5 tips to help you manage anxiety in primary-aged children

Guest post by Dr Lucy Russell

Anxiety has a purpose

It’s healthy to feel anxious sometimes. We need anxiety to spur us on and motivate us. Imagine if we didn’t worry about our boss’s reaction if we didn’t turn up for work. Or if we didn’t care enough to check all was clear before crossing the road!   Anxiety can keep us safe. It also enhances performance.

Understanding the science behind anxiety

The way we interpret situations influences how the body reacts.  You may have heard of ‘fight or flight’. This is a primitive defence mechanism which enables us to react when faced with danger: To run away, fight, or sometimes freeze.  

Powerful bodily changes occur when the fight or flight response is triggered. For example, our muscles tense up (ready to run or fight). The heart rate speeds up (helping to circulate oxygen around the body). Digestion is interrupted so blood can be diverted to the limbs (causing nausea or “butterflies” in the tummy). It can be very scary for a child, and that’s why they need really good care, even when parents are not around, and that’s when services such as the child care Elwood can offer a stress free environment to the children, while also offering education and care so the parents can be happy and relief while they do their daily activities.

False alarms

Fight or flight can be triggered by things which are perceived as a threat (such as exams) but are not actually dangerous. It can be compared to a smoke alarm.   A smoke alarm alerts us to fire, but can also be triggered by burnt toast.   It cannot distinguish between a fire (a real threat) and smoke from burnt toast (false alarm).   When we interpret situations as threatening, fight or flight is triggered whether or not the threat is real.

Five tips to help your child with anxiety

  • Don’t avoid scary situations.

Avoidance fuels anxiety and keeps it alive.  If children continue to avoid situations they feel worried about, they never give themselves the opportunity to prove that they can cope. When they face a fear gradually, they get a sense of accomplishment that will help them not to avoid next time.

  • Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

There are some “anxiety hacks” that switch on the calming system in the body – the parasympathetic nervous system. The most important is slow breathing.

Breathing quickens during the fight or flight response to get more oxygen into the body. By deliberately slowing the breathing, ensuring your child breathes into their diaphragm (deep in their tummy rather than into the chest), this signals to the nervous system that actually, they are safe. Practise breathing with them: In for 5 seconds and out for 5, for at least 5 minutes every day.

  • Make time for extra nurture when anxiety strikes.

Nurture can take many forms, depending on your child’s age. Extra bedtime stories, more cuddles, a movie night… the options are endless. Nurture promotes a feeling of safety. Often, calming hormones are involved such as oxytocin and serotonin. Don’t be afraid to “go backwards” with regard to your child’s independence skills temporarily. For example, most eleven-year olds can read independently and settle themselves to sleep at bedtime. But after an anxious day, being read to and having extra cuddles will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and aid sleep.

  • Provide extra “down time”.

An anxious child’s nervous system is working over-time to try to cope. This can be exhausting. During particularly anxious phases try not to do too much. Your child may need to cut back on after-school activities for a while and get extra rest. Find slower activities which re-charge, such as watching a movie or going for a walk in the woods.

  • Know when to seek help. If your child’s anxiety is having a significant impact on her day-to-day functioning you may need to seek professional help. This might include talking therapy. Start by talking to your child’s GP.

Dr Lucy Russell is a child clinical psychologist and one of the authors of Brighter Futures: A Parents’ Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Children in the Primary School Years (https://tinyurl.com/y4bm76e5). The team of clinical psychologists guide you towards a deeper understanding of common difficulties and an individualised plan of action. The book’s chapters include: Anxiety, friendships and bullying, self-esteem, anger, school-related stress, and concentration.

Lucy runs the parenting website They Are The Future: https://theyarethefuture.co.uk/ (Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/tatfwellbeing/).

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