Managing children’s anxiety at home

Photo by Jennifer Martin on Unsplash
Photo by Jennifer Martin on Unsplash

Within a short period of time, our daily lives and the lives of our children have changed dramatically. Many of us are feeling anxious and overwhelmed. But by working together with your child, you can help your family through this difficult time.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Many of us are working and teaching from home; key workers are juggling the demands of their jobs and their responsibilities for their children. In many cases, we are now expected to be parents, teachers and caregivers at the same time. Whether or not our children are still attending school, the extraordinary circumstances and upheaval of children’s daily routines place a heavy burden on us.

Anxiety in children can be difficult to spot. Adults tend to associate anxiety with a sense of dread, panicking and physical symptoms such as trembling and shortness of breath. Children experiencing high levels of anxiety may struggle to pinpoint or explain where their feelings are coming from; instead, they are likely to complain of headaches or feeling generally unwell. You might also notice uncharacteristic behaviours, such as clinginess or angry outbursts. No parent wants a child to suffer from anxiety. However, there are various ways to help.

One approach is to train parents in therapy techniques. While studies of parental involvement in children’s therapy have found mixed results, some recent research looking at stand-alone, parent-based interventions has found such interventions to be as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy administered by a therapist.

One intervention, called the SPACE programme, is thought to be more effective than previous methods because it focuses on modifying the parents’ behaviour, rather than the child’s. While participating in the programme, parents learn to accommodate the child’s needs by adapting behaviours and routines to avoid amplifying their child’s anxiety, and this in turn helps the child develop coping strategies and self-regulation.

“Creating a space where your children can talk, if they want to, encourages them to share how they are feeling.”

Many child and adolescent mental health services offer training programmes for parents to help them support a child who is suffering from anxiety. However, although enrolling in a training programme might be an effective long-term strategy for you and your family, during the current lockdown we need to learn to support each other as we confront the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic.

First and foremost, it is important to talk to your children directly and openly about the current situation in an age-appropriate way, so that they can understand without being overwhelmed. In line with SPACE programme practices, it can be helpful to encourage children to talk about how they feel and what they might do next, which makes them feel heard and involved. This could mean directly addressing what they are worrying about when they can’t sleep, or simply asking what they’ve enjoyed about their day. The Young Minds charity has uploaded a graphic with suggestions for these types of questions.

Other practical suggestions include making a worry box in which the child can deposit slips of paper on which she has written the things she is worried about. This might be particularly useful if you’re struggling to engage your child in a conversation about the anxiety she is experiencing.

“Just as anxiety can produce physical symptoms, certain physical techniques can help to reduce anxiety.”

Creating a space where your children can talk, if they want to, encourages them to share how they are feeling. You might create that safe space by drawing or cooking a meal together, for example.

Just as anxiety can produce physical symptoms, certain physical techniques can help to reduce anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is useful in helping children deal with the physiological stressors that can result from anxiety, such as an accelerated heart rate or panicked breathing.

To practice belly breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. While you gently breathe in for four seconds, imagine a balloon inflating in your belly. As you exhale, make a long “ahh” sound until all the air is expelled. Not only does this help lower the heart rate and reduce stress, it also teaches children how to control their breathing.

In addition to alleviating physiological symptoms as they arise, exercise can help to reduce anxiety over the long term. While we are currently restricted in the kinds of exercise we are allowed to do, there are various creative ways to exercise indoors, such as taking online exercise classes or running up and down stairs.

Juggling the demands of daily life under lockdown can be challenging and even overwhelming. The techniques suggested in this article are intended to help you and your child talk about and manage anxiety at home.

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