are always looking into the best ways to help our kids. A great article about anxiety said it best: “It is important for teachers, parents, and caregivers to pay attention and seek help if a child exhibits any of the following characteristics:
· Exhibits some type of worry every single day
· Seems worried often about events beyond their control
· Tries to avoid particular situations or events
· Preoccupied with pleasing everyone
· Changes in behavior including clinginess or moodiness
· Development of nervous habits such as nail biting or tics
· Suddenly starts getting into trouble at school
· Obsessed with schoolwork having to be perfect
· Fears going to school
· Worries excessively about his or her own safety or the safety of loved ones
· Complains often about headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or muscles aching
· Sleep problems including insomnia or daytime sleepiness
· Wants to be near parents at all times
· Can’t concentrate on simple tasks
· Gets scared easily
· Rarely seems calm or relaxed
· Fidgets often, can’t sit still
· Frequently in a bad mood
These problems can prevent your child from completing regular daily activities. If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms and they won’t seem to go away, it’s important that you seek help from a professional.”