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How can I help my child through anxiety during uncertain times?

September 28, 2020
How can I help my child through anxiety during uncertain times?

Psychologist Lisa Jones answers this question in our Ask A Psychologist series.

Anxiety is common amongst children and can present in many different ways. Children use their behaviour as a way of communicating what they are thinking or feeling, and sometimes anxiety might look like angry outbursts, crying, lack of interest in usual activities, clinginess, or even defiance. We might mistake anxiety for our child being ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’ if they refuse to do things we ask, will not try new things, act out when things become difficult, or seem to have big meltdowns over small things. 

During these unusual and uncertain times, it is understandable that your child may present with extra worries and fears that perhaps were not there before. So how do we support them with this anxiety, especially when we might not have all the answers ourselves? 

Here are a few things to try: 

  1. Be honest with your child and share information in an age-appropriate way. There are several social stories online that may explain current circumstances, why things are different, why we can’t do the same activities as before etc. Just make sure that the information is appropriate for your child’s age and stage. 
  2. Try and limit exposure to news and media, particularly things that might not be appropriate for your child’s age and development. If you want to keep up to date with current affairs, do it at a time when your children are not present. 
  3. Try some relaxation strategies – using your 5 senses is a great way to distract your mind from its worries and bring you back to the present moment and the things around you. Anxiety happens when our brain is spending too much time in the future, instead of the present moment. Try playing a game of sensory “I spy”, finding 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. 
  4. Practice ‘belly breathing’. Have your child lie flat on their back and place a favourite toy on their belly (soft toys are great, but Lego and figurines will work too). Practice breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, watching the belly rise and fall with each breath. Try and encourage your child to give their toy a gentle ride on their belly, making their belly rise and fall more than their chest. This is to encourage oxygen down into the lungs and diaphragm to support oxygen flow, which in turn supports a more relaxed body and brain. Visit www.smilingmind.com if you’d like to listen to some guided meditation and mindfulness activities. 
  5. Create a ‘worry box’. Encourage your child to write or draw a picture of their worries and place them in the ‘worry box’. Once the worries are in the ‘worry box’, you can forget about them and move on, or your can set aside a ‘worry time’ where you go through these worries together and talk about them. Make sure ‘worry time’ is not near bedtime, as this may make sleep difficult. During ‘worry time’, talk about and validate your child’s worry and try and problem solve together. If your child brings up worries outside of ‘worry time’, encourage them to write them or draw them and place them in the box to be discussed later. 
  6. Create some ‘mindful mantras’ or use positive affirmations to encourage positive thinking and distractions. When your child is feeling worried or scared, have them repeat some simple sentences to themselves such as “I am brave”, “I am strong”, “I am loved”, “I am the boss of my own thoughts and feelings” etc. You might like to write some of sticky notes and post them around the house as gentle reminders. 

Remember, you are human as well and during these uncertain times, it is okay to feel unsure and not have all the answers. Some of these strategies might be useful for you too, so why not try them together with your child. And, if you feel like you need additional help in managing your child’s anxiety or worries, our psychologist is here to help.

A psychologist can support you and your child to understand what anxiety is, why they may feel the way they do, and how to manage it. Your psychologist will introduce you and your child to techniques to help them understand what happens in their brain and their body when they are feeling anxious, as well as strategies to calm down when anxiety strikes, and to try and prevent those anxious thoughts and feelings from taking over. Your psychologist can provide practical techniques for your child, as well as advice and support for you to support you children through anxious moments (and to keep calm yourself).

To find out more about the psychology services provided at Melbourne Child Development, take a look at our psychology page: https://www.melbournechilddevelopment.com.au/psychology/