Helping Children With Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are natural human emotions, and often begin to emerge during childhood.
Fear is a response to a specific perceived threat, such as a barking dog or a loud thunderstorm.
Anxiety on the other hand, involves a more generalised sense of unease or worry about the future.
While it’s normal for children to experience moments of fear or anxiety, excessive and unmanaged anxiety can interfere with their daily lives and well-being. Children’s fears often evolve with age; younger children might be scared of monsters or the dark, while older children may worry about school performance or social acceptance.
Recognising these fears can help you to gauge when to intervene and when to let your child work through them independently. Genetics and environmental factors can contribute to a child’s predisposition to anxiety, so if anxiety runs in your family, your child may be more susceptible.
Additionally, life events like moving house, a new school, or family changes can trigger anxiety in children. So let’s explore how to spot the signs of fear and anxiety in your child and how to support them.
Recognising the early signs of anxiety in your child is important to prevent anxiety from becoming a chronic issue. Common signs to look out for include;
- Excessive Worry: Persistent and excessive worry about everyday activities, school or relationships.
- Physical Symptoms: Complaints of headaches, stomachaches or other physical symptoms without a clear medical cause.
- Avoidance: Avoiding situations or activities due to fear or anxiety.
- Irritability: Increased irritability or moodiness.
- Sleep Disturbances: Difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, bed wetting.
- Changes in Behaviour: Significant changes in behaviour or regression in developmental milestones, such as temper tantrums or reverting to immature ways of talking.
- School Issues: A decline in performance or behaviour at school, difficulty concentrating, or frequent absences.
If you think your child is showing signs of anxiety, there are ways to support them;
Don’t avoid things that make your child anxious
As much as you don’t want to see your child anxious and distressed, the most effective way to help them conquer their anxiety is not to remove the triggers that make them feel that way.
Instead, the aim should be to help them learn how to cope with anxiety while still functioning as effectively as possible.
Allowing them to avoid situations that trigger their fears will actually reinforce their anxiety. If they are in a situation they are uncomfortable with, they may become upset and their reaction is to cry, which is a genuine expression of their emotions.
However, if you swiftly remove them from the situation and the source of their fear, they have learned a coping mechanism and there is the possibility that the pattern will keep repeating itself.
Set realistic expectations
If your child tells you they are worried about failing a test at school or they are fearful of a vaccination they need to have, you shouldn’t promise them that their fears are entirely groundless; they may face challenges during the test and the injection may hurt a little, but you can let them know that it is ok to be worried, but that you believe in their ability to get through these challenging situations. Emphasise that as they confront their fears, their anxiety levels will naturally decrease and that you will never expect them to do something that you know they won’t be able to.
Talk things through
It can be useful to have a discussion with your child about what they would do if their fears became a reality. Your child might worry about what would happen if you didn’t arrive to pick them up after school, so start a conversation about this by asking them, “What would you do if I wasn’t there to pick you up at the end of the day?” Your child might say, “I would tell my teacher that you haven’t arrived.” You can then go on to reassure them that their teacher would phone you and look after them until someone arrives to collect them. They would be perfectly safe.
Respect your child’s feelings
If your child is fearful of an approaching event, such as performing in a school play or going to the dentist, it’s important not to make light of their fears, but neither should you intensify them. Instead, actively listen and show empathy, help them to identify the source of their anxiety and tell them it’s okay to be scared, but the message you aim to get across should be one of reassurance; “I understand that you’re feeling worried, and that’s ok. I’m here to support you.”
Don’t ask leading questions
It is good for your child to feel that they can express their emotions openly, but try to steer clear of asking leading questions like, “Are you worried about starting at your new school?” To make sure you’re not inadvertently reinforcing their anxiety, opt for open ended questions instead: “How are you feeling about starting at your new school?”
Keep the ‘worry period’ short
The most challenging phase of confronting our fears is normally before we actually face them, so it’s a good idea for you to minimise the amount of time your child has to anticipate an event they are fearful of. If they are worried about that appointment at the doctors, it’s not a good idea to remind them about it too far in advance. Instead, only discuss it with them at the point when you need to.
Be a good role model
Let your child see how you deal with your own worries and fears. Children are extremely observant and they will notice if they often hear you talking about how you can’t manage stress or anxiety. This doesn’t mean you should pretend to be completely stress free. Instead, allow your child to see you dealing with stress calmly, demonstrating your ability to tolerate and ultimately overcome it.
Praise and encouragement
Your words of praise and encouragement are powerful tools in helping your child to conquer their fears and anxieties. When you acknowledge their bravery and efforts in facing their fears, it boosts their self-esteem and confidence, and lets them know they’re capable and supported. By reinforcing their ability to confront challenges, you will give them confidence to tackle anxiety inducing situations and build resilience.
As a parent, understanding and addressing your child’s fears and anxieties is an important aspect of nurturing their emotional wellbeing. Fear is an emotion that can become overwhelming if left unmanaged, but by recognising the signs of anxiety in your child, you can intervene early and provide the necessary support, helping to equip them with valuable skills that will be hugely beneficial throughout their life.