It is increasingly common for children to experience feelings of anxiousness or worry as they grow up but as a parent, it can be hard to know what to do or how to help them. It is a natural parental instinct to want to protect your child from any negative emotions or experiences however, there are some important things to consider when navigating these feelings with your child.
Children have two systems when regulating fear; an independent system and an interpersonal, attachment-based system. When regulating independently, a child may be seen to engage in regulation strategies such as deep breathing. However, when children experience anxiousness they are more dependent on their attachment-based system, relying on the people around them to assist in their regulation. This means that parents and carers play a significant role in supporting children to cope and manage their anxious feelings. So, what can you do, as parents to support your child?
1. Validate their feelings but don’t encourage them
Children need to hear that it is okay to feel anxious or worried. While we are validating their feelings, we have to remember not to encourage or agree with them. We want children to know that they are heard and understood but not amplify their anxiousness. We can talk to them about how they are feeling, be empathetic and help them to understand why they are feeling that way but we also want to empower and encourage them that they have the ability to manage their feelings. The message we want to send is “I can see you are feeling worried, it’s okay to feel that way but I know you can do this, and I am here to help”.
2. Model healthy ways of managing anxiousness
Everyone feels anxious or worried sometimes, its natural. What we can do is use this as an opportunity to show children healthy ways of managing and coping with these feelings. We can talk to children about times that we feel anxious and show them how we handle it. Whether it is to stop and take deep breaths, to talk to someone or to draw a picture of what you are anxious about, we can build children’s resilience by showing them that we feel the same way sometimes too!
3. Remember, the goal is to help your child manage their anxious feelings, not eliminate them
Just because we were brave enough to catch the spider in our room, doesn’t mean we are not afraid of spiders anymore! Just like that, we want to empower our children to be able to cope with their anxiousness, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be worried anymore. It is normal and expected for children, and adults, to have worries and fears but the most important thing is that we can manage them and not let them significantly interrupt our daily life.
4. Do not try to completely avoid the situation they are anxious about
While we want to protect our children from negative emotions, it is important we also support them to develop their resilience and make them feel strong enough to cope with their big feelings. Even though avoiding situations that are causing anxiousness may help in the short term, you will not be providing your child with the opportunity to overcome their worries and hence, in the long term this situation will likely continue to prove difficult to manage.
By considering the above tips, you can help your child develop resilience and independence in managing their big feelings. Talking about feelings and worries day to day can also help your child increase their self-awareness and empower them to move past it. Books like “Hey Warrior” by Karen Young, “Ruby’s Worry” by Tom Percival and “The Worrying Worries” by Rachel Rooney are great to talk to your children about anxious feelings.