Helping your anxious child

Introduction

Does your child suffer with anxiety? I see many children in my clinic and most of them come to me because they are suffering with symptoms such as excessive worrying, difficulty sleeping, poor digestion, being moody and snappy or withdrawn, obsessive behaviour, self-harm, panic attacks, depression and so on. To see your child suffering like this is very hard and to know what to do is even harder!

In my work as a Craniosacral Therapist, specialising in trauma and anxiety, I quickly became known as an expert in anxiety in children. I hope to give you some key points as to how to recognise that your child needs help and the best way to go about getting the help that will make the biggest difference to them whilst giving them some skills and more resilience going forward that will protect them from overwhelming anxiety into the future.

I don’t understand why is my child like this!?

Often we don’t, but perhaps that is not our role. We have all had different life experiences. Some people are more prone to anxiety than others and there are complex reasons for this.

It’s important to recognise that regardless of the symptoms your child is currently showing, the underlying cause (which is nearly always tension/anxiety) is what needs addressing and that is what I am practised at doing.

Our role as parents/carers

There are three key areas to this:

  1. Accepting that your child needs help – and now!

We can pass it off as phase. We like to think that children are resilient and surely he/she’ll just grow out of it? And maybe they will. But in my experience, when anxiety shows itself and it is not addressed in a helpful manner, it tends to grow and manifest into bigger and more scary things. So, the sooner you act, the better

2. Don’t blame yourself

It’s a parent’s default isn’t it? I’ve been there. BUT – I have never met a parent yet who isn’t doing the very best that they can with what they have and who doesn’t want the best for their child. Many children have a less than ideal start in life (even the unresolved stress from an overwhelming birth experience can linger on in a child causing future issues), and some continue to have more than their fair share of struggles. Looking for somewhere to cast blame is nearly always unhelpful, so lets work towards acceptance of the current situation and the best way forward; its what you do now that matters.

3. Take an honest look at your own mental state

Ouch, I hate this one. As a parent myself, I find it very hard to admit that my mental state is perhaps the single most influencing factor in my children’s mental health. But, in my many years as a therapist working with anxious children, it has become more and more apparent to me that an anxious child often has an anxious parent. The reasons for this are long and complex (and deserve their own blog), and of course it can be a chicken and egg situation, but please please please, for your child’s sake, as well as your own, please take an honest look at your own mental health and if you need help, get some. Don’t just accept that ‘this is who I am’. Change is possible, even for yourself.

The advice that I am going to give you for the care of your anxious child is not dissimilar to the advice for an anxious adult, so you may able to apply a lot of the principles in this blog to help yourself as well as your child – wow, you are going to see some progress!

A toolbox for anxiety

In my clinic, I often talk to parents about creating a ‘toolbox’ for their child. The idea is to find resources, skills and coping strategies that help keep them well and happy and put them inside.

They will become familiar with these things through trying them. They will have their favourites and they will know that the toolbox is there any time they need to open it and use what’s inside. Some things they will grow out of over time, and new ones will be discovered, but it’ll be there for life and they can open it and use what’s inside anytime they need strength/support/life feels tough.

Essentially, I am talking about building the resilience of your child. I believe we all need a toolbox. None of us are immune to anxiety. As an old tutor of mine, Steve Haines always says, ‘squeeze anyone hard enough and they will become overwhelmed’. So as I go through a list of resources that I know to have been helpful for many children that I have worked with, see what you think your child might like to try and consider which of them might help you too. You might come up with some of your own too which would be great.

  1. Craniosacral Therapy (CST) – addressing the cause not the symptoms

When we experience shock/trauma, which all of us do at some point, whatever our system is not able to resolve at the time, is held in the physiology. Using a very gentle hand on approach, I identify any specific tensions or restrictions that are being held in the child’s body, and then help those tensions to release in a very kind supportive way, and at a pace that is right for the child. My experience is that the result of having released this held shock/underlying tension is that anxiety symptoms lessen or completely resolve.

Another really important aspect of my work is to tune into the nervous system and listen to it. Our nervous systems should spend most of their time in ‘rest and digest’ mode and rarely need to be in ‘fight, flight or freeze’ (the latter only when there is an emergency). However, after experiencing either acute stress, or ongoing stress, our nervous systems can get stuck in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode and finding the ‘off switch’ can become almost impossible. This leads to symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and so on.

Teaching the nervous system how to slow down or down-regulate is very powerful and usually has a profound impact on the child’s outlook, sense of calm and ability to cope.

Many parents worry that their child won’t lay down for a treatment, much less stay still!  But don’t worry, I work around their needs. Often newborn babies receive their treatment whilst in their mum’s arms, or even breast feeding. I get down on the floor with a toddler and a toybox and sometimes a screen to watch and I grab what hands on time I can – a few minutes here and there can be enough.  Older children will often happily lay on the treatment table as long as they can have a parent close by holding their hand and reading a book. We work it out one way or another. The most important thing for me is to provide an environment where your child feels as safe and content as possible.

Nearly all the children that I see, REALLY enjoy their sessions and will ask to come back, even once they are all better! In fact, its not unusual for them to be asleep by the end! 

I find that improvements are often seen after just one session, although obviously lasting change can take more of an investment. But to me, Craniosacral Therapy is the single most effective way to tackle anxiety.

2. Emotional connection/time with your kids

It has been proven that emotional connection creates a strong resilience when it comes to trauma/life’s difficulties. Think of ways to connect to your child. If you have a teenager like me, this may be more challenging!

Offering them your time and asking them how they’d like to spend it might be a good start.  You may not have much time to offer, but that’s okay. Let them know how important they are to you and how you’d like to dedicate 15 mins of quality time to them every day. Talking, running, laughing, dancing, cooking, reading or having a cuddle can all be a great way to connect.

Mood cards can be a good way to find out more about what’s going on for your child. I use these ones with my two:

The Mood Cards: Make Sense of Your Moods and Emotions for Clarity, Confidence and Well-Being (MOOD Series) cards by Andrea Harr.

My girls and I make a habit of sitting at the table together to eat dinner each evening and we’ll often look at the cards. Each has an emotion on one side and some queries and affirmations on the other. I teach them that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ emotion, that anger for example is neither good nor bad, it just is. So we’ll tend to pick one ‘easy’ emotion and one that we find harder and then we each have a turn to talk about what’s going on for us. It helps us all to open up and gain clarity on what we are feeling.

3. Books to tackle worry

There are several out there. My personal favourite is ‘What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide To Overcoming Anxiety’ by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews.

This book works on the principle that worrying can become a habit and how to break that habit. It suggests that a worry is like a tomato seed and that the more we fuss over the seed and give it our attention, the more it’ll grow. It also introduces the idea of a ‘worry box’, which I love. We refuse to enter into thought or discussion about anything worrying, it simply goes in the worry box. We only open the worry box once a day for a limited time to address and rationalise the worries. Then it gets closed until the next day. Over time, you’d be amazing, the worries diminish.

4. Breathing exercises

The breath is a powerful tool. I have seen clients who are taking nine breaths to my one.  Training yourself into the more natural, deeper, slower, more efficient and relaxed abdominal pattern of breathing will help the nervous system to slow down and to stay calm. Ten minutes of practice, morning and night will usually mean that your regular breathing and therefore your nervous system will be calmer most of the time in a week or two. 

Your child may not be old enough to do this, but if he/she is, the main two things to address are (whilst laying on their back)

a) their tummy moves in and out with their breathing, not their chest

b) the out breath should be as slow as possible – a slow count of 6 would be amazing

The more awkward it feels to start with, the more benefit you will get from the transition! Start where you are at. Acknowledge the awkwardness and take baby steps. Using your tummy for one breathe only might be great progress! Slowing that out breath down from a count of just one to nearly two is great too! Be kind and patient with yourself and your child, these are life skills we are learning.

5. Mindfulness

There is no ‘correct’ way of being mindful. What we are really talking about when we say mindfulness is getting practiced at bringing ourselves into the present moment. When we are truly in the present, the past doesn’t take over and the future hasn’t happened yet. It is a key skill in mental health. Again, a life skill and one that most of us need to get better at. 

There is much help and advice out there to help you achieve mindfulness. Often CST opens the door to children and adults alike, but if you would like some guidance, I like this book and CD:

Sitting Still Like A Frog: Mindfulness Exercises For Kids (And Their Parents) by Eline Snel.

There are also many apps to try.

6. Gratitude

It has been proven that gratitude has many benefits to us psychologically. In this material world where all we seem to want is more, appreciating what is good in life can have genuine benefits. Making a daily habit of naming a couple of things that each family member is grateful for can really steer things into a more positive direction.

7. Referral to CAMHS

The school may already be aware of your child’s anxiety. They or the GP may make a referral to CAMHS. You or your child may even be able to make the referral yourself.

After what is usually a very long wait, you should be given an for your child to be given a mental health assessment. To say that CAMHS is under-resourced is a huge understatement, which is a very sorry situation and a large proportion of children do not any help at all.

My advice would always be to take responsibility yourself. By all means apply to CAMHS for help, but the help if there is any is likely to be slow and insufficient. Thankfully, there is much that you can do in the meantime, rather than waiting for the help that may never come (see toolbox!).

Some schools are able to offer talking /play therapy which can be helpful.

In summary

Hopefully this blog has given you an insight as to how you can be most effective at helping your anxious child, and yourself!

Life can be stressful. We all need healthy coping strategies and support in place. Start filling up your child’s toolbox. By taking action now, you are showing your child that it is good to be open about their feelings and to reach out when they need help or are worried; that they are not alone and that things can and will get better.

I am here, even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to answer your queries on 07956 390419 (Sarah Johnson RBCST BCST) or email sarah@craniokent.co.uk.

I’m currently writing a book on the subject of anxiety in children and how as parents, we can best help them. I will be expanding on many of the subjects that I raise here, and also I am adding a lot of new ones. Please keep your eye out for it.