Anxiety is tough for children. They don’t understand it, they don’t know why they feel the way they do and they don’t always have the ability to articulate those feelings. So it can easily get worse as confusion and uncertainty set in. Even though they may be told ‘don’t be silly, it’ll be alright’, they know they’re not alright. And by now they’re feeling silly as well as getting more and more anxious about being anxious.
An anxious child is sometimes regarded as a naughty child and, once they learn that anxiety is treated in the same way as bad behaviour, they stop talking about it. This leaves parents powerless to help and bemused and frustrated by the subsequent physical symptoms of anxiety and associated behavioural problems.
These can include tummy upsets and headaches, inexplicable tantrums, night frights, bed wetting and refusing to eat. Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to get a child to school when they’re feeling this way.
A family problem
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These issues have a knock on-impact on the wellbeing of the whole family as Mum and Dad turn their full attention on their ‘problem’ child who, by now, is a major source of worry. And parental anxiety simply adds another layer of stress to an anxious child’s distress. At the same time, siblings will be robbed of the positive attention they need.
This creates a ‘perfect storm’ of pressure and conflict. It is also the perfect time to seek treatment. Typically, solutions are sought from the following sources depending, of course, on the nature of the anxiety: close family and friends, teachers, mumsnet or other online sources of information, parenting manuals, GPs, child psychologists, counsellors or psychiatrists, homeopaths and other alternative therapists. Often, hypnotherapy is considered as a last resort when all else has failed, unless parents are lucky enough to receive a work of mouth recommendation to direct them towards this demonstrably effective treatment for resolving anxiety in children of all ages.
Without the cognitive filters and conscious resistance of adults and with the most amazing creative subconscious minds, children are hypnotic marvels, incredibly receptive to changing anxious thought processes. For children, this is easier than learning their ABCs. During their early neurological development, they spend far more time in a trance state than adults, who have to remain more consciously engaged with their environment. If you’ve ever watched a child immersed in roleplay or building Lego castles, you’ll notice they’re barely aware of their surroundings. They’re in their own little hypnotic world of fantasy and adventure.
Anxiety in children is eminently treatable when the right approach is taken. It’s important to remember that anxiety is a normal human reaction to a perceived threat and not an illness. It only becomes a ‘disorder’ when allowed to escalate. This can happen if it’s ignored for long enough or subjected to ineffective or inappropriate treatment. Unfortunately, this can easily happen as parents struggle to find answers amongst the confusion of well-meaning advice and conflicting opinions. By the time numerous specialists have been consulted, a possible diagnosis made and medication sometimes prescribed, the anxious child may well have been labelled with a condition with implies lifelong problems. They may also be receiving ongoing treatment which sets them apart and undermines their confidence in their ability to fulfil their potential.
It can therefore seem implausible to consider that an empathic hypnotherapist can help a child use their own creative imagination to tell a story of their recovery and then implement their own happy ending. And yet, it’s this same creative thinking that feeds the anticipation of the ‘worst thing’ that causes anxiety. When it’s turned round and directed at creating an alternative and better outcome, anxiety and its symptoms can just melt away.
Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. The child concerned has to want to get better and, typically, they do. And the involvement of parents is fundamental to supporting, guiding and enabling whatever treatment protocol is implemented. Also, parents have to be prepared to consider how their own parenting style may have contributed to their child’s anxiety and be receptive to alternative approaches. This is inevitable if parents wish to avoid unwittingly maintaining their child’s anxiety by continuing to deal with it in a way which has proven to be ineffective.
How parents can help an anxious child
As is often the case, clear communication is the key to achieving understanding, agreement and positive change. For example, asking a child ‘how do you feel?’ will not necessarily tell a parent what they need to know to help resolve anxiety. ‘Fine’ is the usual unhelpful answer.
Specific, direct questions requiring ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers are a useful way to open a conversation about anxiety before switching to more open questions which will help a child to explain what they think is going on and why.
Typical symptoms which anxiety sufferers of all ages experience include:
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty talking
- Breathing problems
- Blushing/face or body
- Tight muscles and tension (head/neck/shoulders)
- Tummy upset (butterflies)
A symptom check can be a starting point for explaining more about anxiety. Talking about possible causes and how commonplace anxiety is helps to ‘normalise’ it. Children can be reassured by understanding that doing new and different things can be exciting and scary at the same time. Same with things that are difficult, surprising or really important. Being told off or shouted at by someone in authority will also make most children quake in their shoes. Getting lost, being hurt or involved in an accident are traumatic events for children and adults alike.
However, there are times when anxiety appears to have no reason or purpose and no amount of detective work will reveal its cause. This is because the subconscious mind uses the memory of past anxieties to alert us to present threats to our wellbeing. We may be consciously aware of these memories or we may not. This is because the subconscious mind processes far more information about our environment than we’re consciously aware of, constantly matching past and present circumstances and triggering the same anxious response in similar situations.
An obvious example is a theme park roller coaster. Designed to be scary and fun, sometimes a roller coast ride is just plain scary. Anyone who’s had a bad time on a fairground ride will avoid repeating the experience and will feel anxious just at the thought of it. But anxiety doesn’t necessarily stop there. It can trigger the same kind of reaction on a hilly car journey or in a high speed lift because of the similarities in the sensory experience. Just the same as a child who gets lost in a shopping centre may be afraid of going back to the same place and could then become afraid of all shopping centres. So, like Chinese whispers, the original information can end up completely unrelated to subsequent anxieties.
Anxiety keeps us safe
During their early developing years, children build up a portfolio of anxiety triggers to warn them of perceived danger. This vital neurological defence mechanism continues to provide a lifetime of protection and, without this ability, it would be difficult to keep out of harm’s way. And it doesn’t just rely on direct experience. Scary movies, news bulletins and story books filled with tragedy and woe can all inform the young and vulnerable that bad things happen and they’d better watch out. It’s no wonder that a child’s vivid imagination has a tendency to run away with thoughts of catastrophe and disaster.
And fear creates powerful memories because it heightens the sensory response to whatever has caused it, enabling us to be hyper-vigilant to future exposure. Add to that the influence of imagination and the kind of ‘what if,,,?’ questions our subconscious constantly asks can turn into a disaster movie in our heads. Running different scenarios and outcomes in this way is an ongoing mental rehearsal of possible future events and creates anticipatory anxiety which can plague us with needless fear if left unchecked. This is why anxiety can easily escalate from being a normal human condition to an overwhelming disorder which cannot be resolved by logic or reason.
The powerful subconscious mind
The subconscious part of the brain, which operates all our automatic thoughts, feelings and behaviours as well as maintaining our physical functions, is programmed to react fast to danger. It doesn’t analyse or pause for thought, it just responds. This primeval ‘flight or fight’ response overwrites any rational, logical thinking and is completely outside of any conscious control. Its evolutionary purpose was to enable us to defend ourselves against predators or run away. Not much use in this day and age with the lifestyle we now lead.
But it happens anyway whenever we’re scared, something makes us jump or we’re under extreme stress. Mind and body go into red alert, fuelled by a rush of adrenaline, elevating heart rate, increasing respiration and sharpening the senses. As oxygenated blood floods the limbs with a surge of energy, perspiration cools down the heat generated. With the brain’s oxygen supply partially diverted, the mind can go blank and become disorientated. The digestive system shuts down appetite and loosens the bowels. None of this is very pleasant in the middle of an exam or in the playground.
This is why anxiety unchecked can create a fear of the fear which the sufferer is motivated to avoid regardless of the consequences. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, bribing or coercing will persuade a school phobic child to confront their fear and cheerfully skip off to school. The story running in their mind is filled with dread, even terror, at the prospect. It often takes a while for parents to realise that there’s no reasoning with an anxious child and that they’re not being deliberately obstructive. Once this understanding is reached, it’s possible to bring them down from the parapet of fear they’ve perched themselves on. This process of recovery can start with some reassurance along the following lines:
- Everyone gets anxious sometimes
- It’s possible to get anxious even when there’s nothing to worry about
- It’s easier to stay calm when you know what’s going on and why
- There’s a thin line between fear and excitement which is why scary movies and roller coasters can be such fun
- We can learn anxiety from others and copy their reaction to it
- Silly things can be frightening for no apparent reason
- We don’t always know why we feel anxious or can misinterpret its cause
Creative parent power
Although anxiety can be overwhelming, it is possible to learn to manage and control it using simple age-appropriate hypnotic techniques. Most pre-pubescent children respond well to stories which they can relate to, describing their experiences in a fantasy world in which their fantasy self does battle with their fears and triumphs over them. Think for a moment about traditional fairytales and how they are metaphors for real life risks. So, Little Red Riding Hood is about stranger danger. Most are less meaningful now because childhood is so different but you can create a superhero account of your child using special powers to overcome their fears. Or you can take them through a Hogwarts type adventure or create an avatar for them to work their way through different gaming levels to fight off their anxieties.
You can build into the story calming techniques like taking deep slow breaths, have them create a safe haven somewhere no bad things can happen, build confidence with points and scoreboards and trophies and prizes for winning. Let your imagination flow and you’ll discover a myriad different ways to distract and divert you child’s thoughts away from anxiety. Obviously, older children need a more sophisticated approach and adult strategies may just need a little tweaking to make them relevant.
And adolescents have a whole world of anxiety to look forward to as they embark on a ten year phase from about age 15 when they go through more change than at any other time in their life. Many of them could do with a bit of help at times to avoid accumulating a lifetime of anxiety by learning to deal with it as it emerges.
Here are just a few examples of the commonplace anxieties which children and adolescents can be challenged by:
- Moving house
- Parental problems/break up
- Illness, either the child itself is unwell or a sibling or parent is unwell
- Accidents witnessed, especially with injuries
- Sports events
- New school
- Grandparents unwell or passing on
- Not getting on with a teacher
- Disagreement or breakup with friends
- Any events of an antagonistic nature related to social media
- Pressure from peers regarding boyfriends/girlfriends
- Problems associated with puberty
What adults may consider trivial, a child can view as catastrophic, particularly if there are a number of stresses in their life. For example, a child whose parents have recently divorced, resulting in a house move and a new school, may not be able to cope with a minor issue like missing the bus or losing homework. This can lead to misinterpretation, as anxiety tends to be attributed to the most obvious likelihood. In this case, the child may be missing one of their parents more than the easy assumption they’re worried about the school run or homework. A simple mistake like that can make it difficult to help a child because you’re looking at the wrong problem.
Given that children look to their parents first and foremost to solve their problems, it’s a good idea to be well-informed and confident when dealing with their anxiety. And, if in doubt, seek help. A hypnotherapeutic approach provides a toolbox of anxiety reducing measures which are not only easy to implement but enable a child to take some responsibility for their progress. Teaching a child to master their own emotions is an empowering life lesson which they will never forget. In this ‘child-centric’ world it’s tempting to cosset them from stress and anxiety but this means they don’t’ gain the resources necessary to deal with adult issues when they grow up. This, in turn, prevents them from having the confidence to fulfil their potential.
So, taking care of your children’s emotional development and wellbeing is as important as making sure they’re physically healthy and strong if you want to optimise their ability to survive and thrive in the face of whatever challenges they encounter.
Karen Martin has had many years of treating childhood anxieties and their symptoms, ranging from bedwetting and nail biting to social phobias and exam nerves.