Understanding and supporting your Child’s Anxiety

Anxiety is our body’s way of letting us know that a threat to our safety is present and we may be in danger. This can be helpful as it allows us to keep ourselves safe and react how we need to in that moment. However anxiety becomes unhelpful when it is persistent over a long period of time, even when a threat is not present.

Helpful anxiety activates our fight, flight, freeze response in the face of danger. This response gives us the best chance of escaping the source of danger or minimising the threat. Flight response encourages us to run from the threat. Fight encourages us to face and fight the threat. While freeze is our body’s response when we cannot fight or run so we freeze often mentally removing ourselves from the event. We feel these responses in our body physically and see them in our behaviour. Sometimes we might hit or kick out, sometimes we feel our heart race and breathing is shallow, and sometimes our body and muscles tense up. These are perfectly normal responses by our brain and body. Unhelpful anxiety however, causes all the same physical symptoms and our behaviour can look the same but there is no threat present. It also happens more often or more intensely than we need it to. This is unhelpful anxiety as it no longer serves the purpose of keeping us safe, it impacts on daily life, and it causes distress.

We know our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all linked. Typically anxiety affects how we think, what we feel and in turn how we behave. Therefore, if we can change one of these, it will help elicit change in the others as well. When we are experiencing anxiety we typically focus on negative, unhelpful thoughts rather than positive helpful ones. These negative thoughts can include catastrophizing (focusing on the worst possible outcome or situation), jumping to conclusions (coming up with an outcome or result without proof) and dismissing the positives (they don’t count or that was just lucky) among others. These negative thoughts lead inevitably to increased negative feelings within us as a result. Negative feelings can include anxiety, low mood and even anger. Changing how we think about a situation (move from negative thinking to positive or balanced thinking) can result in less anxiety (feeling) and more helpful behaviours (less fight, flight and freeze). Challenging negative thoughts and recognising the anxiety it is causing both emotionally and physically can allow us to break the cycle and move away from anxiety.

Top Tips for helping to reduce your Child/Teen’s Anxiety

  • “Be with” your child’s emotions: this means sitting with your child when they experience a big emotion like anxiety. “Being with” an emotion does not mean talking through what has happened or fixing the problem. It is simply being with that child while they feel what they feel. Using phrases such as “I know you are worried” or “I know this is hard” can help them feel understood.
  • Grounding skills: grounding skills help bring our attention into the moment and away from the anxiety. Some grounding skills include:
  • 5,4,3,2,1: Identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Body scan: Mentally scan your body from head to toe, noticing areas of tension and focusing on relaxing them.
  • Breathing exercises: Help slow your breathing, removing your body from a state of fight, flight, or freeze mode to a more balance state. These techniques include -5 finger breathing: trace each finger up as you breathe in and trace each finger down as you breathe out, and snake breathing: take a deep breath in then hiss the breath back out like a snake.
  • Sensory support –some find sensory activities can help to reduce anxiety, including jumping on a trampoline, running, squeezing a squishy ball, and using a weighted blanket.
  • It can be useful for your child/adolescent to identify and recognise how anxiety feels for them physically then encourage use of a grounding skill or sensory support to help relieve these sensations
  • Sometimes it can be easier to talk about anxiety and how it affects your child when connected to them through play (for younger children) or through an activity they enjoy (for teenagers). A relaxed, playful environment allows easier exploration of difficult feelings for the child/young person when the time is right for them.

This article was written by Elisha Minihan, Psychology Assistant with the Limerick Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service.