Anxiety and Our Children
In our most recent Life Skills webinar series Nikki and I spoke about anxiety in our children and what we can do to help them navigate these uncertain times.
A recent report by the Blackdog Institute found that common consequences of disease outbreaks (like COVID-19) include anxiety and panic, depression, anger, confusion and uncertainty, and financial stress, with estimates of between 25% to 33% of the community experiencing high levels of worry and anxiety.
We know that our children’s response to a community-wide traumatic event is determined by various factors, including their cognitive understanding, the reactions of family members, and their personality and coping mechanisms (their resilience).1
Never has there been a better time to teach our children social and emotional skills that have been proven to increase their ability to deal with uncertainty and worry.
Resilience has also been shown to be enhanced by good relationships with caregivers, social support, positive relationships with teachers, academic engagement, community cohesion and links with cultural identity.2
Building resilience and coping mechanisms in our children is just as much about building these mechanisms in ourselves and our communities. Here is a link to a free resource with 10 activities to do with children to build their resilience.
We need to be modelling for our children how to react to stressful times by coping with anxiety in healthy ways.
It helps to have checked in with ourselves before we check in with our children.
So, how are YOU? How are you dealing with worries and uncertainty? If you haven’t already, now is the time to pause and ask yourself how you’re really coping.
Self awareness is the starting point to this. Pay attention to your thoughts, how you’ve become accustomed to feeling and whether your body’s reflecting your current state of stress or relaxation. Learning techniques to calm the mind and remain attentive to the moment will help with this. Try this Guided Practice to feel more present and calmer.
When it comes to anxiety and our children, it can manifest in young children in different ways. From sleep and appetite disturbances, behaviour change, increased arousal to physical ailments such as stomach or head aches.
The first step with helping our children (or anyone) deal with anxiety is in observing and listening to them, being present and attentive and connecting.
Oftentimes when we love someone and see them struggling, our instinct can be to fix the problem or make it go away. We can often focus on presenting counter-arguments, reassuring or distracting them from their pain. This can result in them feeling unheard and lead to increasing feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Practicing non-judgmental, generous listening is the key for the child to feel validated and seen, the essential foundation to being able to connect and help. Active listening is a skill we can learn and can be learned and practiced. Here is a link to a mindful listening activity that can help improve communication.
In helping children cope with anxiety it is often useful to move away from reassurance and into problem solving.
Whilst we can help them with perspectives, we want to encourage our children to come up with their own solutions as much as possible. This gives them the opportunity to develop self efficacy and confidence that they can handle things in the future. – such an important skill in todays world. After asking what their thoughts and feelings are about the problem, ask them what possible solutions they can envisage. And encourage them to take action where possible.
If anxiety is related to climate change, for example, we might encourage taking action to do something by joining a local beach clean up. Similarly, with concerns around the spread of COVID-19, redirecting thoughts and energy into things we can do to help such as hand washing, social distancing or wearing masks for example, not only increases our children’s sense of self efficacy but also gives an opportunity to take the attention from them selves and on to others.
Dr Jenni Parsons, in the Australian Journal of General Practice3 provides a nice summary of practical actions we can take to help our children manage anxiety and minimise the negative psychological impacts of the current crisis on them. She cites:
- looking after our own mental wellbeing
- providing clear, age-appropriate information
- reassuring our children that they are at low risk and that there is a plan to manage the overall risks of the virus
- reducing exposure to news and social media reporting related to COVID-19
- maintaining routines
- assisting children and adolescents to maintain social contacts via internet-based means
- involving children in a family plan to mitigate risk and promote positive mental and social wellbeing.
As requested we will be hosting part 2 of the series on anxiety webinars in the next fortnight. Look out for the invitation and please join us with your questions.
1 Shaw JA, Espinel Z, Shultz, JM. Children: Stress, trauma and disaster. Tampa, FL: Disaster Life Support Publishing, 2007, as cited in Parsons J. 2 Gartland D, Riggs E, Muyeen S, et al. What factors are associated with resilient outcomes in children exposed to social adversity? A systematic review. BMJ Open 2019;9(4):e024870. doi: 3 Parsons J. COVID-19, kids and anxiety in 2020. Aust J Gen Pract 2020;49 Suppl 27. doi: 10.31128/AJGP-COVID-27.