When young children battle anxiety, parents don’t need to feel like helpless bystanders | Sarah Ayoub

Tantrums, clinginess and fussy eating could all signal your child’s emotional cup is full. Regulation depends on the emotion being validated and then released

  • Sharing the Load is a column about parenting children of all ages

My child is in year 2 and has grown increasingly anxious recently. What should I do?

As a parent or guardian, it can be incredibly difficult (not to mention confusing) to watch a child in your care battle mental health issues, especially if it’s an issue you might not see or understand for yourself.

This can impact them profoundly outside of the home. My own recent experiences on the Parent Advisory Council at my daughter’s primary school – where senior educators scrambled to secure in-services and counselling sessions on managing anxiety – has opened my eyes to how prevalent the issue is.

Listening to the principal and deputy talk about both proactive and reactive measures to reduce and respond to anxiety in children as young as five, and hearing parents talk about the struggles they’re facing with kids whose primary communication method is a tantrum – despite them having excellent communication skills – made me realise that children today, living in a fast-paced, tech-driven, post-pandemic world with constant stimulation, need a different kind of care than most parents have experience giving.

Psychologist Donna Cameron, who has worked with children, adolescents and families for 18 years as both a family court consultant and private practitioner, says anxiety is the body’s way of telling us we are emotionally full, and it often appears “when stressors are occurring in our life that we are not identifying, validating and or releasing”.

She says adults are often dismissive of anxiety in children, making assumptions that children’s lives are easy and straightforward. But children experience change, adjustment, bodily growth and social issues in the same period of time, while having no control or decision-making powers, which can see anxiety manifest in their ability to regulate their emotions.

“When [their] emotional cup is full, their body will attempt to release any stress they are experiencing through their emotions, and the top two emotions it chooses are anger and tears,” Cameron says. “Early signs can be getting more frustrated than they usually would, snapping at their close friends or speaking rudely to their parents. They might be more teary than usual and revert back to crying over the smallest things like they used to when they were younger. They may get very clingy to their parents, and start showing resistance to attending school or extracurricular activities that they once used to love.”

Paediatric nurse Ariella Lew, who runs a family consultancy, says anxiety will look different for each child, with some children regressing in the area of sleep or toilet training, others wanting more assurance or very specific answers to weekend plans, and others exerting control around food or complaining about feeling unwell when nothing is medically wrong.

So as a parent or guardian, what’s the best way to deal with this?

Lew says you can start by acknowledging that the anxiety exists and open the avenues of communication with the child, letting them know you understand things might be difficult and worrisome for them. She says the use of unstructured time and meditation, and conversations about their day – what went well and what didn’t, for example – can be helpful.

“Most primary school age children wouldn’t know how to define something as making them anxious but if it made them feel a negative emotion, they can be given a space to talk about it with their parents,” Lew says. She adds that “giving the child more regular breaks or giving them a responsibility that they are proud of and look forward to each day” can also help within a school setting.

Cameron regularly talks to her clients about maintaining balance in their lives, eating well and getting enough sleep, but she says good mental health in children requires parents to model three behaviours: physical outlets, downtime, and emotional regulation.

She says emotional regulation depends on the emotion being validated and then released.

“If you are angry, safely release the anger, yell at your teddy bears, throw a pillow, write a letter,” she says. “If you are sad, cry, listen to sad music or lay down in your room for a while until the feeling is released and passes.”

Cameron encourages parents to seek professional help (which can include psychology sessions identifying strategies on identifying and managing anxiety, and medication in more severe cases following specialist assessment) if they cannot help their child calm down and that child is having regular panic attacks, or is expressing negative statements of self-hate, self-harm or suicide.

“We need to acknowledge that children have stress and that children can and do experience anxiety and panic,” Cameron says. “Identifying these early symptoms and working with professionals in a team approach will give parents and guardians the best opportunity for management of this anxiety and therefore relief for the child. Anxiety can be treated and managed and it is not your fault as a parent, so never feel scared about reaching out for help.”

• Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children

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Sarah Ayoub

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