Helping Children cope with worry and anxiety

Children can feel anxious in these challenging and uncertain times. And is it any wonder when  they hear adults around them and on the news talking about the virus, deaths, etc.? Not to mention that for the majority of children, their external reality has also changed. Kids all over the country have to wear masks at school and when they go into shops, they see their favourite places shut, etc. So it’s a scary time for children, but fortunately there are steps we can take as parents and techniques we can use to help our kids cope with feelings of worry and anxiety.

Sometimes there’s an obvious source for their worries, like the current pandemic, and sometimes there seems to be no reason at all. And although it can be upsetting for us parents as we watch our children struggling to deal with strong or difficult emotions, it’s important to remember that such feelings are a healthy and normal part of their emotional development and that every parent will experience this with their children at some point.

So if your child is going through a phase of feeling anxious and worried, try not to start worrying yourself! (Although this can be easier said than done) It isn’t a sign that you’ve done anything wrong as a parent – feelings of worry and anxiety are a natural and essential part of our children’s emotional development. The key is in how we talk to children about their emotions, as this has a significant influence on their ability to cope with them, both in the short and longer term So if your child seems to be worried or anxious about something, here are our top tips for how best to approach the situation:

1. Connect with them and help them name their feelings

In order to encourage our children to open up to us so that we can start to help them work through their feelings of worry and anxiety, we first need to connect with them. To do this, it’s important to get down to their level and use a soft tone of voice so they don’t feel intimidated, and acknowledge and name what they seem to be feeling.

Kids often struggle to understand, acknowledge or explain their feelings, so we can help them by trying to read their body language and non-verbal cues. Not only does this make them feel validated and accepted, but by helping them put a name to what they are feeling we are enabling them to ‘own’ their emotions and therefore control them. Renowned neuroscientist Dan Siegel, calls this: ‘Name it to tame it’. For example, “You seem to be worried/upset and I’m here if you want to talk about anything.” 

And if it feels appropriate in the situation, give them a hug. A hug is one of the most effective ways of redirecting a child’s emotions because studies show that when we hug someone, this stimulates the brain’s production of oxytocin (also called the ‘love hormone’), dopamine and serotonin, which help to reduce stress and promotes a feeling of calm, happiness and relaxation.

2. Active Listening

We often underestimate how many problems can be resolved by just allowing our children to be ‘heard’, rather than rushing in to offer them solutions and advice. Therefore, instead of jumping into providing solutions or trying to ‘fix’ the problem, we should first take the time to simply listen to what our children have to say, and do so without judgement, advice or reassurances, however well-intended we might be. It is sometimes quite hard to suppress our ‘I’ll fix it for you’ mentality, but it is a tool well worth practicing because of the short-term and long-term benefits it brings.

In order to achieve this, try sitting at your child’s side, as eye-to-eye contact can sometimes make kids feel uncomfortable and less likely to want to share, and then follow the other steps below.

3. Normalise what they are feeling

In situations like this, words are incredibly empowering because they normalise the unknown into something knowable, tangible and therefore manageable. So when your child appears to be overwhelmed by their emotions, try to do the following:

a) Repeat what your child is saying or rephrase it e.g. “You feel scared that someone you love might get sick.”, or “You seem sad because you haven’t seen your school friends in so long?”

b) Remember to avoid trying to ‘fix’ the problem and instead validate their feelings with empathy by describing how you think your child might be feeling. For example, “That sounds upsetting…”, or  “Sounds like you are feeling worried…”.

c) Do not ‘exaggerate’ their feelings (i.e. try to use the same tone as they are using and do not use superlatives) as this could make them doubt your sincerity.

d) Talk about your own experiences of feeling anxious or worried. So for example, “I remember feeling worried in exactly the same way when I was your age.” Or “Whenever I feel anxious now, I like to do some gentle stretches to help take my mind off of things. Exercise always helps me to put things into perspective.” This shows them that it’s okay to feel anxious sometimes and that even adults worry about things – it’s how you deal with these feelings that counts.

4. Help them see things from another perspective

Once you’ve connected with your child and normalised that it’s ok to feel anxious sometimes, if they’re older than four, you can help them let go of these feelings in future by encouraging them to see things from a different perspective. In order to achieve this, you can suggest that they ask themselves one very simple question – “Is it true?” or ‘What happy/nice thought would help you feel better?’. 

It is important to only use this after connecting with them as they need to be able to think calmly about this. Indeed, our thoughts have a physical effect on our bodies – if we’re anxious or stressed, our heart rate increases, our mouth gets dry and our palms get sweaty. The tricky thing is that what we think isn’t always accurate – we might blame someone else for our failings or assume that people don’t like us without having any justification for those feelings. We need to teach our children that these unhelpful thoughts that invade our mind, can be challenged and replaced with more helpful thoughts  and simple questions such as – ‘Is it true?’ or ‘What thought would help you feel better?’. This is really useful for situations like the current pandemic, but it’s also useful for more common scenarios like monsters under the bed! 

The ability to question negative thoughts and foster accurate and truthful thinking is one of the most important gifts we can give our children, as it is this skill that will help them thrive in challenging situations and cope with the associated negative thoughts and emotions that they will inevitably experience. 

These are undoubtedly challenging and uncertain times, but by following these top tips, we can show our children that worry and anxiety are a perfectly healthy and natural way of reacting to difficult situations and that emotions are not something to be afraid of. The key to dealing with unpleasant emotions isn’t by ignoring or downplaying them, but by understanding that it’s how we react to these emotions that counts. In doing this, we can help kids learn how to process and deal with strong emotions and cope with difficult situations of any kind in a healthy and constructive way and support them to find solutions to their own problems, both in the short and long-term.

It can really help to have tools to allow your child to share their feelings so we have created education products that are specifically designed to spark these important conversations. Check out our Happy Confident Me Journals and our FEELIT! card game with 50 feeling cards and their definitions.

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