As someone who suffers with a debilitating anxiety disorder myself, it is helpful for me to think about how I can support my boys as they express worry. I don’t want my issues to become their issues, but equally I want to make sure that we take their concerns seriously.
Our boys are deep thinkers and often will refer to worries days or weeks after the events. Alternatively, they’ll act out more or throw tantrums that turn out to be delayed and shifted reactions to things that have happened in their days.
So, how can we support them? How can we take their worries and concerns seriously and still encourage them to take steps forward?
Here are 7 ways that help me deal with my anxiety, that we’re beginning to explore with our boys and that may support your anxious child.
1. Stop telling them everything is going to be alright.
I get it: you know there is nothing to worry about in the classroom or the playing field but hearing that doesn’t always help. When your child expresses their worry, they want to be heard and listened to sometimes more than they want to be reassured. I often try to reassure myself using this same strategy but it often falls on deaf ears.
When you’re anxious, the rational part of your brain – the thinking neo-cortex – is not normally in control. Instead, your more mammalian brain is in control – the fight or flight reflex – so it’s really hard for someone who is anxious to be logical and reasonable. Of course there is nothing to worry about but her brain and body are telling her something else. We need to reassure the automated parts of our brain and we can do that by using our bodies.
- Breath deeply with your child, in and out with deep belly breathes. This tricks the brain into being calmer, as when you’re trying to escape a lion on a savanna you need quick, shallow breathes. Deep breathes happen when you’re calm, so you must be calm.
- Empathize with you your child – anxiety is terrifying. Let your child know that you get it, that their body is trying to help them but is confused.
- Plan with you child – when your child is calm you can work out some possible solutions.
- Reassure yourself – don’t feel guilty about their anxiety but be reassured that you’re giving them tools that will be of use even when you’re not around. You’re equipping them to deal with their worry for life.
2. Explain the benefits of worry
If you are anxious or worried about something that others take in their stride, you can believe that there is something wrong with you – that you are defective in some way. But, the reality is that worry and anxiety do serve a purpose.
Worry is an alarm system that helps protect us and keep us safe – it helps us survive danger from attacking animals, being cautious when we pick up tell-tale signs. But, like most alarm systems, it is sometimes set off by accident – a false alarm. We can hear the alarm, feel the alarm, be thankful that the alarm keeps us safe and check if this is a real concern or something that we can put in check. Worry isn’t bad in and of itself.
3. Use roleplay
It took me years to work out that ignoring anxiety doesn’t work – in fact, I still don’t really believe that and have to force myself to deal with my anxiety rather than force it into a box. One strategy that helps me is to personify my anxiety – to give it a name, a character and a role. My anxiety is a caveman who lives in my old brain and wants to protect me from the world. The reality is, that he doesn’t understand the real world and doesn’t get that things that hurt us in the past are not going to hurt us again necessarily. Loud noises don’t always mean danger, they may be someone laughing and having fun; Big crowds don’t always mean danger, they may be friendly people who we enjoy being with.
Reassuring my caveman, remembering that he is trying to help and letting him know it is okay helps me to demystify my worry. It helps me to get into the logical part of my brain but not to shout at or be angry with myself. I think this strategy can work really well with younger people. You could have a stuffed toy or a model or a picture to help support this.
4. Allow your child to worry
“Don’t worry, be happy” is a song that is played a lot in my head and is a phrase I wish I could listen to more and more. Unfortunately, that phrase doesn’t prevent me from worrying and doesn’t help me deal with the very real concerns that I have for my life and the life of my family. So, rather than saying don’t worry, provide opportunities for worry to be explored and expressed.
Have a time bound ritual where we are allowed to worry – maybe use a worry box to draw pictures or write down what is worrying. Maybe you could use the character from the previous point, what has she been up to today? What has set her off? What is she trying to protect you from? There is no such thing as an invalid worry – anything goes. When the time is up, close the box and say goodbye to the worries for the day.
This can really help take the worries seriously and allow your child to trust her body and her feelings rather than train herself to ignore these when they feel out of sync with reality. Knowing that there will be an opportunity to talk about worries can help an anxious child to not bottle things up and to trust themselves more.
5. Time travel
Worry is often about the future – things that might happen – or about the past – things that have happened. We spend a lot of our time jumping between these two places, particularly when we’re anxious, and little time being in the present moment.
Practicing some form of mindfulness can help to bring thoughts and feelings into the present and calm down anxious and run-away thoughts.
- Breath deeply together for 5 breathes.
- Stop for 20 seconds and listen, what can you hear?
- Feel your feet on the ground, your bum on a seat – how does it feel?
- Wiggle your toes and your fingers – how do they feel?
Anything really that brings you into now.
6. Avoid avoiding anxiety triggers
There is a large part of me that wants to avoid all things that trigger my anxiety and, as a parent, I want to keep my boys safe from things that trigger theirs. The reality is though that avoidance tends to make anxiety worse.
So, what’s the alternative? Smaller, achievable goals. Rather than avoid social events or dogs or any situation, break it down into more achievable steps.
Anxiety about social situations?
- Try to be in a social space with a friend;
- Try to have one short conversation with a friend;
- Say hello to someone new;
- Have a conversation with someone new.
There would probably be more steps than that but you get the picture. Think about the big goal (sitting on the swing, not being afraid of dogs) and think about what smaller steps could be put in place to build up a sense of success and safety.
7. Model and encourage self-compassion
Watching someone you love dealing with anxiety is really hard. It can hard not to feel responsible or culpable in some unknown way. We know that anxiety is often the result of multiple factors from genes, to temperament, to past traumatic events. Be compassionate on yourself and know, that while you are not the cause of your child’s anxiety, you can help them overcome it.
Equally, as a sufferer of anxiety is easy to feel less-than, alone, to blame. Using some of the strategies I’ve talked about can help this reduce. As a parent, love yourself and be your child’s champion. As an anxiety sufferer, love yourself, know you’re not alone and remember that anxiety is trying to keep you safe.
Over to you …
Are there strategies that you use or have used to help you deal with your anxiety or your children’s? Please share.