How To Stop Your Kids Getting Anxious
The five steps every parent can take.
Two important Australian studies support the notion of what teachers and mental health experts have long been saying– that exposing kids to safe challenges in childhood promotes resilience and better mental health in later life.
The results of a study into children’s well-being by mental health organisation beyondblue found that children who are able talk about their emotions, develop the skills of rational thinking and are exposed to failure and loss at a young age are better equipped to deal with a variety of challenges as they grow.
Similarly, findings from a Macquarie University long-term study into children’s mental health found that children who are exposed to safe risks are happier, less anxious and more able to handle everyday problems such as rejection, teasing and failure.
Both studies pointed to the need for children to experience failure, to be involved in play with peers and to be encouraged to face their fears rather than avoid them.
With one in six Australian children and teenagers experiencing anxiety on a regular basis it’s essential to provide kids of all ages with the skills and experiences to develop mental resilience. These five strategies make a good start.
1. Encourage kids to spend more time with other children
When children spend more time among themselves they rely less on adults to solve problems for them. In fact, when kids play among themselves they take on the authority of adults in their absence. They negotiate about what and how to play. Typically kids will make up the rules of any game, modifying them as they go along, and challenging other children’s interpretations. “You’re not playing by the rules” is a common childhood retort but left to their own devices kids will generally resolve such conflict situations more creatively, and with more finality than when adults become involved.
2. Encourage kids to talk about emotions and feelings
It’s important that children become comfortable with unpleasant feelings such as disappointment, fear and nervousness rather than be debilitated by them. We need to allow children to experience events that lead to unpleasant emotions. We also need to feel comfortable ourselves with our children’s unpleasant feelings. Enabling our children to verbalise their unpleasant feelings, helps them process and make sense of their emotions. Healthy families and safe classrooms work on the principal there’s nothing so bad that we can’t talk about it in the right way, but there are behaviours that we don’t tolerate.
3. Help children be good losers and gracious winners
In recent years there’s been an aversion to exposing kids to losing, particularly when it comes to the sporting field. Some codes, in an effort to improve the participatory experience for kids, don’t keep scores and give prizes for participation rather than achievement. These practices prevent kids from experiencing the disappointment that comes with a loss as well as the feelings of satisfaction that comes from winning. More significantly, they prevent kids from practising being good losers and gracious winners, both important skills to learn for future development.
4. Model calm and rational thinking
High emotions are very contagious. When a child is angry, fearful or upset we can easily feel the same way. It's vital that we manage how we react to our child's emotion so that we can provide an effective, empathetic response. The best way to manage our own reactivity when kids are upset is to through breathing. Taking a breath helps us regain control and remain calm. It then enables us to ask questions and logically think our way through a situation rather than catastrophise and let our thoughts run amok. Adults who model calm thoughtful behaviours in the face of stress show children and teenagers how to respond in safe, effective ways to stressful situations rather than react at an emotional level.
5. Encourage children to become independent problem-solvers
When adults solve problems for children and young people we not only increase their dependency on us but we teach them to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being good enough. That’s fertile ground for anxiety and depressive illness. When kids bring problems such as leaving lunches at home and sorting out friendship disputes to adults to solve, step back and invite them to resolve the problem rather than sort it out for them. We don’t want to deter kids from coming to us when they have difficulty; rather to encourage them and teach them to work through their concerns themselves.
Stepping back and allowing children and teenagers to experience many of life’s challenges whether social, academic or physical can be difficult for well-meaning adults. However part of growing up means that children and young people need to develop the skills and aptitude to manage a range of challenging situations well after they leave the safe confines of school and family. As the research is telling us, the best way to do so is to allow our kids to navigate challenges themselves, and surround them with supportive, rather then over-protective adults.
If you need help in a crisis, call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.