How to Help Your Anxious Child
Kayla is 8 years old and afraid of the dark. If the adults in the house are still awake she will be able to stay in her own bed, falling in and out of sleep, but once silence and darkness descend on the house, she will wake and run to her mother’s bed. As soon as she’s safely tucked in with her mum, Kayla will fall soundly asleep.
Nicholas is 10. He is a conscientious and bright child, but his parents have noticed that he does his homework over and over again until it’s perfect. While they’re pleased he wants to achieve his best, they notice that his homework has taken over his home time.
Robbie is 12 and skipping school. Her grandfather has been doing some investigating and it seems that bullying is not an issue for her. Nor does she have learning difficulties. Other children seem to like her. It seems a mystery.
Anxiety Affects Around 1 in 10 Children
These are common stories. All these three children suffer from anxiety, affecting their independence, academic achievements, and general quality of life. Anxiety is thought to affect around one in ten children, which makes it a very common, if not the most common, childhood wellbeing issue.
Yet parents of children with anxiety are often confused. It seems that anxiety is part of your child’s personality, so how do you change it? And fears are a natural and important part of growing up, so how do you tell when your child has a problem?
Avoidance is a Clue that Anxiety is Affecting Your Child’s Life
Professor Ron Rapee, at Macquarie University, is an expert in the field, and author of the bestselling Helping Your Anxious Child, along with several of his colleagues.
In his considerable experience, Ron says that the best way of knowing whether your child has an anxiety issue that needs attention is by looking at whether “it affects the way the children are leading their lives. And the main criteria is avoidance – avoidance and hesitance.”
The above examples of Kayla, Nicholas and Robbie are all about avoidance. Kayla avoids sleeping on her own, Nicholas avoids making mistakes, Robbie avoids school. Avoidance, most specifically long term avoidance, is a big clue.
How to Treat Childhood Anxiety
But the good news is that success levels in treating childhood anxiety are very promising. At the Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, where you will find Ron, their program COOL KIDS has produced dramatic improvements in 75-80% of children. But you can also try it at home. In a study conducted by Macquarie, where parents followed the program in Helping Your Anxious Child, one in four children ended up completely free from symptoms.
The place to start is with your child’s fears. While your child’s worry may seem general, the research shows that often those fears are specific. They may for instance fear that when they go to bed, burglars will enter. Sit down with your child and talk about these fears. Write these down, and if you like, get your child to give these fears a rating out of ten.
When you have a list, discuss with your child, about how they might like to be free of those fears and how you are going to be working together to do this. Most importantly, that you are going to work in small steps, and that there will be rewards along the way.
Rewards are an extremely important part of the process. They are reinforcing and you need to use a combination of material things (goodies!) and non material things such as parental praise and quality time spent together. Never resort to punishment, it’s counter productive.
Your list lets you into what your child is thinking; now you need to work on that thinking. With most children you can sit down and discuss the evidence. For instance the child who thinks mummy is going to get hurt when she’s out of sight might be presented with questions such as, “has this happened before?”, or “ how was mummy when she came home from grandma’s?” While you can provide some evidence, it’s best if your child is encouraged to come up with their own.
Then you need to get your child used to what they’re afraid of: working, step by step, on the problem. It’s important here to have the right size steps and to gauge your child’s readiness for each step. For instance, Ron suggests, “a child who always sleeps in her mother’s bed, can start with a cot next to the bed, then move the cot to the other side of the room, then to the doorway, then the hall, until finally the cot is in the child’s room.”
This exposure in degrees actually works as further evidence (of safety) to the child. The burglar doesn’t come, the world doesn’t fall apart if they hand in a sub-par assignment, mum arrives home safely after a period of separation.
Often this is hardest for the parents! We like to reassure our children when they’re frightened, kiss and hug and hold them. But in the situation of long term anxiety, Ron Rapee insists, it actually signals to the child that there really is something to be scared of and in fact rewards the anxiety with lots of affection and attention. Instead we have to train ourselves to reward our children’s bravery in facing their fears.
5 Tips for Helping Your Anxious Child
Professor Ron Rapee sums up in these important tips:
1. Show love and care always. But within that, ask yourself, truthfully, can my child do this on her/his own?
2. Identify what your child is afraid of. Get your child to express their fears. Then, logically, perform a reality check. This is concrete, and holds vague, imaginary fears up against the reality.
3. Always use small steps.
4. Rewards must be given as soon as possible after the child has performed the step. These rewards need to be practical, realistic and meaningful to the child. And don’t forget the impact of praise! Plenty of it, it’s important.
5. Be consistent. It takes dedication and practice and patience for the best results.
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