Many children struggle with anxious feelings at the best of times. In these current times that are anxiety provoking for all of us, children with existing anxiety may experience a heightening of this, and other children may have only started to experience some anxiety during this time.
The following guide for how to support children with anxiety is largely taken from a youtube video (linked below), by Dr Pooky Knightsmith (Child and Adolescent Mental health Specialist), and could be useful as a written guide alongside the video content.
This guide gives examples of supportive phrases a parent or other trusted adult can use with an anxious child, supported by a brief explanation as to the idea and understanding behind using this approach.
You can adapt the example phrases provided, so that saying them feels natural and they work for your particular child (you could discuss and explore with them in advance, while calm).
Anxiety comes with feeling UNSAFE. Even if there is no obvious, outside threat, this feeling is experienced inside the mind and body (from thoughts that are experienced as threatening). An anxious child will benefit from hearing words around safety, and from sensing a calm, safe physical presence from trusted adults.
Example Safety phrases:
PHYSIOLOGICAL (Bodily symptoms):
Helping the child to understand how anxiety feels in the body.
It is helpful to children to normalise the physical sensations of anxiety, as these can become a source of further anxiety in themselves. At an age appropriate level, you can help the child understand that these bodily sensations are just the body’s way of getting us ready to run, or fight; as if we are under threat (think prey animals being chased by a predator!). Thoughts in our mind can make the body think we are threatened and that it needs to get ready to survive. Chemicals (hormones) are released in the body that can make you feel shaky, hot/cold, tingly, have a tummy ache and fast heart beats etc. You can help your child understand that if they were in real physical danger, this would actually be what would keep them alive. Our body does this for a good reason; the chemicals flood your muscles to make you faster or stronger.
You can then reassure the child that the body can’t stay like this for very long, and the sensations and feelings will pass as the body settles back down.
Talk about this with children while they are calm, so that when they are experiencing anxiety you can ask them where and how they are feeling it in their body and/or remind them what is happening and reassure why it is happening to them and that this will pass.
Example physiological phrases:
Often a child’s reason for feeling anxious is difficult to understand, make sense of, or agree with as valid, or big enough. The important thing to remember here is that in the moment of anxiety, that fear, and all the sensations associated with it are a real experience, regardless of the reason. Dismissing and judging are best put aside, as it is acknowledging the reality of what the child is feeling that is most helpful, and this is what will help the child come through the other side.
You do not need to agree that the cause is real, what needs to be acknowledged is that the feeling and experience is real to the child in that moment,
Example validation phrases:
Accepting what the child is experiencing will help the child accept it in themselves, and this can contribute to the ability to return to calm (naming and accepting actually calm the primitive/survival part of the brain). Naming the feeling for the child makes the feeling less scary and more manageable, and also helps the child develop the ability to talk about how they feel before the feelings get too big in the longer term:
Putting it together:
When children are anxious, it is natural for the adults with them to feel anxious too; and to want to jump in and minimise or fix the problem. It is helpful in this case to take a moment to breathe and calm yourself first (like the parent who must use the oxygen mask in a plane emergency before the child). When you are calmer, it will then be easier to respond with the validating phrases, offer safety and support rather than advice and solutions, and to help the child begin to feel safer and calmer.
Aim to judge timing and level of anxiety for how to use which phrases and when to offer support. Initially, your child might just need safety and validation phrases to calm down, before they are ready to accept further support, or to talk for example.
Examples of different responses depending on the level of anxiety right now:
If your child does begin to feel ready to talk or explore their worries, it is helpful to aim to offer an attitude of curiosity and seeking understanding, rather than judgment and rushing to problem solving: ‘What do you think…………?’ type questions.
If the child discounts or minimises their own anxious reaction (for example, saying, It’s silly, I’m stupid to feel like this), it is still important to validate what they are actually feeling.
No matter how insignificant or strange a worry might seem to be, you can support and work through it with your child and by doing this, you will be helping them build resilience and emotional literacy. You can talk through and explore the worries with a child by using the understanding offered above about: SAFETY, NORMALISING (of the body response/anxiety itself), and VALIDATION.
It can feel awkward and unnatural if you are not used to responding in this way with your child, but it gets easier and rewarding over time.
If you have any time to play with your child during the day, however briefly, this could be useful and supportive in helping you and your child manage anxiety, together.
While you play together and the child is calm and happy, you could plan ahead together which of these play activities might be useful in the future if they ever need to feel calm, safe, and strong again after anxious feelings have come up. Play calms the nervous system. Perhaps they enjoy building dens, doing jigsaws or Lego, playing a board game or football, exercising or dancing. One idea is to make a list together of these activities, or a set of cards with pictures of them on, that you can use as a resource that the child can choose from, when needed. You could even make up a box, or bag, of special play items just for those times. Sometimes, children may find it easier to talk about their worries while playing with you.
‘Top Phrases’ sourced from Dr Pooky Knightsmith