A simple way to help children tackle their anxiety
Written by Paul White
All they understand is that now they are getting anxious about being anxious.
Parents are feeling helpless and now the child (let’s call our child Johnny) is having problems eating and has missed school for several days because of upset stomachs and headaches.
You won’t be surprised if I tell you that what happens next is that Mum and Dad start to get anxious about Johnny missing school and, of course, Johnny notices Mum and Dad are anxious and that makes him even more anxious.
It’s what some people might call the ‘perfect storm’. I would prefer to call it ‘the perfect time for treatment’.
Anxiety in children is very treatable. I am never surprised when children exceed my most optimistic expectations of a speedy recovery. They have an amazing resilience, they have brilliant imaginations, they seem a lot brighter, even younger than I can remember in my childhood.
They ask intelligent questions, they understand instantly the protocols of a treatment plan and typically there is no hidden agenda. They simply ‘want to get better’.
Some of the work we do as hypnotherapists can be helped greatly by parents. Parents can build the firm foundations on which we, as therapists, can construct a successful outcome.
Parents understandably get a little caught up in the moment. They maybe get frustrated; they feel the best reassurance for Johnny is to suggest there is nothing to worry about, that this feeling will pass, it will be ok.
Of course, this advice is given with the best of intentions, but it’s not helping, for the simple reason it’s not getting better. As we mentioned before, it is actually getting worse.
So here are a couple of important suggestions that will help Johnny to understand what is happening, why it’s happening and why, and how, it will go away, just as quickly as it came in the first place.
You might have asked Johnny “How do you feel?”.
This is absolutely the right question, but what you most probably didn’t anticipate is that this time, it really is what you meant, how do you “feel”? Because anxiety is a “feeling”.
Now usually when we ask someone how they feel, they say “fine” if they are well or maybe in Johnny’s case, he will say, “I don’t feel well, I feel anxious”.
This is your cue to seek from Johnny some details. Words such as “I understand that you’re anxious, but what exactly feels wrong?” would be far more useful.
With anxiety we would expect symptoms such as:-
- Stomach upset
- Light headedness
- Feelings of fear
- Increased heartbeat
which we can check with Johnny to see if he might be feeling some of these.
Just the fact that these symptoms are just what you would expect with anxiety will help Johnny to understand that you understand.
Now you can start to ‘normalise’ things. Reassurances such as lots of people have anxiety, adults and children, when you start a new school, if an adult starts a new job or goes for an interview for a job, can really help to normalise what is, for them, abnormal feelings.
Sometimes if we are going to do something a bit scary like diving off the diving board for the first time or meeting new people, all these things may make people feel anxious.
The biggest problem however is sometimes we feel anxious for no particular reason, or should I say, for no particular reason that we are aware of. In other words, something may have made us feel anxious without us realising what was happening.
How can that happen? Chances are Johnny can’t work out the answer to that question either. In fact, many adults don’t understand how it works.
The best explanation is by way of example. I find this simple story really does help explain how anxiety works. I have simplified things to make the process easier to understand.
I always start with a question like “Have you ever watched on TV, or in the cinema, a scary film, especially one with really scary music and a ‘sudden shock’, like a ghost suddenly appearing or the murderer coming out from behind a curtain when someone’s distracted?” Nearly everyone will say yes.
They usually give a nervous laugh or smile as their memory goes back to the event, “catch that moment”. You can say, I bet that was an ‘anxious’ moment, but notice that you’re laughing about it now. Why do you think that is?
You might get a few blank looks or maybe an “I don’t know”, but the real answer is this – you’re watching a film’. Now, in therapy we call watching something, visual stimulation.
Anything you see goes to the subconscious part of your brain (that’s why, if you’re driving and someone steps into the road in front of you, you react by braking before you are consciously aware of the problem).
That shows you that the subconscious part of your brain is great at fast reactions and protecting you. It doesn’t start to analyse things, it doesn’t think, “maybe we should, or maybe we shouldn’t brake”, it just does it!
So, if we are in the cinema and something scary happens on the screen, your subconscious mind thinks “Wow, that’s scary” and reacts. It activates what many people call the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Personally, I prefer not to use this term, it tends to confuse things a little as, for example, no one who is afraid of spiders intends to fight them or, indeed, run away. They simply step outside the room.
So, I suggest that the fight or flight process is important. You secrete adrenalin, your heart beats faster and your respiration and heartbeat bring about physiological changes (there is a full list at the end of this article).
Try not to suggest to your child changes that they haven’t already experienced, or you haven’t noticed. Chances are in their anxiety they will suddenly develop them if you suggest them.
Now, let’s get back to the cinema. The thing people do when they experience a feeling of anxiety is ‘look for a reason’, “Why do I feel this way?”.
In the cinema that’s a very easy question, so your conscious part of your brain comes up with a very simple answer, “The film is scary”. But, most importantly, here’s why you can laugh at it now, or interestingly enough you might even go back to the cinema to watch the sequel, to have the same feeling.
There is NO real danger, what’s on the screen is only on the screen, it’s NOT real. With that invaluable response from your conscious awareness, you/Johnny can, in fact, return to normal. This is simple, isn’t it, but let’s just pause for a moment and look at what we have learnt and indeed what you can tell Johnny.
Anxiety is very common
- It happens to adults and children
- Your subconscious mind can make you feel anxious, even if there isn’t a real reason (cinema)
- Your conscious mind (cognitive) can help to return calmness, if it exactly and correctly understands why you were anxious (it’s only a film, no real danger)
- Sometimes lots of people like feeling anxious/scared, as long as consciously, they understand that the feelings are only generated by the subconscious mind on a ‘false basis’ (cinema) and there is no real danger
One other thing I would like to add.
The physiological symptoms of anxiety and excitement are exactly the same. In fact, Father Christmas is a great example of mixed feelings, or rather, it would be accurate to suggest ‘one feeling’ with mixed conscious/cognitive interpretations of those feelings – will Santa come? Excitement/anxiety – will he bring the present I want? Excitement/anxiety.
Importantly, if Johnny no longer believes in Santa, he will automatically reduce his anxiety and increase his excitement because he most probably knows that Mum and Dad have got him what he wants, and it will definitely arrive because it’s already under their bed!
I imagine that you have already guessed that anxiety can be a little more complicated than the story so far.
You’ve guessed right. There are 3 other facts to consider.
We can learn anxiety through the behaviour of others; we can learn a physical anxiety response, which can be repeated without an obvious cognitive reason or input; we can respond to an accumulation of events that may make us anxious for a seemingly trivial event, and finally we may misinterpret the reason for our anxiety.
I intend now to explore briefly these other factors.
Put simply, if Mum always screams when she sees a spider, chances are the children will learn to be afraid/anxious around spiders. There are, of course, many other examples of learnt anxiety.
If someone takes cocaine (not to suggest for a moment your children do), they may have an anxiety attack because cocaine is a stimulant. It increases heartbeat and respiration; the cocaine user is scared and has an anxiety attack for the first time, he vows never to use cocaine again. He sticks to his vow but still has regular anxiety attacks. It is as if his body has learnt an anxiety response and, of course, he is now anxious about being anxious.
Everyone has the capacity to absorb a certain amount of stresses and problems in their lives. It’s a bit like the anxiety is a constant flow of water filling up a glass.
It’s not a problem as long as the glass isn’t being filled too fast for us to comfortably drink it. But, if the flow is too fast, the glass overflows and it’s a mess and difficult to clean up afterwards.
That’s just like anxiety. If we have a flow of consecutive events that are stressful, it can overload the child’s mind and trigger anxiety. Any combination of these events can be stressful for children:-
- Moving house
- Parental problems/break up
- Illness, either the child itself is unwell or a sibling or parent is unwell
- Accidents witnessed especially with injuries
- Sports events
- New school
- Grandparents unwell or passing on
- Not getting on with a teacher
- Disagreement or breakup with friends
- Any events of an antagonistic nature related to social media
- Pressure from peers regarding boyfriends/girlfriends
- Problems associated with puberty
Always remember that what we as adults may consider trivial, a child may view as catastrophic.
This concept is straightforwardly a result of our conscious awareness (cognitive processes) looking for an explanation of why we feel the way we do, and usually picking the most obvious reason.
Bizarrely, our cognitive mind often then tries to confirm its opinion by actually quite deliberately placing us in that same situation, to test the theory. Often, this makes things worse because we then have a conscious and subconscious unity, which is a powerful mixture.
You may have heard the expression ‘the mind commands and the body obeys’. This is often true if you know how to make the command. Unfortunately not everyone does.
An awareness of the nature and strategy of anxiety, an understanding of the conscious and subconscious mind, gives all parents a great start in building those foundations we mentioned earlier.
Your belief, and that belief expressed confidently to your child, that anxiety is simply treatable, that it’s a common problem and that relief of what is a difficult and unpleasant experience is speedy and long-lasting, will be a strong reassurance to your child.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty talking
- Breathing problems
- Blushing/face or body
- Tight muscles and tensions (head/neck/shoulders)
- Tummy upset (butterflies)
Paul White is a qualified paediatric hypnotherapist accredited by The Canadian Institute of Hypnotism. He has a special interest in children’s behavioural problems including:- anxiety, eating problems, school attendance and bedwetting.