How to help a child with anxiety – a therapist’s tips

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What are the signs of stress and anxiety in children, and what can you as a parent do to help? Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi, shares her advice

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Stress and anxiety can seem like adult problems, but children are vulnerable too. Up to 20% of children and adolescents experience mental health problems, and half of all mental disorders start before age 14. The most common disorders in children are generalised anxiety disorder and depression. They’ve been on the rise for decades, and the pandemic has only added to the rise.

‘There are a lot of reasons why children might be stressed, but generally speaking, we live in a society that doesn’t provide a lot of space for children to be encouraged and validated,’ says Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi.

By creating safe, restful spaces and routines, you can give your child the best chance of growing into a resilient adult.

What causes anxiety in children?

High levels of stress, whether at home, school or elsewhere, can affect children and their nervous systems.

The home environment is especially significant for a child’s wellbeing. ‘The more conscious we can be of children’s need for calm and peace, the better,’ says Gauffin. In particular, the way parents talk to their children can have a big impact. Research shows that using controlling, fear-inducing language, like ‘don’t climb too high’ or ‘do it this way’ can contribute to anxiety in children.

Screens can also be stressful for children. While social media can have its positives, spending too much time on social media channels is linked to mental health problems, particularly in combination with poor sleep.

Other risk factors for generalised anxiety disorder are a family history of the condition, physical or emotional stress, a history of trauma, and experiencing another anxiety disorder or chronic health condition.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in children

The symptoms of stress and anxiety in children and young people are the same as in adults. Here are some of the symptoms to look out for in your child:

Physical symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Pain in different parts of the body, particularly headaches and tummy aches
  • Dizziness
  • Recurring infections

Psychological symptoms:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or getting back to sleep after waking at night
  • Nightmares
  • Appearing lethargic or apathetic (sluggish)
  • Restlessness or hyperactivity

7 tips for supporting anxious children and minimising stress in their lives

1. Make time to talk things through

If you’re worried about your child’s anxiety levels, start a conversation. ‘Ask what’s going on and how they’re feeling,’ says Gauffin. ‘A small child won’t be able to tell you why they feel the way they do, but you can help them figure it out.’

Making time for these chats is crucial. ‘You might need to cancel activities and take some time to really show you are there for your child,’ adds Gauffin.

You can also help your child identify their triggers. ‘Ask how they feel in certain situations and around certain people to pinpoint the situations triggering their anxiety,’ Gauffin advises. ‘It could be a specific subject in school that makes them feel insecure or perhaps a specific person or group – maybe bullying is a culprit. The key thing is making time for a proper chat, not just 5 minutes before bedtime.’

2. Validate your child’s feelings

‘Show your child that you take their experiences seriously. Validate their feelings – try not to minimise the situation, or they’ll be less likely to confide in you again,’ says Gauffin.

3. Be there in the moment

In situations where your child is overwhelmed or panicking, try to stay calm. ‘Hold them, breathe calmly, and see if you can help them to breathe more calmly too,’ advises Gauffin. ‘Reassure your child that you’re there for them and not going anywhere.’

4. Plan ahead

Gauffin recommends planning ahead to help streamline your morning routine. ‘Get everything ready the evening before,’ she says. ‘Put out their clothes, and serve whatever breakfast you know they will eat.’

A smooth bedtime routine can also help the parasympathetic nervous system kick in and promote calmness. ‘Listening to relaxation tracks and sleep music is a great way to help your child unwind,’ says Gauffin.

Avoiding screens, if possible, is also key. ‘Depending on the age of your child, you might choose to stay with them until they fall asleep,’ adds Gauffin. ‘Many children need that – they can’t let go on their own. It might take an extra half an hour, but that’s half an hour well spent.’

If your child is having trouble sleeping, read our guides to helping your child get to sleep and what to do if they have nightmares.

5. Prioritise downtime

Do what you can to create a calm home environment. Consider the number of extra-curricular activities your children are doing – although it’s well-intended, young children don’t necessarily need a packed schedule to thrive.

Try making time to do things like going for a walk after school. ‘Too much activity in the evenings can contribute to high stress levels in children,’ says Gauffin. ‘Stress hormone levels should go back down after a spike, but we know that continuously high levels tend to stay high – that’s what makes us burn out.’

6. Keep an eye on your own stress levels

‘The more aware you can be of your own ways of dealing with everyday challenges and fears, and how you express stress, the better,’ says Gauffin. ‘If you’re frequently grumpy and snap at your children, ask yourself what you can do about the stress levels in the family.’

7. Lead by example

‘We need to show children that resting is allowed and that there’s time and space for it,’ says Gauffin, explaining that time to unwind together each day is important – and ideally not just in front of a screen. ‘It can be good to model this by saying, “I’m feeling stressed, so I’m going to have a rest.”’

When should you seek professional help?

If the problem persists for more than a few weeks, and you’re having trouble helping your child, seeking help is an option. A professional can help your child learn coping mechanisms like acceptance, problem-solving and CBT strategies to change negative thought patterns.

‘Don’t put it off,’ says Gauffin. ‘If you’re stressed yourself and can’t get through to your child, ask for help so that someone else can help them.’ Mental health issues that are not addressed in childhood are more likely to continue into adulthood, so helping your child get timely help can be an important, positive turning point.

This article has been medically approved by Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi.

Speak to a GP about anxiety in children

If you’re worried about your child and think they might need help to deal with stress or anxiety, book an appointment with a Livi GP

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