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Now, more than ever, parents are aware of how their children might be feeling, encouraging them to talk as we live through a global pandemic.
Research has shown children have shown an increase in mental health difficulties during lockdown, such as feeling unhappy, worried, being clingy, and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry.
As parents, it can be tricky to know how best to support your child when they become fearful – are their worries something they can deal with alone, or is it a sign they need some help?
To help your child articulate how they’re feeling, we had a peek in upcoming book, 101 Tips to Help Your Anxious Child, by Poppy O’Neill, who has written widely on mental wellbeing for children and adults.
Here’s an extract from the book, which is released on 13 August, detailing nine ways parents can help their anxious child.
1. Create a mental health shelf
Keep feel-good movies, motivational quote books, treasured photos, stress toys and soft blankets all together somewhere your child can access them whenever they need a boost. If a shelf isn’t practical, you could use a box, drawer or suitcase. You could encourage your child to personalise theirs, making it an appealing go-to place for wobbly moments. Make sure it’s well stocked with familiar, comforting objects that will help restore your child’s sense of well-being.
2. Find the right time and place to talk
Sitting down with your child to “have a chat” might not be the best strategy, as it could feel unnatural and intimidating to them. Try to broach the subject while you’re doing a calm activity, just the two of you. Perhaps gardening, walking, cooking or colouring together. Having something else to focus on, and less eye contact, can make tricky conversations flow more easily. Take the pressure right off and don’t push if they don’t want to talk or can’t articulate what’s wrong. Have patience, trust your gut and let them take the lead.
3. Learn how to listen
The right kind of listening will mean your child feels safe expressing themselves to you. Let them have their say and respond by using body language to show you are listening and understanding. When the moment’s right, paraphrase what they have said, showing they have your full attention. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to agree with your child – a lot of worries can be irrational – but you can still affirm and empathise with them.
Try these phrases:
“I hear you.”
“I can see why that would make you feel sad/ worried/upset.”
“That makes sense.”
“How does that feel in your body?”
This technique is called active listening and it’s used by therapists to encourage the speaker to open up.
4. Try alternative communication tools
Talking isn’t the only way humans have of communicating and feelings can often be expressed more comfortably in other, more creative ways. Try these alternative communication tools:
Writing poetry or a letter
Playing out scenarios in an age appropriate way using toys, fictional characters or role play
Using emojis – have a selection to choose from pinned up in your kitchen or use text messages if your child has a phone.
If you feel uncomfortable with what your child expresses, it’s useful to remember that research has found expressing difficult emotions through creative play is one of the most effective ways for children to process their feelings and improve their mental health
5. Talk about anxiety
Whatever the age of your child, you can explain why we feel anxiety in terms of evolution and biology. Here’s a simple way of putting it: “Anxiety is a type of fear or worry. It’s really useful for keeping us safe by stopping us from doing dangerous things. But sometimes our brains aren’t able to tell the difference between real and imaginary danger, so they produce feelings of anxiety in our bodies just in case.”
The emotion of anxiety often brings with it uncomfortable sensations and thoughts. Ask your child: “How does it feel in your body? Can you point to where you feel it? What thoughts are in your mind?” Feel free to research anxiety in more depth with your child – the Mind and Anxiety UK websites are a good place to start. The better their understanding, the more equipped they’ll be to cope with it.
6. Use mind and body calming activities
Research has found that repeated, rhythmic activities work to relax and rewire the link between a child’s brain and their nervous system, making it easier for them to regulate their emotions.
Rhythmic activities include:
Bouncing on a trampoline
When your child is in the company of an adult they trust and feel comfortable with, a little of one or more of these activities every day can have a marked effect on their mental health, according to research carried out by American psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry.
7. Remind them they can cope
When your child expresses worry about something that might happen, it can be tempting to dismiss the worry and explain how unlikely it is. However, statistics won’t calm an anxious mind. There is always the possibility that it might happen, and that’s what keeps the anxious thought swirling around in your child’s head. Instead, try reassuring your child that even if something bad does happen, they will cope. You could make an action plan of ways to keep calm and solve the problem; or role-play the scenario, letting your child take the lead. This can be a gentle way to help your child face their fears.
8. Make your home a place of positivity
Try putting positive messages around your home where your child can see them. Postcards, Post-it notes, pages from magazines or your favourite quotes – you can find positivity anywhere. Whenever you see a calming, uplifting or soothing message write it down, cut it out or print it, stick it on your fridge, wall or pin it to a noticeboard. Seeing short, memorable words of positivity on a regular basis as they go about their day will help give your child little boosts.
9. Cultivate self-trust
Learning to trust themselves will set your child up for life. Just like trust in others, self-trust is earned, so let your child rely on themselves in certain situations in order to prove to themselves that they are trustworthy. The key to teaching self-trust is recognising that your child is the expert on themselves. So, as a parent, it’s important to avoid telling your child how they feel or should feel.
For example, if your child says they’re not cold, don’t force them to wear a coat. If they insist they don’t need the toilet, take their word for it. Giving them autonomy in this way will show them that they can rely on their own judgement and that even if they make a regrettable choice, they can change their mind and learn from their mistakes.
101 Tips to Help Your Anxious Child by Poppy O’Neill is published by Summersdale Publishers, and is £9.99.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.