15 Nov Anxious Children – a growing concern?
Recently, a number of clients have mentioned to me that their children are suffering from stress or anxiety of various kinds. It’s a sad fact that today, more than ever before, children feel under pressure to perform at school in class, in exams, or to behave in a certain way, look a certain way, be a certain way.
So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about anxiety, and how we can help our children, whether they’re still little ones, teenagers or college students to move beyond a place of anxiety.
What are the signs of anxiety?
Anxiety comes in all sorts of forms – and ranges of course from mild to severe. When children start to show signs of constant, chronic, unsubstantiated worry, or sense of dread, we should take this very seriously.
Ongoing negative thoughts about the future, and misusing the imagination by dwelling on worst case scenarios, are very destructive. The body isn’t good at distinguishing between real and imagined scenarios, and so may trigger the fight or flight response even in response to a thought pattern.
Physiological responses to anxiety might be reported as a pounding heart, butterflies in the tummy, tummy aches, headaches, over-breathing or heightened senses. Children who are anxious might regularly miss school through minor illnesses, have trouble sleeping, easily become irritable or become particularly clingy.
Our bodies are designed to trigger the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response to danger , which in the dangerous environment of our ancestors, was extremely useful to help run away from of hide from danger. It is far less useful in today’s world!
How can we help?
A better understanding of what anxiety is, and what may cause it, can help young people to cope better when it strikes. Anxiety has a detrimental effect on learning, and with increased pressures on youngsters today can then lead to ’anxiety about under-performance resulting from anxiety’, setting off a downward spiral of worry and poor performance.
Just understanding that physiological symptoms they may be experiencing are part of our bodies’ natural response, can be reassuring. Without this knowledge, many young people feel that the pounding heart or inability to think clearly mean that they are going crazy.
- As the brain detects a threat (such as a future exam), the defence system in the brain switches off the frontal part of the brain (where learning, memory etc. can be accessed for study).
- Realising that they are not able to function as they would like, students may become more anxious, which reinforces the process.
- Learning to recognize these signs of shut-down, and using a pre-learnt strategy to help calm themselves down, can help to minimize the physiological responses, and the level of anxiety.
These are all strategies that we can teach to our young children so that they are able to calm themselves at times of difficulty and stress. Many colleges report that it is students’ lack of experience in understanding and managing their own states of mind, that lead to difficulties once they are required to cope alone.
In the longer term:
- Recognise that focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths is discouraging and counter-productive. Learn to notice and dismiss negative self-talk.
- Avoid ‘what ifs’ – learn to recognize that your stories about the future are not real, but that YOU are making them up. Just because a thought about the future enters your head, that does not mean it is real. You can choose which thoughts to entertain and which to dismiss as nonsense. Aim to live more and more in the present moment.
- It’s not exams and workload that make us stressed, it’s the way we think about exams and workload – if it was the exams themselves, then everyone would feel the same way about them. If it’s us, then we can change.
- Recognise the importance of relationships – real face-to-face connections with other people are essential to our well-being. Don’t miss out on this because you ‘haven’t got time’.
In the short term (when experiencing anxiety in any moment):
- Practice 7-11 breathing. Breathe in for a count of 7, then out for 11. If you can’t manage these numbers, then at least aim to breathe out for much longer than you breathe in. This can be very calming.
- Try muscle relaxation – go through your body, tensing and then relaxing muscles one area at a time.
- Visualising a calming scene – create in your mind details of colour, sounds, textures, smells etc.
- Listen to a relaxation audio
- Listen to calming music.
Increasingly society’s dominant narrative to children and young people is ‘You have to succeed, the world is a highly competitive place – any failure could be fatal to your whole career/life.’
This is not true: we need to challenge this belief – otherwise it’s no surprise that children will be anxious!