What Every Parent With An Anxious Child Should Know

Every child feels anxious once in a while. Most children overcome such feelings or are able to handle them well. But, if your child is one of those constantly bothered by anxiety, what will you do?

By Jasmine Kaur

What Every Parent With An Anxious Child Should Know

Once in a while, all of us get overwhelmed by the challenges of life. As a result, we begin to feel anxious. However, most of us feel that way only for short periods and we are usually able to overcome these fears and worries, without much effort. Some of us are, however, unable to do so and begin to feel they cannot cope.

But first, is anxiety all that bad?

It is said that a little bit of anxiety is helpful as it prepares us to handle stress better. A study, 'An overview of Indian research in anxiety disorders' by Trivedi and Gupta published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (2010) corroborates this view. According to them, "In moderation, anxiety stimulates an anticipatory and adaptive response to challenging or stressful events."

However, not all of us are able to easily handle such fears, worries and anxious thoughts. And sometimes, this can affect children too. Some may, feel such overwhelming anxiety that it interferes with their ability to lead a normal life. Trivedi and Gupta say, "In excess, anxiety destabilizes the individual and a dysfunctional state results."

How can I know when my child is feeling anxious?

Think back to those occasions when you felt anxious. How did you feel during those times? You may have experienced a sensation of restlessness, churning in the stomach, increased heart rate or, had difficulty focusing on a task.

Like you, your child may also manifest physical symptoms of anxiety, even if she isn't able to understand and actually tell you what she is feeling. Symptoms you should watch out for in your child, include:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of tiredness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Inability to focus
  • Easily distracted
  • Irritable and angry
  • Disturbed sleep patterns

These are some common symptoms of anxiety. If you notice your child exhibiting these signs, it is always a good idea to consult a qualified clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to confirm that your child is being or feeling overly anxious. Once a diagnosis is given, you can seek the right treatment.

How can I help my anxious child?

Even today, individuals suffering from mental health issues are looked down upon and, sometimes, excluded from social circles. So, many parents don't want to acknowledge that their child is suffering from anxiety or other psychological issues. However, this attitude only worsens the problem.

You can help your child by being open-minded and help him overcome his anxiety issues. Here is what you can do:

Understand anxiety and empathiseYour child needs your help in dealing with her overwhelming sense of anxiety. So, instead of trivialising her problem, empathise with her. Say things which make her feel that you understand what she is going through. For example, 'I understand it’s difficult for you to go to school', or 'I can imagine how painful it is to go through this', or 'I’m here for you'.

Help your child become a thought detective: Often, a child's mind begins filling up with worrisome thoughts and anxiety sets in. However, most of these thoughts are irrational and far removed from reality. So, when you see your child feeling anxious, ask him to describe or tell you what he is going through. You can also ask him to write his thoughts down in a diary if he doesn't want to speak about them. This can help you get to the root of the problem and address it. For example, your child may not want to get on the school bus because he feels that his schoolmates will make fun of him or because he fears the bus will meet with an accident.

Once you know the cause, make him understand that his thoughts do not reflect the reality. In the above-mentioned example, you could ask your child to look at the faces of his friends in the school bus and point out who is laughing at him. When he realises that no one is doing so, he will gradually stop having such thoughts or negative feelings.

Teach your child that most of the time his anxious thoughts are not based on ‘fact’ but are simply ‘beliefs’. Point out that  he can choose to believe in those thoughts or look for solutions, instead. This will help him respond better to anxiety-provoking thoughts.

Encourage mindfulness: Research has shown the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for children with anxiety disorders. Being mindful can be explained as being aware of one's thoughts, acknowledging them and accepting them. Doing so helps an individual become more self-aware. Teach your child to become more aware of herself and her fears and worries, using this very simple technique. Ask her to close her eyes for 15 seconds and vocalise what she is thinking and how she’s feeling. Keep in mind that this will work better and be more helpful in the case of an older child. There are many free apps you can use to teach mindfulness to children. Choose what works best for you and your child.

Do not push your child into anxiety-inducing situations: Anxiety is a psychological state that can be induced by various factors, both real and perceived. And, since anxiety manifests physically as well as internally, by observing your child, you can understand when he is feeling anxious (symptoms mentioned above). Over time, you will also be able to understand the situations or triggers that make him feel uncomfortable and anxious. Instead of pushing your child to deal with anxiety-inducing situations, try to connect with him. For example, you can say, 'You seem to be upset about something. Do you want to talk about it?', or 'Do you want my help? Is there any way I can help you?'

However, it’s not advisable to let your child avoid every situation that makes him anxious. Dr Keerthi Pai, clinical psychologist, suggests using the process of progressive desensitisation. Here, a child is gradually exposed to situations or objects that provoke anxiety. At the same time, he is also taught skills to deal with the factors that cause anxiety. For example, to desensitise a child with exam anxiety, first, he can be asked to give verbal answers, instead of written ones. At the same time, he will also be taught relaxation techniques to calm himself. This process continues until the child no longer feels anxious. The second step could be to expose the child to a class test in his favourite subject. The third step could involve getting him to sit for a unit test and so on..., until he is able to write the final exam, without experiencing overwhelming anxiety. The idea here is to gradually increase the child's coping ability.

As parents, we want our child to enjoy life to the fullest. And, sometimes, when we see her feeling anxious or fearful, we either try to protect her or push her to deal with things head on. However, both these approaches may not be helpful. Instead, we need to understand what she is going through and equip her with the necessary skills to handle these fears and worries in the right manner. That will help her overcome other hurdles life may place in her path.

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