Even as adults many, if not all of us, have experienced some form of anxiety. Our children are just as susceptible to anxiety but they may not have the skills yet to cope with it.
Anxiety in children can present in a number of ways including:
Reluctance to separate from parents
Physical symptoms such as headache or stomach ache
Teaching proper coping skills will allow them to feel more in control when feelings of uncertainty arise. The goal is not to make the fear go away but to teach them to manage it and to learn to tolerate uncertainty. When techniques for tolerating uncertainty are practiced at home in their “safe place” children will be able to put their skills to work when needed outside the home.
As parents we need to be modeling to our children how to react to stressful situations in a healthy way. Instead of thinking worst case scenarios we need to keep ourselves grounded and mindful in the moment. We can manage our own stress and anxiety in a number of ways.
Limit the amount of negative content you are taking in. Although it is important to stay informed about the world’s events it can wreak havoc on our own inner peace when we are not careful. Social media can be bad for this, people constantly sharing negative information or “calling each other out” because their opion isn’t aligned with the other persons. Try limiting the amount of time you spend on social platforms that are not filling your cup and limiting the amount of negative articles you are reading each day.
Be Present. This a big one in general but especially when it comes to handling anxiety. The actual definition of anxiety is: A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. Since anxiety stems from worry about something that has not yet happened when we focus on being present it is impossible to worry about the future. Consider starting a daily meditation practice to help you on this journey. I absolutely love the Insight Timer App, it has a ton of amazing free guided mediations.
Rely on routines. Establishing a routine of daily exercise, getting outside, healthy meals and appropriate amount of sleep is crucial for regulating our moods.
So now that we have discussed how to help ourselves let’s talk about how we can help our children.
Structure their day. Children thrive on routine and structure (just like we do). When there is certainty in their day such as regular meal times, time for exercise and play, scheduled play dates or classes and a good bedtime routine it will help them deal with the uncertain things that may arise. It is not necessary to schedule their entire day because free down time allows for children to recharge and for their imagination to flourish but having things throughout their day that they can rely on is very important.
Acknowledge their emotions and problem solve if you can. What may not be a big deal to you can be a BIG deal to your child. We need to acknowledge how our children are feeling but not allow them to spiral. Work with your child to come up with a plan to help them cope. My daughter recently started kindergarten and knowing that she was getting anxious about so many unknowns coming up. We discussed things that may help her feel at ease and she suggested I go to school with her. Unfortunately with the recent circumstances of COVID that was not an option so instead I called the school and scheduled a quick meeting and tour with her principle. This eliminated many feelings of uncertainty for her because she was able to go into the school with me to see her classroom and meet some of the staff prior to her first day. Initially the school seemed reluctant but after explaining how beneficial it would be to the success of her first day they agreed to meet us. It is important that we advocate for our children to set them up for success, this will in turn empower them to advocate for themselves as well.
Avoid over-reassuring. Reassurance can be good in small doses but our children can tend to rely on it and need it more and more. You cannot make promises of a future you yourself do not know about so instead have them practice mindfulness activities at home, in their safe place, with you or on their own so they are better prepared when feelings of anxiety arise. Again I would recommend the Insight Timer App, they have many great children’s mindfulness meditations.
Model calm yourself. Your child does not need to hear when you are worried about something; it is not their responsibility to shoulder your burdens. If things are weighing on you, be honest about your own emotions (because we also do not want to teach our children to suppress their emotions) and what you are doing to work through it, ie. going for a walk, mediation, painting or whatever strategies you have adopted to manage your own stress. You have heard the expression “actions speak louder than words” and it is true here too. You can tell your child all you want about how to cope with stressful situations but it will sink in more when they see you demonstrating healthy coping strategies.
Look for the positive. I don’t know about you but often when I am stressed I seem to have my sh*t colored glasses on. Nothing is good, everything sucks. When I notice myself getting into this frame of mind I instead start thinking of what I am grateful for. Incorporating a daily gratitude practice with your child can help them focus on the positive things in their life rather than the negative. If you are fortunate enough to eat meals all together as a family you can take turns saying what you are grateful for. Bedtime/wakeups are also a great time to connect and say what we are grateful for so we can start and end the day with positive thoughts. Each night when I am putting my daughter to bed I ask her what her favorite part of her day was, what her least favorite part was (and how it made her feel) and 3 things she is grateful for. I look forward to this time with her because typically I learn something about her day that she hadn’t told me and it is a wonderful time to give her a chance to feel heard.
In conclusion we want our children to grow up feeling confident in their own abilities to navigate their world in a healthy way. When we practice healthy coping strategies WITH our children we are giving them the tools to do so. Let’s empower our children to be confident, to see the world in a positive light and to be the best version of themselves. In my opinion the future depends on it.