Written by: Jenny Smith
Having worries or feeling anxious are both natural normal experiences that all young people will go through from time to time. Anxiety is the bodies way of preparing us for the stress of meeting a challenge by releasing a hormone called adrenaline which puts the body into the fight or flight response. As young people grow up, experiences of feeling worried or anxious and dealing with stress are a natural part developing their survival skills for the wider world. Dealing with your child’s worries and anxieties has to be handled carefully and with respect.
Symptoms of stress and anxiety
On a physical level anxiety can manifest as stomach cramps, feeling shaky or sick, erratic or fast breathing or difficulty in taking a breath, increased heart beats, sweating and tense muscles. Emotionally and mentally a person can feel scared, embarrassed or ashamed. They may lack confidence to try new things,find it difficult to concentrate or have a lot of negative things going around in their heads,. They may also have a feeling of panic that something terrible is about to happen.
If your child tells you that they are feeling any of these, one of the most comforting responses is to tell them that their bodies are being really wise and sending them information to let them know that something is going on. It is also really helpful to normalise it and reassure them that everyone gets anxious, including you the parent (!) Ask them if there is anything that they feel they need and if possible give it to them. Things like physical contact, being held tight or wrapped up in a blanket are all ways to send soothing messages to an anxious body. If your child is not ready to talk then take the pressure to do so away. Accepting their feelings and not making a big deal of them gives them a message of safety to relax and open up in time.
Listening to your child
When you child is ready to talk about what they are feeling and what is making them anxious see if you can really hear what they are saying without asking too many questions or interpreting what they are telling you. Reflect back to them what you hear them say so that they know they’ve been heard and understood. Validate their feelings even if your own experience of what they are describing would be very different, just for now put yourself in their shoes.
If you are a parent or carer of a child who experiences anxiety quite regularly it may be helpful to understand more about common triggers. Separation anxiety is something that most children feel at some point, either when a new sibling arrives or they start a new stage in their lives like nursery or school. Fears and phobia are also very common things that young children develop such as an anxiety about dogs or the dark. School based anxiety again is very common and can be about school work, friendships, changing classes or teachers, and social anxiety is where a young person is anxious about social situations and feels very self-conscious in new groups of people.
If you can establish what the cause of the feelings of anxiety and worry are in your child you can start to think through practically what is possible to do in order to lessen any perceived threats that they are feeling. It is very helpful to remind them of times that they have managed to face similar fears and of how they felt before and after those occasions. Again it is always useful to ask them what they feel they need in different situations and sometimes to ask them what they would say to a friend who was feeling similar.
It will pass
Remind yourself that things change and that these stages will pass. When you are right in the middle of a tricky phase with one of your children it can feel like it is going to go on forever. Model good self care to them and look after your own mental and emotional health so that you are robust enough to support them and they see you staying strong and well during a difficult time.
Different personality types and temperaments experience different levels of anxiety so try to avoid comparing siblings or your own experience to that of your child’s. Each individual faces different challenges in life and a tendency towards worrying is one that certain kids have.
It is possible for a young person to develop a level of anxiety that gets in the way of their day to day life and which slows down their development and affects their learning and relationships and develop what can be called generalised anxiety. If you are concerned about the level of worry that your child is experiencing it can be very helpful to talk the situation through with a close friend or a professional that you trust. It may be that they school has someone in post that offers this sort of support or your GP can let you know what services are local to you. Young Minds is a national mental health charity for young people and has a parents helpline and email support service – http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents