If You Are Worried That Your Child Is Struggling with Anxious Feelings, Try These 9 Expert Tips

·6-min read
Photo credit: Yagi-Studio - Getty Images
Photo credit: Yagi-Studio - Getty Images

Spinning from strict governmental messaging regarding staying a metre away from other people to a world in which crowds can gather in thousands is enough to make anyone feel dizzy.

For children – especially in these fresh days of the new school year after the summer – this time might be both thrilling and disorientating. While certain measures are being kept up in classrooms, depending on which part of the UK you live in, heading back as headlines shout about rising cases in Scotland, attributed partly to schools re-opening, might ring alarm bells in some younger minds.

If you are concerned about how your child is feeling, WH asked the below experts to dispense some wisdom on navigating this strange terrain.

Here is what they had to say.

1. Work out how they are feeling

First off, it's important to tease out if your child is feeling worried about changes to their day-to-day life after the holidays, or about what they might be hearing at school with regards to the pandemic and what might happen, in the future.

'Do you notice any behaviour in your child that is different – such as more tantrums than normal in little children, becoming withdrawn, seeming more unsure of themselves, hyperactivity, or more difficulty regulating their emotions?' asks Dr Windgassen. 'These might seem unrelated, and your child might not make the link themselves, but it could be a stress that they can't quite articulate.'

Another sign that your child is feeling nervous, she says, is asking a lot more questions than usual. These may or may not be related to the pandemic, says Dr Windgassen, but they do indicate that they have a lot on their minds and are trying to get as much information as possible.

2. Keep the lines of communication open

The way through here, then, is to open up clean lines of communication. 'From the age of 3 to 4 onwards, it can be useful to ask kids how they feel about things. You might not get a lot of information back, but it signals that it's good to check in on how they feel about things. From here, you can normalise that we all feel differently about events and that they can always talk to you about what is happening internally, for them.'

3. Help them to piece together a nuanced picture

Being weirded out by sudden changes to rules and regulations is natural, as is being excited for the new possibilities that this implies, at the same time. Explaining that life is typically messy, and that things are not always clearly defined, can help, when it comes to working through feelings.

'With slightly older kids, who are capable of understanding, you can explain that it's normal to feel confused that we had all this guidance about being strict with social distancing and now things have shifted. It might be useful to explain why messaging has changed, and that the vaccine means that the risk from covid is now less severe, so actions have changed, as a result. You could give them licence to identify any precautions they want to keep up, and communicate that we have to weigh up safety against other important things, like social connection and learning,' says Dr Windgassen.

Guiding a child through this is important, because of the stage of neurological development that they are at. 'A child’s brain is not fully developed, so they do not have the benefit of critical thinking and nuance. They are constantly trying to gather information with the cognitive resource they’ve got, so we have to help them to piece things together as much as possible and to help them understand that things are never black or white, and to help them to see grey areas.'

4. Make sure the basics are taken care of

Reading notes that kids might feel out of sorts, or be acting up, because they are simply fatigued after what has been an intense year and a half of changing rules, lack of time spent with their peers and the background hum of fear. Taking care of the build blocks of good health, then, can prove a tonic.

'Energy, clarity and composure can come from kids getting enough sleep, enough rest, enough social connection,' she says.

5. Keep the time before bed soothing

On that note, Reading notes that a child who does feel nervous is likely to be the most stressed around bedtime. When it gets to the evening, she says, it can help to make space and time for soothing practices, such as breathing practices or stretching. 'You could make it something you do together, like playing a guided yoga nidra through your phone [try a free session, via the Insight Timer app] and lying down, side-by-side.'

6. Remember to model

'We know from social psychology that one key way that children learn is through modelling – observing what others say and do, and copying,' says Dr Windgassen. 'If you want your child to be open about their feelings, so that you can guide them through, then try expressing yourself, openly.' So you could state something like "I am feeling a little nervous about this work presentation," for example.

7. Ask what's going on at school

While you might monitor your conversation at home, with regards to talk of covid cases or rumours of October firebreak restrictions, if your child is of school age then, naturally, they might hear news filtered through what another parent has said to their child. This might be more alarmist or more caviler than you would like. 'Simply asking "has there been any conversation at school around changes to routines or about taking care of ourselves during the pandemic?" can keep lines of communication open,' says Reading.

From here, you can chat about your take on the situation. For example, if your child has heard a very scary view, via a friend, you might explain that, yes, cases of covid have been rising more recently, in certain areas, but that the risk is not as great as it used to be, thanks to the vaccination programme.

8. Discuss what is in their sphere of control

If your child does feel scared about what could happen over the winter, then, as well as the above, try to keep them focused on what they can control, advises Reading. While the actions of the government are not something that they can do anything about, if they are concerned, they can still keep up things like regular hand washing and laddering up to hanging out in bigger groups, socially, until they feel comfortable.

9. Help them to be mindful that other people might feel differently

Depending on their personality, your child might be feeling confident about the future, or more nervous. Naturally, this might not chime precisely with what's going on for their friends – particularly older ones, who have a deeper understanding of what the pandemic has meant.

'Help your child to be mindful of where their friends are at. If they have a friend who feels very different from them, you could ask them to imagine how that friend is feeling, and to prep what they might say to them, in advance. For example, if they have a friend who has some anxious feelings about being in crowds after so long away from them, could they say: "it's okay if you don't want to play this game, right now, we can find something else," for example.

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