Updated: Jul 12, 2020
A little anxiety is a good thing. It can sharpen our senses and motivates us to take on challenges. Anxiety is a very normal response when faced with something that is threatening or dangerous, embarrassing or stressful because it prepares us to manage the situation.
When we experience a lot of anxiety it becomes a hindrance - it sets off the flight fight and freeze reflex and makes it difficult to move forward or take on productive action
Anxiety is usually experienced in three different ways: physical and body feelings, thoughts, and behaviour patterns.
As parents and teachers it is our natural instinct to try and accommodate childrens’ worries, but that can lock the worry into place and strengthen the worry. This is of course well-intentioned but not helpful.
It is far better to acknowledge their emotion, and support them to be brave and face their fear and anxieties.
We can talk to them about anxiety being a false alarm or their brain playing a trick on them and telling them to worry excessively. Children need to know it is okay to be anxious, that we all feel anxious at times and that, if we harness it, it can help us. We can reassure them that it is okay to worry but we need to move them on and not let them get stuck in that worry.
I currently work as a resource teacher of learning and behaviour (RTLB) which involves supporting teachers and families to adapt programs, seek outside agency support and come up with interventions to engage their child in school. In my years of working with children as an RTLB (and prior to that as a mother of six and caregiver to many others) I have developed a set of tools to support children who experience anxiety. I have created a resource outlining seven effective strategies, which you can download and use with your children/students.
Remember, the goal for most kids isn't to eliminate anxiety completely. It's really about giving them the skills to manage anxiety so it doesn't get in the way of enjoying life. As I mentioned at the beginning anxiety can be useful - so use it successfully!
Below is a link to PDF guide.
Strategies to support children experiencing anxiety
Teach your child the power of breath. Show them how to take some slow, deep breaths to calm the physical effects of anxiety. You can practice together by breathing in for three seconds, holding for three seconds, then out for three. When they are feeling calmer, you can talk through what it is that is worrying them. If you can teach them some easy meditation steps it will help them immensly. I have added some recommended apps at the end of this blog.
Setting aside some time to deal with worries can stop anxious thoughts from taking over. You could develop a daily ritual called ‘worry time’, and where you encourage your child to draw or write down what it is that is bothering them. Maybe create a worry jar or box- get them to be part of the construction so they have ownership of it. After 10 to 15 minutes – “worry time” is over and you pop the drawings of writing in the jar and say goodbye to them for the day.
Our impulse is to skirt the scary situation, so try instead a technique called ‘laddering’. This is when you break down worries into manageable chunks and gradually working towards a goal.
Let’s say your child is afraid of the dark and all manner of monsters hiding in their room. This seems irrational to an adult but very real to a child.
Sit down and make a plan with your child.
● Talk about what their monster looks like and why they think it’s there. Get them to draw it and give it a name- the sillier the better. This can help take the scary out of it and they may want to befriend it.
● You could give them a special blanket together that could serve as a “shield” when they are in bed.
● Put a nightlight that would help them feel safe. Remember though that shadows can create large and imposing shadows!
● Your child could listen to a song before bed that helps makes them feel safe. Some great songs with empowerment lyrics out there.
● Create a special “monster spray” and let the child keep in on the nightstand.
● Have a very solid bedtime routine that doesn’t change. Teeth, book, kiss, sleep. This doesn’t change and children thrive on routine.
● If they are still convinced the monster is there, take the monster by the hand, walk them to the front door, politely tell them it’s not okay to sleep here anymore, shut the door and lock them out.
Share your own experience
Talk to your child about a time you felt anxious to help them understand that it is normal to have worries.
● Be very specific – by naming exactly where you felt the worry in your body you are not only normalising it for them but you are also giving them vocabulary for them to use so they can name it in the future.
● Tell them how the fear became less as you spent more time practicing the event that scared you. Discuss with them the importance of practicing- small steps at a time until you get there.
● Let them know about a time you failed- but you tried again and got better and better until you mastered it.
● Talk about how successful and brave you felt after you completed and maybe conquered that worry or fear.
Kids with anxiety often get caught up in the worst-case scenario. The 'what ifs' in any situation. You can help them by giving them some of these strategies and thoughts.
● Remember a time they have dealt with a similar issue - you did it before; you can do it again.
● Remind them of the facts vs thoughts. The thought might be someone will get through my window. The fact is the window is shut and locked and cannot be opened from the outside.
● Help them develop a plan for what they will do if things don’t go the way they planned.
Lots of kids have worries about death, war, viruses and things they see on the news. This is all really normal. Talk through their fears and answer any questions truthfully. We try and protect children by sugar-coating things but this doesn’t work. Give them the facts – try and explain what’s happening in a way that puts their fears in perspective. Yes, there is a virus out there, yes, people have been sick and some died but we know how to keep ourselves safe and doctors and scientists are working on ways to help protect us from it.
It’s really important that you help them name and frame their feelings in a positive way. If your child is having difficulty at bedtime but manages to stay in bed or calm themselves, name those strengths for them so that they can eventually name them for themselves. .
“Wow, you stayed in bed even though you didn’t want to. That took a huge amount of self-control.”
“Well done, you handled that. You conquered your fear and found a way to feel safe.”
Don’t just tell your child how to overcome emotions – show them. Model helpful coping for them. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, verbalise out loud how you coping with the situation.” Hmmm, this looks a bit scary, but I’m going to give it a go so that I can get better at it.”
Without even know that we are doing it we can model anxiety to our children so have a think about the messages you’re sending. If you are an over-protective kind of person you may inadvertently reinforce your child’s fears that the world is a dangerous place where everything can hurt you. Also if you are the kind of parent who ‘over-helps’ you are giving your child the message that they can’t anything without adult support.
It can be hard seeing your child distressed, but figuring things out for themselves is an important step in building resilience and problem solving on their own. Focus on the pride they felt when they managed something on their own.
Avril McDonald’s website Feel Brave and her books help children process emotions using characters, stories and song.
These great picture books are a brilliant way to opening up discussion with your child about their worries and anxiety.
This is a brilliant website that has great resources to support you and your understanding about anxiety.
There are also some great apps to support anxiety. I wouls recommend having a look at
these meditation ones below.
Stop Breath Think