Five tips for parenting an anxious child

A survey conducted in 2020 by YMCA North reveals that nearly a quarter of Kiwi parents (24.6%) noticed their children are feeling increasingly anxious, with many no longer wanting to go to school or participate in group activities. 

A battle with screen time and a lack of physical exercise could be a key component with nearly half of parents strongly concerned about the amount of technology their family consumed in 2020, alongside 43 per cent of children having less than one hour a day of exercise.

We talk to child psychologist, Dr Emma Woodward from The Child Psychology Service, who specialises in anxiety in children.  

Here are Dr Emma’s five tips for parenting an anxious child:

Stay Calm. It takes a calm brain to calm a brain. A child whose brain is overwhelmed by anxiety can often behave in quite distressing ways. We need to ensure that we stay calm rather than become overwhelmed by their anxiety. This models regulation in the face of big feelings, and a child needs an experience of this “co-regulation” before they can learn self-regulation. Humans are social animals and connection is that cornerstone to good mental health.

Build wellbeing practices into your everyday routine, this includes, modelling how you manage your own emotions. Helpful anxiety busting wellbeing tools include; practicing gratitude, which counteracts our “negativity bias”, mindfulness which increases self-awareness and helps us to catch our thoughts and emotions early before we become overwhelmed, and practicing self-compassion – knowing that it is human to sometimes be less than perfect and that this is OK. It is also important to teach self-soothing exercises such as controlling our breath which helps to regain control of our body when anxiety takes over. By teaching these skills early to children, before stress or lower level anxiety tips over into something more serious, we have a greater chance of enabling them to flourish.

Be aware of the avoidance trap: Our kids need to learn that they have the skills to move through, rather than avoid adversity. It is how they develop resilience. As hard as it is to ask our kids to face their fears, it is really important that we do. This is because the part of our brain that produces anxiety can only learn through experience. This is particularly important to address with children as they are often not motivated to face the things that make them anxious and will try their hardest to avoid the situation at all costs. Avoidance gives short-term anxiety relief but, in the long term, it stops your child from learning the coping skills they need to manage their anxiety. It also stops them from learning that the things that trigger their anxiety can actually be safe and sometimes, even enjoyable.

Put down the screens: We’ve all used screens far too much over the pandemic, and to be honest it has been a case of needs must. Screens aren’t bad in themselves, but we need to be careful about how we use screens so they don’t detrimentally impact our mental health and wellbeing. At the minimum, screens have an opportunity cost upon the other activities that we need to be happy, healthy, humans, such as exercise. On a deeper level, they also interfere with the brain’s happy hormones. When we are using screens our brain gets flooded with serotonin and dopamine. This is why we like them so much. However, our brain then gets so used to these elevated levels that when we come off screens, real life can’t compete. Screens can also impact melatonin production, which is the hormone that facilitates our sleep. These effects combined can impact our wellbeing and can contribute to us feeling anxious and depressed.

Get active: Physical activity has huge potential to enhance wellbeing. It helps with energy, mental alertness and positive mood. When we exercise our brain releases serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which support wellbeing. Exercising also decreases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Physical activity helps children to build confidence, increase self-esteem and cognitive skills as they learn about their physical capabilities, build their muscles and play with their peers. We spent a lot of time indoors during 2020 and with schools closed and group sports cancelled our children couldn’t get outdoors and explore as often as they should. This has meant that children may have had reduced access to experiences that could have acted as a buffer against the stress of these unique times. Go outside and get active with your family to back your brain’s own wellbeing resources.

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