ANXIETY IN CHILDREN
Parents often have many questions about why their child is anxious. Did we cause this? Is it inherited? Is it because something happened? Research can give some indications that genetics, experiences and a complex interplay between an anxious child’s behaviour and parental responses may all have each played some part in the development of anxiety. However, it is more powerful to answer, ‘What maintains my child’s anxiety?’ Because these are the factors that we can have some influence over.
One of the powerful factors that can maintain a child’s anxiety is the avoidance of anxiety provoking situations. It is understandable that if a child fears something eg dogs, then they will want to avoid touching or even seeing dogs. With this desire to avoid, a child will send signals to the parent to help keep them safe from the dog. Wired to protect and soothe our children, it is easy to follow our instinct and protect our child from the feared dog. We may stand between the child and the dog at the park to prevent the child seeing the dog and becoming scared. This seems the caring thing to do, especially if we are a little anxious ourselves.
However, this subtle avoidance of the dog is one of the strongest ways of maintaining the anxiety.
First the child picks up our cues which subtly communicate the dog is, in fact scary, or we don’t believe the child can cope (hence we are stepping in to protect them). Secondly, by avoiding the dog we allow the child to stay with their thoughts “The dog is scary” and not experience the possibility that the dog could be friendly. By preventing positive experiences, we also prevent the child checking out the facts. We prevent the most powerful way of reducing anxiety, your child learning through experience that they are safe in many more situations than they fear.
For parents to support their child in exposure to fears, rather than avoidance, we need to have an honest reflection –“Is this situation reasonable for my child at this age?” We need to use a more accurate measure than our child’s anxious behaviours. If we are anxious our self, we need to seek other opinions from valued adults.
Once you have decided what is reasonable to expect of your child, plan small but persistent steps towards this. For example, this may mean walking near a known dog, then standing while the dog walks past, later moving to leading a known dog and later, patting the same, known dog. It may be helpful to have some assistance in planning these steps and how to motivate your child to start this journey.
Some other skills to develop to assist your child’s anxiety include,
Increasing general independence.
Increasing ‘Have a go’ behaviour(trying new challenges).
Increasing your child’s ‘have a go’ thinking.
Practicing problem solving skills with your child to increase their confidence in their own ability to face and solve problems.
Support lifestyle factors to manage anxiety - getting enough sleep, down time, exercise, and relaxation/mindfulness or breathing.
Refs: Creswell et al. 2017. Parent Led CBT for Child Anxiety