Going Back To School: How To Help Your Children Deal With Anxiety
With Dr Maryhan Baker, Psychologist & Parenting Coach
What is anxiety in children?
Anxiety is stress and a type of stress in children caused by a perception that they can’t cope with a given situation. It’s not what is reality. What’s important when we think about anxiety in children is that we realise it’s about our children’s perceptions. It’s not what we know they’re capable of doing. It’s what they perceive.
When our children are in a situation where they feel confident, they feel happy and they feel that they can cope – their internal ‘seesaw’ is in balance. What they perceive the demands placed on them by that situation are actually balanced by what they perceive the other resources they have within themselves to cope with it.
On the other hand, if their perception of the demands placed on them feels too big for the resources that they feel they have within themselves, they get stressed. We need to lighten the demand and to change the internal chatter, the conversation that they are having with themselves. ‘If I get that wrong, people laugh at me.’ ‘If I ask that person if I can join in their game, they’re going to say no and then I’m going to be really embarrassed.’ So it’s changing the dialogue so they don’t see it as big as a demand. So we lighten that and at the same time by giving them resources to deal with basically what’s happening in their body when they feel stressed.
How do children tend to manifest anxiety?
When we get stressed we’ll have a physiological response. This is the same for adults and children. It’s different for different people, but our hearts might beat faster. We might get sweaty palms. We might feel slightly light headed. We may get what I call jelly legs. So your legs don’t feel like you can stand up or your hands shake or your voice slightly quivers, or we go red in the face. We pick up on the signals and think, ok, I know that this is a stressful situation. Children however don’t have the vocabulary and they don’t necessarily understand it in the same way.
So the typical ways that it shows up with children are with their tummies. They’ll complain of a tummy ache or that they either feel sick or have butterflies in their tummy. The other big sign that your child is anxious is if you’ve got a child who finds it difficult to fall asleep at night. So this is the child that’s in and out of their bedroom, complaining of being too hot, too cold, hungry or thirsty. ‘Or I just need to go to the…’; ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you something.’ They find it difficult to be still. It’s exactly the same for us as adults, during the day they’ve been so busy & been distracted doing things, but when they then go to bed, they’re suddenly alone with their thoughts. Suddenly all of the things that they’re worried about go through their head. They’re struggling to quieten a busy mind.
The other thing that you might get is that they might react disproportionately. Sometimes it can be you’re giving them the wrong cup, you give them the wrong drink or the wrong amount of drink, or you’ve put two things on their plate that they don’t like touching each other. The reaction can be disproportionate. The other way that you can tell that children are anxious is when they’re quite controlling in their behaviour. They want to try to control their environment in any way they can because it makes them feel safe.
How can we help our children deal with anxiety?
If our children are showing us any signs of anxiety, we have to look at getting their internal seesaw back in balance. So firstly we have to look at how to help them learn to calm themselves down so they can engage their rational brain and then how to question the things they’re telling themselves about what they feel they can’t do and replace them with positive mantras.
1. Talk about their body
If you work on the physiology first, children typically will get quick wins very easily and then you’re much more able to then work with the busy brain. So the first bit is we want them to understand what’s actually happening in their body. So I would do this by drawing a gingerbread man and then using little post-it notes. Get them to stick the post-it notes on the gingerbread man when they feel nervous, and ask them, where do they feel that nervous feeling? Where does the sensation show up in their body? The first task is to get them to recognize what’s going on in their body. Once you get them to understand what’s going on in their body, you can then work on the perception side of things.
There are two exercises that I teach to help children who are feeling anxious. We need our children to take a deep breath and take a big exhale but when they’re in the moment, they really struggle with that. So I have two exercises I teach that they can use. Both of which they should practice regularly, so it’s to hand when they need it. It’s good to practice these exercises just before they go to sleep for relaxation.
The first one is the hand technique. They stretch out the fingers of their non-dominant hand. Using their dominant forefinger they point their right or left finger, depending on which is their dominant hand. They simply trace the hands as they breathe, as they trace up the finger or the thumb, they breathe in and then they breathe out as they go down the other side, until they’ve reached the end of that hand.
The other option I call ‘take 10’ and involves threading 30 beads on a shoelace or similar. The beads are placed in tens with a little space between them so you can move them along. They’re like worry beads – the child just moves the beads along, breathing in and out as they do it, counting their breath as they go. So as they breathe in, it’s one, as they breathe out, it’s two. If they don’t do the beads, they can just count in their head.
What we know is when we get nervous, we trigger our fight or flight mechanism. It takes 60 seconds for us to move from fight or flight to rest or restore. If children do this exercise in three lots of 10, it takes 60 seconds. That’s all they need. Once children have calmed their body, they’re much better equipped to consider their situation in a more logical and rational way. They’re more likely to think ‘This is hard, but I can do it. What do I need to be able to manage this situation?’
2. Help them manage their mind
We need to help children manage their ‘inner ogre’ – the negative voice of limiting beliefs that tells us we can’t do things. So we need to help our children recognize that we have that and then help them understand that. On the flipside, we also need to teach them that we have access to the voice of our own cheerleader, the voice of our best self, who cheers us on.
So it’s about coming up with a few short little mantras that they can say when they’re nervous or they’re worried about something. So things like ‘it’s hard, but I can do it.’ ‘It’s only going to be for five minutes.’ ‘People aren’t going to laugh.’ ‘I’ve got lots of friends.’ Or even if it’s a school sort of thing is adding the word ‘yet’ – ‘I can’t do this maths yet’, which very much feeds into developing a growth mindset. A growth mindset takes it from being absolute ‘I can’t do it’ to a feeling of ‘it’s a journey and I’m just not quite at that end point’. When we’re in a situation where we are doing something that we’re nervous about, we need to work on the other side of the see saw to try to get it in balance. We need to help children understand that ‘it’s hard, but I can do it.’ Or ‘It’s not going to be as bad as I think it’s going to be.’ ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again.’ Those sorts of things.
3. Give big emotions time to calm down
There’s a caveat to this balancing technique, which is that when children are in the thick of a big emotion, don’t try and logic and reason with them at that time. It doesn’t work. So just to acknowledge their feelings, tell them, ‘I can see that this is really worrying you / or this is really upsetting you. I’m here and when you’re ready we’ll talk.’ Give it time so those emotions can calm down, because it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re saying, they’re just not going to listen to you because they’ve gone into fight or flight. So just help them feel safe, acknowledge their emotion, and then talk about it later.
What advice can you give about kids going back to school?
Children will typically be okay as long as we’re okay. You see this first with separation anxiety when our child first starts going to nursery or school. This is really, really normal.
So if you’ve got children going back to school or nursery after half-term, you’ve got to check your anxiety levels. You are the emotional barometer in this situation. If we’re tense, then our children will absolutely pick up on that. If you want your children to go back to nursery or school, but you’re feeling anxious, yet you have a partner who is feeling less anxious, then let’s make sure that your partner is the one that drops them off.
It’s also important to consider how the adults at your children’s school and nursery are feeling. If you’ve got a nursery and a school where the teachers are super on it and they’re really looking forward to the children coming back, without anxiety, and we can manage our own anxieties, then getting the kids back to school and meeting their friends is a great idea. It’s just all about how it’s all going to be handled.
What we can do to mitigate this situation is prepare our children for what nursery or school will be like. Role play and have conversations about what it will be like, ‘when you go back to school.’ It’s going to look very different and they’re not going to be able to behave as they did before.’ Explain it’s not because of them; it’s because of the virus. ‘You’re not going to be able to play with your friends in the same way’. ‘If you hug your friend your teacher is suddenly going to say to you, no, you mustn’t do that.’ Let’s preemptively have these conversations with our children and really allow them to sink in with them.
Children are remarkably resilient, really. As long as we give them the confidence, as long as we talk through what the situation might be like and how things might be, they will genuinely just get on with it. They’ll follow our lead. So we just have to be very clear with ourselves about our own levels of anxiety and whether it would be best to keep them home or, or whether we can get behind it and therefore they’ll get behind it. I have a very strong believer in this particular circumstance that we need to exercise our choice as parents, as to whether it’s going to be right for our child.
This interview is an excerpt taken from a ‘Work & Wellbeing’ webinar that Dr Maryhan Baker kindly gave to the AMotherBrand community in the AMotherBrand facebook group on the theme of How To Help Your Child Deal With Anxiety. If you’d like to hear the longer version of the interview please join us in the free group here.
If you’d like to learn more about Maryhan and her work, please go to:
On Instagram or Facebook: @drmaryhan
With many thanks to Maryhan for her wise words.
How are you feeling about your child going back to nursery or school?
Let me know in the comments 👇💕