If you have a child who is quite often anxious and nervous about things it can be hard to know what to do to help them.
Especially if you don’t think of yourself as an anxious person.
There are quite a few things you can do though, to help them work things through the next time they’re feeling nervous about something. And these 5 ideas are a great place to start.
1. Acknowledge their worries
It’s really tempting to try to reassure your child by telling them there’s nothing to worry about. But this doesn’t actually help all that much.
The anxiety and fear that your child is feeling is very real to them. Think about how your felt before going in to a job interview. You were in no real danger, but chances are your heart was racing a bit, your palms were sweaty, you felt anxious.
Even if you can see that your child has nothing to worry about, they are still feeling those same, very real, feelings.
So acknowledge it.
Tell them you can see they’re feeling anxious and worried. Talk to them about a time you felt the same way. Validate their feelings rather than trying to get your child to push them aside.
2. Forget logic for a bit
When we’re nervous and anxious our brains don’t work all that logically.
Our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles logic, gets put on hold while our more automated, emotional brain takes over. We evolved this way back when we were hunter/gatherers and didn’t have time for logic when very real threats like predators were on the scene.
So even though things are different now and taking a test at school isn’t the same kind of threat as a big beast outside our cave, our bodies and brains still react in the same way.
Logic flies out the window and we run on our emotions.
Listing all the reasons why your child doesn’t need to worry about the test won’t really help at this point.
The best thing to do instead is help them calm their nervous system down with breathing exercises or soothing visualisations. This will take them out of fight or flight mode. Then when they’re calmer you can talk things through more logically.
3. Empathise with them
Think of a time you felt the way your child is feeling.
Maybe at that job interview I mentioned earlier. Or maybe there were times when you were a child and you were anxious about joining a new class or starting a new subject. Remember how you felt at that time.
Then tell your child about it. Let them know that you get it. That you understand how they’re feeling. That you feel that way too sometimes.
Let them know that it’s completely normal to feel nervous about all sorts of things.
There’s power in knowing you’re not alone.
4. Teach them mindfulness activities
A big part of anxiety is thinking and worrying about the future.
All these scenarios run through our heads of all the things that could possibly go wrong, and all the ways we could be hurt (physically and emotionally). For our children it might be that they’re thinking about a test coming up. They may be worrying that they’ll get lost on the way and be late. They won’t know any of the answers. They won’t be able to finish the test in the time they’re given.
One way to try and reduce how much time our children spend worrying about all these potential ‘what ifs’ in the future, is to get them to focus on the present.
Teach them to sit and feel the ground beneath them. To really listen to all the sounds they can hear around them. When we’re mindful of what we’re experiencing in this moment, our brains can’t jump ahead and worry about what might happen later.
5. Try gradual exposure
Our gut instinct as parents is to protect our children. So if they’re scared of dogs, and panic when they see one, we might just try and keep them away from dogs at all times.
The thing with this is that if we never face our fears then we can never conquer them.
A better way to help our children is to really gently expose them to the thing they’re scared of or anxious about.
Sticking with the dog example, this could start with reading books about dogs and looking at picture and videos of different breeds online. Then you could start visiting places where people walk their dogs, but keeping a good distance from them.
You can gradually build up to asking a friend with an older, calmer dog if you could visit them for your child to spend time with them.
Taking it step by step, and allowing your child to get really comfortable with each step, will eventually help them move past their fear altogether.
Hopefully these ideas will help you prepare and feel better equipped to help your child when they’re feeling anxious.
Do you have any other suggestions for things that work well with your child?