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Anxiety is a hot topic and there are numerous reports that it has been on the rise in Kiwi kids and kids all over the world. Negative associations with anxiety include, a sign that a person is not coping or a weakness. Parents of anxious children may feel guilty that their child has anxiety and wonder if they are a crap parent. In my work, I tell parents that when we wonder if we’ve done things right with our kids then that is the hallmark of a good parent.

Anxiety is common in everyday situations – like school and social events. The more frequently this occurs the more likely it is that children will get stuck in a cycle of coping by avoiding things altogether. Neurons that fire together wire together = habits. Parents tell me that it’s frustrating to watch their children miss out on things and no one wants their child to be left behind.

Our genes, our environment and the stress we face are all contributing factors to anxiety. While we can’t control the genes we have, we can do a lot to help our kids live with anxiety. Our ability to influence our child improves with the quality of the connection we have. The better our relationship is, the better we can help. For more on how to create this type of connection and maximise our influence see my blog here

When it shows up in the body anxiety can be the lump in our throat or it can feel more dramatic like the sudden jolt when you go over a bump in the road. It’s important for parents not to panic themselves about their child’s anxiety, this only adds to their distress. It can help parents to know that anxiety serves an important and positive purpose – to keep us safe. Sometimes anxiety is not helpful when it is about something that is not dangerous. We can disrupt this unhelpful pattern when we know what to do. In order to wire new patterns in the brain we have to practice a new behaviour and practice it a lot. Notice and mention when your child is being brave, as this is one of the main ways to help them see that they can overcome their fears.

“I saw the way you tried the beans as well as the pie – I know that beans are not your favourite.”

Psychologists have used a number of other approaches to help kids overcome anxiety, the key with all of them is to let your child lead the way. Here are three you can try:

  1. Externalise – externalisation is described as a defence mechanism which people use to protect themselves by blaming things on someone else. It’s possible to give our anxiety a name and tell it to go away, just like a bully in the playground. Kids are open to these ideas – so get creative like JK Rowling did in Harry Potter with Bogarts, a shape shifting creature that assumed whatever most frightens the person who encountered it. Remus Lupin taught third years how to repel them: “The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.”
  2. Distract – A child’s prefrontal cortex needs a lot of time to develop. The average is 22-32 for males and around 24 for females. This is good news as it means that parents have plenty of opportunities to help kids learn ways to override the anxiety response. Over time, with support from parents, kids can learn how to focus on an interesting thought or comforting sensation instead of avoiding the anxiety provoking situation. Sensory activities like crafting or lego are valid ways to dial down anxiety. Last time I looked there is no age limit for any of these things, so don’t think they are just for little kids.
  3. Contain – This practice uses visualisation. Young people have strong minds that are open to new experiences. Kids can visualise picking up the unpleasant feelings and that they are squashing them into a box. Next put a lid on the box and sit on the lid.

Set yourself a realistic expectation – it’s going to take time to build a new habit and to stop avoiding the situations that cause anxiety. One very important thing is to practice your new habit when our child is calm and not when they are full of anxiety. Be prepared to practice many, many times to wire in the new habit. Your child is learning that anxiety isn’t bad and we can do a lot to help build our bravery.

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