Parenting anxious children

‘We’re only as happy as our unhappiest child’  is a refrain that rings true for many parents desperately seeking help for their beleaguered offspring.  More to the point, ‘Anxious children make parents anxious’. And the reverse is also true. A parent’s anxiety can have an impact on his or her child.

The predisposition for anxiety runs like a genetic thread, no different to hair colour, down through the generations.  So, I don’t ask if an anxious child has anxious parents, I ask ‘which one?’.  That said, you can’t ‘catch’ anxiety like a cold.  There are multiple environmental factors which mean different generations experience anxiety in different ways.

Are parents to blame?

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Articulating emotions is difficult.  Our language is better at explaining and doing than feeling things.  Small children express feelings in behaviour which often makes them appear naughty.  And they get told off.  This is when Freud’s definition of repression kicks in, creating a lifetime of misunderstandings and confusion.

anxious children

Parents aren’t to blame for their anxious children.  They will have packed away their own difficult emotions and won’t always recognise that feelings have a point and a purpose.  Emotions are like our five senses, they make sense of our experiences.  Ignoring them cuts us off from vital information that enables us to survive and thrive.  Achieving emotional maturity is a lifelong process and learning to deal with anxiety and helping our children with theirs is part of the journey.

Do anxious children all need love?

The early stages of development determine how useful emotions are going to be in safeguarding us from harm, including for anxious children.  Studies conducted on Romanian orphans adopted by British parents show how early deprivation in a loveless institution with little physical contact affected the brain development of these children and made them vulnerable to mental health issues, despite being subsequently raised in loving families.  The absence of emotional support in the early years caused neurological damage and stunted their feelings, making anxious children more susceptible to anxiety and other mental health challenges, as surely as starvation stunts physical growth.

In the last century, experiments with baby rhesus monkeys showed the importance of maternal comfort by giving them wire monkey ‘mothers’ and testing how they reacted to them.  Amongst the important findings from this research was evidence of the need for comforting contact.  Blanket-covered wire monkeys were chosen over the mother with a feeding bottle but no blanket to snuggle up to.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a child anxiety test

Of course, we don’t need scientists to tell us to hug our children, especially anxious children.  But it’s sobering to realise that, without that human comfort, we shrivel up or even die.  When a child is misbehaving, it’s worth taking a moment to check what might be stressing them and provide reassurance and guidance rather than a telling-off.  Not only will they calm down more quickly, but their behaviour will also improve going forward if the problem that caused the anxiety has been solved.

Sweat the small stuff

Older children are much chattier about their stressful lives so it’s much easier to get to the crux of what might be troubling them.  This is when active listening becomes a vital parenting skill.  At the end of a school day, an eight-year-old will be full of accounts of ‘she said this’ and ‘they said that’ and then ‘I did this’.  It’s easy to just glaze over and nod while thinking about what’s for tea.  

In fact, this inane banter is incredibly influential as children start to figure out how to build friendships and deal with conflict.  Children don’t always have the emotional intelligence to cope with playground power struggles and sometimes need an adult mentor to coach them through this social minefield.

Build secure attachments

Social development is dependent on learning how to form secure attachments, and this is especially important for anxious children.  The anxieties of many school-age children are often related to peer behaviour and a fear of rejection.  Academic progress generally ticks along nicely if children skip into school looking forward to seeing their mates.

Having play-dates and sleep-overs, and giving advice on how to deal with arguments and rivalry in friendship groups helps children to navigate the social minefield of school.  By the time children step up to secondary school, if they haven’t got those basic skills, years seven and eight can be hell.  

Childhood anxiety symptoms checklist

Childhood anxiety is a common condition that can manifest in a variety of ways. If you suspect that your child may be struggling with anxiety, you might want to seek professional help. Here is a checklist of common childhood anxiety symptoms to help you identify whether your child may be experiencing anxiety:

  • Excessive worrying: Children with anxiety may worry excessively about a variety of things, such as school, relationships, and health.
  • Avoidance: Children with anxiety may avoid situations or activities that make them feel anxious, such as social events or school.
  • Physical symptoms: Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue.
  • Restlessness or irritability: Children with anxiety may feel restless or irritable and have difficulty concentrating.
  • Sleep disturbances: Anxiety can interfere with a child’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Perfectionism: Children with anxiety may be overly concerned with doing things perfectly and may become upset if they make a mistake.
  • Fear of separation: Children with anxiety may experience separation anxiety and have difficulty being away from their parents or caregivers.
  • Excessive self-doubt: Children with anxiety may doubt their abilities or worry about what others think of them.
  • Excessive self-consciousness: Children with anxiety may feel self-conscious and worry about being embarrassed in front of others.

If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek professional help. By using hypnotherapy I can help children to shrug off their anxiety so they can lead happy, healthy lives.

Teen tribes

After puberty and throughout the teen years, the most important influence on a child isn’t parents or teachers, it’s their friends.  Humans are tribal and never more so than in teens and early adulthood when belonging and fitting in are essential to well-being.  Having instilled beliefs and values during early years, to a degree, parents are helpless bystanders at this stage. 

When teens are wayward, distant or unhappy, they take risks that can be harmful and may struggle to take personal responsibility for themselves.  A natural parental response is to bail them out, fix their problems, bawl them out and tell them not to do it again.  This can have the opposite of the intended effect as they quickly learn that someone else will pick up the pieces if they mess up.  Many ‘kidults’ will continue to keep thinking this and remain unhealthily dependent well into adulthood.

Personal responsibility

In our child-centric world, it’s hard to know when to let go and give children responsibility for their own well-being.  There’s no one size fits so no parenting guru has all the right answers for everyone.  Taking study as an example, if a parent nags a child about homework, said child will typically choose to avoid it if left to their own devices.  

Anyone encouraged and rewarded for hard work is more likely to be self-motivated.  If they aren’t capable of independent study by the time GCSEs come around then they’ll struggle with future academic challenges.  Whether academic or not, children fulfil their potential by working on their skills and abilities.  Confidence comes from proving what they’re capable of.  Parents enable this by backing off and letting their offspring achieve their own victories and make their own mistakes.

Young adults are far more motivated by friends and influencers.  Social media is their judge and jury.  Friends sentence them to social Siberia if they don’t conform.  As parents, there is little more we can do than put them in schools where they’re most likely to be accepted by children raised with similar beliefs and values and hope for the best.

Give them encouragement

We can also help by giving them encouragement and support when they need or ask for it and a safe base at home where they can lick their wounds and take off their game face before returning to the fray.

Instilling confidence, resilience and robust self-esteem is a passport to happy, well-balanced adulthood.  This work, at the coalface of parenthood, is mostly done during the early formative years.  Identity and core beliefs are already formed and robustly defended by puberty and are therefore harder to fix or change..  

Greek philosopher Aristotle said: ‘Show me a boy of seven and I will show you the man’.  This is still largely true more than a thousand years later.  

Reading recommendations

These are not parenting books but they contain some useful life hacks which will help with managing the stresses of family life and guiding children through all stages of their development:

‘Untangle your Anxiety’ by Joshua Fletcher and Dean Stott is a practical guide to dealing with anxiety in its many and varied forms.. 

‘Fully Human’ by Steve Biddulph shares wisdom from this gifted child psychologist.