Anxiety is part of our natural make-up; we need it to alert us to signs of danger or threat, it ignites the fight or flight response so that we can protect ourselves. Some people are more anxious than others; this can be for many different reasons including some biological factors. However, everyone needs to learn how to manage their anxiety, which could be described as part of our developmental process. Children depend on their parents and other adults to help them to understand and manage their thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours; and learning to manage and understand anxiety is part of this. It can be described as developing emotional awareness and self-regulation.
When we have too much anxiety, we do not function well; it tends to get in the way of what we can enjoy. Margot Sunderland (2006) describes it as the faulty burglar alarm: have you ever had one of those alarms that keeps getting triggered and there appears to be no reason for it? You then find that it’s a faulty sensor or some such thing that needs adjusting. Well, it’s very similar to how the stress response operates; something may have triggered the anxiety. If we have had the right kind of supports in place, we learn to process it; but if we don’t, we can develop an overly sensitive stress response system. This can leave somebody responding to any stressful situation in a very hyper-aroused state, leading to panic and distress.
Children haven’t quite got to the point where they understand how to manage their anxieties; as they grow older they understand more about life experiences and their impact, and how these can be managed. However, if you find your child is over-reacting to things and seems very anxious, it is important to see what is causing this and how it can be managed, as going forward it will save them a lot of unnecessary distress.
It is also important to note that parents need to be able to manage their own anxieties, because if we are overly anxious or dismissive of the child’s fears we will not be attuned to the child’s needs. The child may, for instance, take on an adult role, making sure Mum or Dad are okay by trying to be the extra-good child by not causing a fuss; these children will never really get a chance to get the support that they actually need to manage and understand their own emotions.
Children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder) can also suffer from anxiety. Children with ASD tend to find social settings quite difficult and often find it hard to relate to their peers; this can lead to overwhelming anxiety for them as they try to fit in. The three main areas that a child with ADHD has difficulty with are inattentiveness, hyperactivity and compulsiveness – they may have difficulties at home and in school with relationships and behaviours. Their self-esteem can be badly damaged by these experiences and again the stress of this can provoke anxiety, which only adds to the difficulties.
With the right supports, no matter what the situation, your child can learn to manage their anxieties. Play Therapy, Child Art Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapies are often used to help the child learn to manage and understand their anxieties. As parents, you can also do a lot to help your child by:
providing a safe and trusting environment so that your child can talk to you about their fears and worries;
taking time to reassure them and encourage them to look for support;
teaching them coping skills, relaxation techniques while building confidence;
most importantly of all, making sure that your child has times where they can play and have fun, distracting them from their worries. This enables them to build friendships and develop their personalities.
“Play is children’s way of working out balance and control in their lives for, as children play, they are in control of the happenings in play, although it may not be possible to actually be in control of the life experiences represented in the play. It is the sense of feeling of control, rather than actual control that is essential to children’s emotional development and positive mental health” ~ Landreth, 2002: 18
Sunderland, M. (2006) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Doreen Kindersley Ltd., London
Landreth , L.G. (2002) Play Therapy, The Art of The Relationship, 2nd Edition, Brunner-Routledge, New York