Content is written by Maggie Dent
Anxiety is the most significant mental health issue in childhood, and yet it frequently goes undetected and untreated.
Signs of anxiety can be noticed as early as age two but we see a significant rise when children enter the school system, and many young people can go on to suffer lifelong anxiety if it is not addressed.
Although anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion, it becomes a problem when it impairs our wellbeing and stops us from being able to do normal things.
Common symptoms of anxiety can include stomach aches, headaches, difficulty sleeping, avoiding school, and physical reactions such as increased heart rate or breathing.
Dr Lynn Miller from the University of British Columbia has found that there also many overlooked symptoms including angry outbursts, oppositional and refusal behaviours, temper tantrums, attention-seeking behaviours, hyperactivity, concentration problems, scholastic underachievement or excessive resistance to doing work, a high number of missed school days or difficulties with a social or peer group.
Factors that might contribute to childhood anxiety:
- Traumatic life events
- Development challenges
- Learned behaviour
- Might co-occur with other conditions
- Hurried children are often stressed.
So how can we help?
At home, we can lower anxiety levels by slowing down, leaving ample time for transitions between activities and fostering good routines, particularly around eating and sleeping.
Silence, stillness and relaxation are often low on our list of priorities but research shows that mindfulness activities help to alleviate anxiety. Mindfulness simply encourages individuals to slow the rushing, busyness of life and be present in the moment! Techniques may include breathing deeply, meditation, calming music or guided relaxation, time in nature, or simply lying on the grass with the kids and listening to sounds around you.
You can also practise tai chi or yoga. Mindfulness, meditation and creative visualisation are useful practices not just for easing anxiety but they can also boost our memory, empathy, self-esteem and awareness. When used often new neural pathways are formed in the brain and individuals can trigger relaxation more easily.
Dr Stuart Shanker in his fantastic 2016 book Self-Reg writes that if a child is struggling with stress, abuse or feeling disconnected they will have less energy to learn, think and be happy. There are six levels of energy or arousal states and he says children need to be at level four to be able to play, concentrate and learn.
- Hypo alert
- Calm, focused and alert
So what helps build self-regulation?
Music, drama, art, reading, time in nature, playing with other children, quiet time, kindness and safe touch, and deep, loving relationships.
Too much TV/screen time, video games, too much pressure, poor food, not enough human connection, too much stress and threat, not enough sleep. Too much hurrying and too many ‘things to do’ are really stressful for children of any age.
How else can we help our child with anxiety?
- Talk about anxiety – normalise it – tell them about your experience and what you have done to face your own worries, fears and anxiety.
- Teach children, everyone, experiences anxious feelings to some degree.
- Teach children that anxiety won’t hurt them and doesn’t last.
- Be patient.
- Promise you will join forces with them to find solutions together.
- Be careful not to excessively reassure them (it can make them more anxious).
Why should we prioritise silence and stillness?
- Allows creativity and better problem-solving
- Soothes the nervous system
- Builds emotional intelligence and competency
- Nurtures the inner world and the human spirit
- Builds resilience skills for life
- Improves the ability and capacity to think
- Lessens fear – imagined or real
- Creates an opportunity to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’
- Helps sensory sensitive students to learn
- Allows auditory processors a chance to listen to their inner voices
As our world gives us every more reason to feel anxious, we as parents can have a huge influence by doing small things every day that will make a big difference to our anxious kids.
Maggie Dent is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, and she’s been writing about calming our children since 2003. Maggie is bringing her one-day conference Calming Today’s Anxious Kids to Hobart and Wollongong in early 2020 www.maggiedent.com/
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