Does your child suffer from anxiety?
This is part 1 of a 4 part series on childhood anxiety.
As parents, we want to be attentive and understanding of our children. However, sometimes they struggle with things that we are ill-equipped to help them with. Such is often the case when a child struggles with anxiety. While it is normal for children to experience nervousness when faced with new expectations or novel settings, they are typically able to overcome this type of nervousness with a little support. However, if you have an anxious child they will need a higher level of support to successfully overcome their anxiety.
While a typical child may experience incidents of nervousness an anxious child is always or nearly always anxious. I call this “free-floating anxiety” because this type of anxiety is always present within your child. It is as if your child’s anxiety is constantly looking for something to attach itself too. This type of anxiety if more about what is happening inside your child than what is happening around them. To make things even more difficult it is likely that your child lacks the vocabulary to explain to you what they are experiencing. It is likely that their anxiety response will seem to “come out of nowhere” and it will be difficult to identify what the “trigger” was. When faced with this anxiety your child is likely to demonstrate behaviors that seem to make no sense … even to themselves. Therefore, when you say, “why did you do that” it is quite likely they really don’t know. A child’s anxiety response may look like attention seeking or defiant behavior resulting in consequences and/or demands for behavioral change that often increase their anxiety. So how do you help your anxious child?
Children can clue you to their level of distress through their body language, facial expressions, and behavior. Anxious children may shut-down, demonstrate escape behaviors, become aggressive or become overly submissive when they feel overcome by their anxiety. A child who shuts down when they are overcome by anxiety will need something different from you than a child who demonstrates escape or aggressive behavior.
Part 1 of this article will focus on the child who shuts-down.
Future articles will focus on the child who demonstrates escape, aggressive or overly submissive behaviors.
How to recognize your child’s shutting down as a sign of anxiety?
Sometimes a child experiencing heightened anxiety will shut-down, becoming very quiet and withdrawn. They may hide their face in their hands, under a hood, or they may crawl under a piece of furniture. You may notice their eyes scanning their environment for signs of danger or safety. Or they may appear bored, checked out or uninterested. It may look like they are staring into space. It is likely they are not listening to you or they may seem confused. You may notice the pupils of their eyes are larger (dilated). This is because they are in a heightened state of arousal. The dilated pupils allow increased light into their eye which improves their vision. This improved vision may not be necessary in that moment but since our bodies cannot tell the difference between perceived danger and the actual danger they will react the same to both. When a child is in a highly anxious state their mind and body are preparing for danger.
What does your child need from you when heightened anxiety causes them to shut-down?
Your child needs you to help them find relief from their anxious thoughts and body sensations. However, they may be resistive to your interactions. It is important to remain calm and matter of fact as you gently reassure them and help them regain control of their thoughts and impulses.
Verbally reassure them. But do not overwhelm them with words. Simple short sentences are best. Say things like: You are ok, I am here with you, I will not leave you, we can get through this together”.
Help them slow their breathing. Ask them to breathe in slowly through their nose and breathe out slowly through their mouth. Model this breathing using your hand to guide them in slow deep breathing. Help them pay attention to their stomach and notice it filling with air. Help them blow out air slowly as if they are trying to blow a bubble as big as they can.
Encourage your child to get active. Invite them to jump up and down, go for a walk or jog do jumping jacks.
You can help your child ground themselves. Locate a wall and show them how to stand with their feet a few feet away from it, then without moving their feet have them place their hands on the wall at shoulder height and push. Ask them not to move their hands but to push in one long continuous motions as if they are trying with all their might to push the wall over.
Help your child reconnect with you. You may do this by asking them to do a fun chore with you, or offer them a drink, snack or back rub.
Continue to reassure them that you are with them, that together you will get through whatever it is that is bothering them. This is not the time to try to figure out what triggered them, it is the time to help them calm, feel safe, and believe that they are ok.
Feel free to schedule an appointment with me, if you would like to talk about the possible benefits of therapy for your anxious child.
Next, we will learn about the escape behaviors of highly anxious children and how you can help them.