I was recently asked by a parent of a 6 year old, ‘How do I help my child who worries a lot. He’s anxious, but won’t always tell me what’s going on?’ First thing – give him regular hugs and tell him how much you love him – that’s always a good start!
The following will give you some ideas on how to assist your child if they have a tendency to worry or be anxious.
Where did the anxiety come from?
It’s always useful to look at the background of the child… the parents, the home and the past experiences. Sometimes there is an overly anxious parent who constantly gives children messages to: ‘be careful’, to ‘watch out’, or ‘you might get hurt’. When children are told this often enough, they start to believe that their world isn’t safe. In regards to the home situation – has there been a trauma? eg a death, a serious accident, or parents separating, where there’s been a lot of heightened emotions – some children tend to make this mean that’s there’s immediate danger to them or those around them – they fear ‘bad stuff’ will happen to them. There are also children who have been affected by alcohol or drugs when in utero. When a woman uses these during pregnancy, they can affect the developing foetus, and may cause brain changes, which can affect a variety of functions, including being anxious or lacking impulse control. Obviously we can’t change what has already happened in the past, so let’s look at what we can do now, and also in terms of building resilience in children.
To help now:
Ensure that the child has the opportunity to eat healthy, nourishing food, and that they get a good nights sleep. Ideas for great sleep routines can be found at theparentingcafe.com.au/how-you-can-establish-healthy-sleeping-patterns/
Role playing using their favourite teddy can be useful eg: While your child is nearby, you pick up Teddy and pretend that Teddy is whispering to you, and you say: ’What’s that Teddy? You’re scared? What are you scared of?’ Leave pauses in between, as if Teddy is talking to you. By now your child will be watching you, and then you ask them: ‘What do you think Teddy can do, when he’s scared about xyz?’ Often children come up with great solutions, when they are problem solving for another – but of course it also helps them!
Worry dolls are great. These are tiny figures made from pipe cleaners, and come in a small fabric bag. The idea is that when you put a child to bed, you tell them you want them to have a great night sleep, and that you know that sometimes when you go to bed, you start thinking and worrying, and that you’ve got a great idea to help them…. You give them the little bag. Tell the child to take the dolls out (there’s usually about 6 in the bag) and to whisper any worries they have, one to each doll. When they’ve finished, they put the dolls back in the bed, and you tell them that now it will be easy to sleep, because the dolls will have their worries. It sounds simple, but it often works!
Another strategy is to use simple visualisations with them, also at bed-time. If you are unfamiliar with this, it is talking them through a very gentle scene, where basically they get to relax. You speak in a soft voice, which is very soothing. A favourite book of mine for this is “Starbright” by Maureen Garth. She presents several scenes which you can read to your child to help them relax. Maureen has a great one about a Worry Tree, and another about constructing a special star for the child, which is like a guardian angel – both are very effective.
Ensure that you have lots of fun times with your child, playing together in the park, or with a board game, or chatting over a milkshake. Make the chat unrelated to any issues going on, and at the end tell him how much you like chatting and hearing what he has to say – you are giving the message that you listen, and are available.
If you are an anxious parent, talk to a friend, your doctor or a counsellor to allay your fears – remember that children are little sponges, and readily ‘copy’ what you do, and how you act.
Next week we’ll look at how to build capacity or resilience in our children. Till then remember:
Calm and Consistent parenting
— Image by tamckile via Flickr