Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions experienced by children and young people and can be devastating for the whole family. While it’s normal for everyone to worry at times, anxiety disorders are much more serious and can significantly affect your child’s life.
In 2020, research from the NHS discovered that the proportion of children experiencing a probable mental disorder (including anxiety and depression) has increased over the past three years, from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017 to one in six (16%) in 2020.
When exploring how Lockdown has affected children and young people’s stress and anxiety, the Children’s Commissioner found that smaller stressors – including anxiety about appearance, bullying and tests – have been overtaken with a particular focus on Covid-19 and its secondary impact on schoolwork, health, social lives and employment opportunities.
Our Neurodevelopmental Specialist, Emma Woodhouse, outlines some simple strategies you can use to support your child or young person if they are suffering with anxiety and help them feel more in control.
Sometimes people find it difficult to identify their emotions. They may be aware that they don’t feel ‘good’, but for some people it is hard to know whether that feeling is sadness, anxiety, frustration, or a combination of different emotions. If a young person struggles to identify the emotion, it may be difficult for them to describe or communicate how they feel.
We often experience anxious emotions in our bodies, like that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach lurch just before a big presentation. Children and young people are no different. Asking your child to point to where they feel their anxiety can help them to understand their emotions. It can also help to ask questions like what shape is it? What colour? Is it spiky or smooth? You could even encourage your child to ‘draw’ their anxiety.
Emma explains, “I think it's important for parents to think about their timing if they want to bring up sensitive topics like anxiety (or emotions more generally). The time that feels right for the parent might not be the best time for their son/daughter. It may be helpful to try and talk to them whilst simultaneously engaged in an activity (e.g. a walk, cooking something together, drawing / art, gardening). If they have watched a film or television programme featuring anxiety, it could be helpful to discuss that with them and hear their thoughts. It can feel more 'removed' and less 'threatening' if the conversations are more general, rather than specifically about their own anxieties.”
Describing to your child how their anxieties are like a fire alarm can be helpful. You might say something like, “How many times do the fire alarms in the house go off but without a fire?” Helping them understand that their anxiety response is a way of their body, misguidedly, preparing them for a problem can help them understand that the response is often not needed.
Many parents are struggling with their own worries, particularly during the pandemic. Your child’s worries may seem minor in comparison, but it’s important not to trivialise your child’s fears. Even if their worries seem ‘silly’ or disproportionate to you, they can feel overwhelming for a child. Saying things like, “I can hear how worrying this is to you,” allows them to feel heard and not judged. This will make them more comfortable in opening up to you.
Emma explains, “Sometimes it can be helpful to think about practical strategies and it is completely natural for parents to want to offer solutions for their child's problems. However, a child needs to feel heard if they are going to share their worries. I came across a quote several years ago and it stuck with me because I think there is a lot of truth in it: "The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply".
Your child probably feels alone in their anxious feelings and might think they are the only ones who feel this way. This can be incredibly isolating. Depression often accompanies anxiety, so thinking of a time that you have also felt anxiety and talking about it can help your child feel less alone.
Sit down with your child or young person to write down or draw a list of the things that worry them, however small they might be. Just remember not to judge. Come back a day or week later and see if any of those worries have come true. The likelihood is they haven’t and even if they have, the consequences were probably manageable.
Emma believes that avoidance maintains anxiety. “The more people avoid the things that make them anxious, the less confident they feel in their ability to cope when they face the anxiety provoking situation. Any steps to increase exposure to the anxiety provoking situations must be very gradual, otherwise they can feel too overwhelming. It is also important to consider the thoughts and feelings behind the anxiety.”
There are lots of strategies that can help your child, and some young people may grow out of their fears. However, if anxiety goes untreated, it can stay with a young person as they transition into adulthood. Anxiety can prevent them from enjoying life to the full and may even prevent them from attending school or making friends. Professional help from a child psychiatrist or psychologist can be incredibly useful in helping your child to manage and overcome their anxiety. Treatment options differ for each child so getting a thorough assessment is the first important step.
At Clinical Partners, our specialist clinicians have years of clinical experience in tailor making the right support for children, young people and adults with Anxiety. To find out more about what’s available, visit our Anxiety hub or call the team on 0203 326 9160.