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Stress Awareness Week: How to Help Children with Anxiety

Created in 2018 to raise awareness of – and improve guidance around – stress prevention, this week marks International Stress Awareness week: an event the whole world needs, perhaps more than ever, after the turmoil of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic.

Most worryingly, the number of children with anxiety is on the increase – though this is perhaps no surprise. After months spent experiencing the effects of the coronavirus crisis on a personal level – coupled with seeing frightening images and reports on the news – as well as periods of prolonged physical separation from teachers, classmates, friends and family, the current climate must feel both terrifying and uncertain. Some concern, therefore, is normal: but when this becomes a hindrance to day-to-day life, it’s time to take action to protect the emotional wellbeing and mental health of our children.

Children with Anxiety: When Do I Need to Worry?

As mentioned above, these are extraordinary times: as such, it’s natural for children to display some signs of worry. It’s the difference between mild – fleeting – and severe, ongoing anxiety that parents need to look out for – and it can be difficult to decide when it’s time to take action.

Every child is different; but, from our point of view, if a child is displaying signs of anxiety that prohibit them from continuing with their day to day life – the development of phobias that mean they don’t want to take part in certain activities, for example, or exam stress that becomes so severe that they can’t face going to the examination venue – it’s important to acknowledge this. Not only can anxiety like this affect their academic performance in the short term, but also it can impact their mental and emotional wellbeing, confidence, their willingness to try new things, and their ability to gain pleasure from things they used to enjoy.

What Are the Signs?

Oftentimes, anxiety is easier to spot in younger children (though no less worrying), even though they may not always be able to express how they’re feeling. Key symptoms include:

  • Difficulty sleeping and/or nightmares.
  • Bedwetting.
  • Irritable or tearful moods.
  • Displaying unusually clingy behaviour with family members.

With older children, you may notice that they:

  • Seem to lack focus or become increasingly disorganised.
  • Have angry or tearful outbursts.
  • Exhibit disruptive behaviours.
  • Display negative patterns of thinking (obsessive concern that something bad is going to happen, for example).
  • Find it difficult to sleep.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Begin to struggle at school; academic performance often suffers quite notably due to anxiety.
  • Lose interest in things that previously interested them: seeing friends, going to school, or carrying on with their hobbies.

How to Help Children with Anxiety

It can be worrying – even daunting – to accept that your child might suffer from anxiety; and more concerning still to try to put together an action plan for supporting and guiding them through it. There are lots of things you can try, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy. However, the ideas detailed below provide a good starting point:

  • Communicate. It might sound obvious, but sometimes an instinctive reaction to anxiety is to think: ‘If I ignore it, it might go away’ or ‘If I confront it, it might make it seem a bigger deal, so it’s best to avoid talking about it.’ Don’t. Speak with your child; encourage them to ask for help when they need it, and to discuss their feelings openly with you – even if they can’t pinpoint exactly who they’re feeling or the reasons why.
  • Once you’ve established a dialogue, help your child to learn how to recognise signs of anxiety and triggers. Look for – and discuss – patterns.
  • Specific events might be a contributing factor (or the cause), particularly in a year like 2020. Look for supporting information that will help them to understand more about the event: age-appropriate films and books that touch on life during quarantine situations, isolation, or even disease.
  • Lead by example. It can be difficult to project an unruffled exterior when you’re worried about someone that you love, but it’s crucial to do so. Resist the urge to be overprotective or clingy; instead, keep as calm as possible.
  • Try relaxation techniques or exercise routines together. Joe Wicks dubbed himself the ‘nation’s PE coach’ during the first lockdown; and he’s recently announced that he will be running short, 15-minute workout sessions three times a week during November. These are suitable for the whole family and will get endorphins going, which are really useful for mental health. In addition, yoga and breathing exercises are often very helpful.

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