Anxiety is a major mental health problem for adults around the world, but there are also statistics to show that half of all mental health problems are established by the time people are 15 years old.
That means there is work to be done with youngsters to give them help and support while they're children and help allieviate the burden of mental health problems when they get older.
Here are some tips on helping anxious children from a leading expert in the UAE.
Empathise, rather than reassure
Your child is worried about something. You, in your infinite knowledge of The World, know it’s going to be fine, so you tell them they’ve nothing to worry about. So why are they still worrying? Because the chemicals kicking off in their brain won’t let the words sink it. So instead of trying to palm them off with gentle reassurance, stop and take a few minutes. Do a few deep breaths together, let your child explain what’s worrying them, and then let them know that you understand their fear. Once you’re both calm, talk together about possible solutions.
Let them know that worrying is actually good
There’s nothing wrong with them for feeling this way – let them know that. Explain what fear and worry are, and why it can make them feel so strange. Teach them that it is a protection tool, something that began hundreds of thousands of years ago, to protect people when they were out hunting for food, the chemical feeling of fear allowed them to stay safe and avoid attacks from predators.
Help your child become a detective
A thought detective, that is. (Deerstalker entirely optional.) Simple techniques for working through the thinking process that generates worry, can actually help eliminate it. First of all, catch the thoughts. Today’s thought might be ‘I’m not clever enough’. Let’s catch that in our butterfly net. Next, we’ll try and collect evidence that will either confirm or deny this thought, remembering that feelings are not facts. Evidence in support of this might be, ‘I failed my last math’s test’. Evidence to the contrary, ‘I got an A in English’. Teach your child to do this with every thought, and debate with their worry.
Turn What Ifs into What Is
Don’t let them get drawn into a cycle of ‘what if I fail maths again?’ or ‘what if no-one will sit with me at lunch?’. Focus on the present. Bring them back into the right here, right now. This is a technique known as mindfulness – and is as useful to you as it is your kids (parents are just as guilty of What Ifs…). A good place to start with this is by simply focusing on breathing in, and breathing out, for a few minutes.
Don’t avoid everything that provokes anxiety
As a parent, your instinct is naturally to avoid putting your child in a situation that makes them worried or nervous. But avoidance only increases anxiety in the long run. So start by breaking things down into small steps, designed to encourage gradual exposure. For example, if your child is afraid of dog’s, and won’t go to their friend’s house because they have pets. Create small goals leading to the big goal. Go to the front door. Go into the sitting room. The dogs are kept out in the garden – go to the window to watch them. Let one dog in to be stroked. Stroke the dog. Repeat each step until the experience becomes easy – then it’s time to move on to the next step.