In many ways’ anxiety is normal; we all feel uncertain, for example, in new situations. There may be key times a child shows more anxiety, such as, a transition up to secondary school, after their parents’ separation or moving to a new house. Children may experience different anxieties through their childhood, many are typical worries that all children experience to a degree, an example of this is in babies and toddlers when they show a clinginess to a parent and this is often described as separation anxiety. Preschool children and children in early years education, may develop specific anxieties, for example, of the dark, spiders or of monsters. This is often a passing stage that with some encouragement and reassurance will pass.
Children who have experienced trauma may also be more prone to anxiety: this trauma may be a one-off incident such as a car accident or a death in the family or as a result of lots of arguments at home, domestic violence or abuse. As a social worker and co-founder of a fostering service, I support children in care and often we find ourselves working with children, whose anxieties are borne out of their early experiences.
Did you know that children living in care are 4 more times likely to experience mental health issues than the average child? The mental health issues often arise as a result of unresolved anxiety or stress. In foster placements it is often a lack of understanding and planning to address this area of unresolved trauma, anxiety or stress in a child that leads to placement breakdowns and children moving around from family to family. This is where our creativity can make significant change in a child’s life, by helping them manage those huge feelings into something that can be managed. Each child is an individual and our excitement as a team is in how we can change a child’s life by enabling them to explore their feelings and fears.
In sharing our knowledge we aim to support parents and carers who may be experiencing some of these issues and don’t know where to get good advice from. In this blog we hope to inspire and build confidence in our abilities to help children sit with uncomfortable feelings and let them pass, knowing that they can survive them. We want to support parents and foster carers create empathic and nurturing responses to children’s issues and inform them of what we know can make a difference. We hope we might inspire some of you to find out more about us and fostering as a potential career.
So we hear lots about anxiety and what to do to get rid of it, but did you know that anxiety is an inbuilt process that actually has a benefit. Our bodies are miraculous systems that are programmed to keep us safe.
Our response to anxiety is linked to our involuntary fight or flight system and is similar to our response to fear. Before we go further we should talk about the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is the emotion you experience when you are in a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a dangerous, stressful, or threatening situation. You may also experience anxiety when you think about something stressful or dangerous that may happen to you in the future.
Fight or flight refers to our body’s reaction to threats that affect our safety and health. In a threatening situation our brain produces various hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which fires up our body to enable us to physically fight an enemy or predator or run away quickly when faced with danger. In situations of stress for example in road traffic jams or in a child’s case, when faced with new situations like starting a new school, the same flooding of chemicals to the body invokes a response similar to fight or flight. The adrenaline and cortisol increases our blood sugar levels and creates a feeling of energy which can be used by our muscles when in fight or flight response. Our body sends blood to our essential organs as a priority and causes feelings of high pulse rate, increased respiratory rate, sweating and/or digestive tract disturbance. When the perceived threat is gone, our body is designed to return to normal function. However with repeated feelings of stress as many of us experience in our busy world nowadays, the body doesn’t always return to normal function quickly enough, or remain at a normal healthy level for long enough. As we run ideas in our heads, of what might happen, our brains react and in a protective mode will flood the body with the chemicals that cause fight or flight responses. Furthermore as we are exposed to stories on social media, TV, press and conversations with friends our anxiety and stress levels may feel at a greater level than they used to feel.
Helping children understand about the symptoms of anxiety and from where the symptoms arise can be helpful, so that they learn how to recognise the physical feelings involved and the impact of anxiety on their bodies. Encouraging a child’s understanding and acceptance of how the feelings will ebb away will give the child a feeling of being in control.
So how can we help children experiencing anxiety symptoms. Anxiety in children is one of the most common childhood problems but can sometimes be dismissed as a child being silly. However, it is important for a child to feel listened to. Telling him/her it will be fine, is not always what a child needs. We know if we don’t take the child’s concern in to account the anxiety may get bigger, ask a child who goes to bed scared of the dark if just turning out the light saying you will be fine makes the anxiety go away.
It can be helpful to help children think about solutions. If a child or young person has a situation he/she is scared to face, perhaps you could roleplay it so he/she feels confident about facing it. If he/she is afraid of going to other people’s houses for play dates, do not avoid it, but help him/her feel the fear and do it anyway – perhaps giving him/her a few suggestions for games they could play. Children’s worlds should not get smaller because they are anxious. Whilst you may feel you are protecting a child by accepting a child’s decision not to go on a play date, it teaches a child to retreat from anxiety, rather than deal with it.
There are some lovely ways of talking about this, one of my favourites for young children is using the idea of the Bear Hunt story, to talk about managing anxiety and trauma, (you can’t go around it, under it or over it…. you have to go through it.
Hich Nhat Hanh, the author of Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices says “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” I love the imagery this conjures that can help children be less scared of intense feelings.
To make anxiety more manageable, try setting a boundary about worrying. Give a set amount of time to talk about the worry and then it has to be left until the next day. For instance, you could talk about it over tea for ten minutes and then you do another activity. Ruminating on a worry, can make the worry bigger for children. You could think about having a worry box and encourage the child to post worries they may have so that you can start a conversation. Offering to hold the worry can be helpful, in the words of one of our foster carers to their foster child “I’ve got this one!”
One idea for children struggling with separation anxiety is to use the hug button, I have used this regularly and love how young children respond. Draw a heart on both the child’s hand and the adult in felt-tip and squeeze hands together whilst having a hug, then every time a child is missing the adult they can press the heart and remember the hug. Other ideas can include sending a child to school with an item that smells of their carer or parent.
Deep breathing and mindful activity can help children and young people long term to feel less anxious. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates a part of the brain to send out chemicals that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger instead a relaxation response in the body.
Mindfulness is a useful tool for all of use to slow the chatter in the head. Mindfulness is thought to have wide-ranging effects, from lessening depressive symptoms to reducing anxiety and helping to deal with chronic pain and trauma. Mindfulness is a simple technique that can be learnt. Check out some of the resources at the end of this blog.
In Helping children and young people manage anxiety it is imperative they see this modelled in the adults around them. As parents and carers we have to reflect ourselves on how we deal with anxiety and react to stressful situations. Do we scream and run at the site of a spider and ask someone else to remove it for us, do we avoid situations that make us uncomfortable rather than feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It’s important to reflect and where necessary make changes to our own behaviour in order to role model the sort of reactions we would like to see our children make in response to anxiety.
Is it easy… no… but does it help us to raise resilient children who can learn to manage scary feelings… yes absolutely. We live by this at To The Moon and Back. We practice what we preach and encourage our staff and foster carers to look after themselves and role model good responses to anxiety and stress.
If you have been inspired and wish to learn more about helping children, look out for our monthly blogs with rising networks and check out our website and Facebook page. If you have ever wondered if you could foster a child please consider coming to have a coffee with us at one of our local open events. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.