We all have times of anxiousness – it’s perfectly normal and part of life. Children and young adults, as they are growing up, experience many changes of emotions and pressures from all aspects of their lives. Teaching them how to cope with the stresses of their childhood and school days is crucial to helping them deal with anxious thoughts and negative feelings.
Young people will feel anxious in stressful situations or when there are big changes in their lives, such as starting or changing schools, exam time, moving house or if they’re experiencing problems at school, for example bullying or struggling in class.
There are a number of signs that will indicate a child is feeling anxious:
- Restlessness and irritability
- Fatigue, usually from a lack of sleep
- Unable to control their worries and/or temper
- Lack of focus and concentration, inability to concentrate
Not only can this be a difficult time for parents, teachers and carers, it is for children too, particularly if it’s mistaken as ‘attention-seeking’.
How to help
Recognising the signs is key, but once you understand that a child is feeling anxious, talk to them and find out how they are feeling. There a variety of skills you can teach children that will help them deal with anxiety, from relaxation techniques to breathing exercises.
- Relaxation techniques – there are several ways to learn to relax in difficult or emotional situations. One method is deep breathing, such as learning to ‘breathe the rainbow’. This involves teaching children to take slow, deep breaths and think about their favourite things to match each colour of the rainbow. This helps to slow the heart rate, relax muscles and relieve anxiousness. Another way to relax muscles is using a two-step process that is very simple. Ask the child to tense a muscle, or group of muscles, such as their legs, arms or shoulders, and hold for 5 seconds. Then ask them to release the muscle group and notice how they feel. Encourage them to do this several times, working from head to toe. Also, help them create a relaxation kit filled with things they’ve chosen that help them to relax.
- Write it down – a great way of venting anxious feelings or stress is write them down or draw them on a piece of paper. Get the child to read it to you, or show you their drawing, and then ask them to tear it up and throw it away. Help children to create a Worry Journal or Worry Box where they can write down their worries followed by a positive thought or feeling that will break the negative thinking cycle.
- Talk back – whilst we teach children to not answer back, when it comes to dispelling anxious feelings or negative thoughts, it’s a different matter entirely. Boss back is the practice of teaching children to ‘talk back’ to the anxious or negative thought. Thought stopping helps children to recognise when they’re having anxious thoughts or feelings and to stop them before they escalate. Another way is to get them to create a character that represents their anxiety and talk back to the character.
Experiencing anxiety as a child can be completely overwhelming, for the child, teachers, parents and carers. The aim is to ensure that any child who suffers from anxiety has at least one or two tools that they can use, long term, to help them develop coping strategies, conquer their fears and anxiety, and learn how to accept not just their feelings of worry, but also tolerate the feeling of others. Not all methods will suit every child so what may work for one, may not work for another. Be prepared to spend time with the child to work out which method is best for them.