With anxiety in children more important than ever before, chartered Psychologist and Coach, Suzy Reading, gives us the lowdown on how to spot the signs of anxiety in children and what we as their carers can do about it.
Chartered Psychologist and Coach, Suzy Reading is a long-term friend and collaborator of The Positive Planner, having already contributed to our Positive Wellness Journal. We value her expert opinion and also her story that has brought her to where she is and what she does today. This month, she joined co-founder Ali over on our Positive Doodle Diary Instagram for a live talk about how anxiety manifests in children and what we as their carers can do to support them. You can watch the video here if you missed it. After the past year or so we've lived through, this is an issue that has never been more important. We asked Suzy to go into a little more detail on this subject here for us.
The upheavals of the last 18 months
Our children have experienced many upheavals in the last 18 months, with prolonged uncertainty, the pressures of lockdown life and so many of the activities that brought variation and joy to their lives made inaccessible. As parents we are acutely aware that the consequences may not be short lived and emerging from lockdown presents yet another challenging period of adjustment.
Concern about lockdown lifting even has its own name – re-entry anxiety. Worry is prevalent, and we can appreciate that it is a very normal response, but anxiety manifests in many different ways and it’s very easy to interpret some of these other signs as poor behaviour. We need to zoom out and see the many varied symptoms of anxiety so we can understand and best support our children. While it’s not our job to fix our kids, we can provide reassurance and comfort, and we can empower our kids with practical skills to help them find their calm.
When you take a look at what our kids have weathered, it’s no surprise that anxiety is bubbling to the surface for so many. The abrupt cessation of face to face school or school continuing but in alien circumstances, play dates, birthday parties, sporting and creative pursuits all came grinding to a halt, social connection reduced to the screen, solitary home learning via video, downtime becoming sedentary screen time, frazzled parents trying to meet competing demands, the pressure cooker situation of living in close quarters and for older kids, right when their normal and natural impulses prime them to seek autonomy and independence, they are stuck inside for months on end with valid feelings of frustration and thwarted will.
Effectively we’ve had it drummed into us that we shouldn’t touch anything and we must stay away from other people. “Stay safe, stay home” may have helped us understand the need for lockdown but it made the world feel a dangerous place and it will take some time to come down from high alert.
Giving voice to our emotions and theirs
It is worth having a conversation with our kids, acknowledging all these very real challenges they’ve had to navigate, validating their feelings, helping them feel understood, and helping them understand themselves. For parents deliberating about sharing their own emotions, when we let our children into our emotional lives in age-appropriate ways, we normalise the whole gamut of emotion and encourage them to also give voice.
For any child feeling anxious right now it can help to understand that our comfort zone is determined by the things we are doing on a regular basis, so as we return to environments and interactions we haven’t been exposed to for some time, it is totally normal to feel rusty and nervous and a real sense of overwhelm afterwards. We can reassure our kids by letting them know that bit by bit, their comfort zone will naturally expand again. It's ok to feel trepidation, but it won’t feel like this forever. We can pace ourselves, be gentle with ourselves and make sure we are engaging in regular soothing practices to compensate for the inevitable roller coaster of emotions.
Anxiety can show up in a multitude of ways
But it’s not just worry or nerves we need to be looking out for. Anxiety can show up in a multitude of ways, some expected and some that often are mistaken for our kids playing up, and rather than the soothing they need, this behaviour is often met with parental irritation and punishment.
We’re well versed with the classic physiological signs that we understand as the fight or flight response – rapid heartbeat, feeling hot or sweaty, short or shallow breathing, tight muscles, feeling shaky or faint, wobbly legs, trembling hands, butterflies in the tummy, increased frequency of needing the toilet - where kids tend to describe these sensations as feeling nervous or on edge, but headaches, nausea, stomach cramps, low appetite, and difficulty concentrating can also be signs of anxiety.
Anxiety doesn’t just show up in the body, it also presents in our thinking with worries, overthinking, catastrophic or “worst case scenario” thinking, rumination over past events, a sense of dread about future events, falling into the vortex of “what if” thinking and worry about worrying. A direct consequence of living through a global pandemic is the increased incidence of health anxiety where children voice constant concerns about their own health or the health of loved ones.
We see signs of anxiety in our children’s behaviour too, specifically a reluctance to engage with particular people or places, or situations they previously enjoyed or avoidance behaviour becoming more generalised, like school avoidance. Another warning sign to look out for is over reliance on “safety behaviours”, routines that help them feel safe, and distress when there is a deviation from these rituals. Remember, it is normal for our kids to feel out of practice emerging from lockdown and they may feel more easily overwhelmed by social gatherings, noisy environments and competitive pursuits.
It is challenging when this avoidance behaviour emerges at night, as shown by reluctance to go to bed or to be left alone. It can be overwhelming for kids when they are faced with their worries at night, fearful of being on their own or frightened of nightmares. Difficulty getting to sleep or getting back to sleep can be another signal that anxiety is at play. Clinginess also shows up during the day with fear about being left by caregivers or reluctance to go out on break, preferring to stay with teachers or lunch staff. After so much time in our bubbles at home, it is normal for kids to be more clingy than usual and there will be a period of adjustment as both parents and kids venture out of the family home.
Anxiety and emotional outbursts
Anxiety also has an emotional manifestation and this is where it can be really tricky for us parents, when your kids appear to be having irrational and unreasonable responses to the variables at hand, often in the most awkward of situations. Understanding that this can be anxiety helps us dig deep and respond with greater patience and compassion.
Emotional outbursts like tantrums, meltdowns, crying, shouting, screaming, lashing out, throwing things, and aggressive behaviour can all be signs of anxiety. They can all seem out of proportion or out of context and frustratingly for parents it can also be very hard for our children to articulate why they are distressed. What appears as anger might be a child desperately trying to escape a situation they find threatening or overwhelming. A child who appears oppositional or disruptive might be expressing anxiety that can’t be articulated. In less charged situations, anxiety can also present as fatigue, feeling grumpy or out of sorts and restlessness.
How can we as parents and carers help?
What is our role as parents and carers, how can we help? While it is natural to want to eradicate anxiety, to try and fix our kids, it’s not our job. We best support our children by keeping lines of communication open, by being on the lookout and understanding the variety of ways anxiety can manifest, and by supporting them when they’re feeling wobbly. We can also work together building a calming skill set and co-creating toolkits we can turn to when anxiety arises.
Our kids need a safe space to talk about their feelings and inevitably, their readiness to let us in often coincides with bed time. If we can factor this in to our night-time rituals it can be a great comfort to our kids. When concerns pop up outside of this time they can say “it’s not time for that now” and know that they can look at it in partnership later on.
It also helps our kids to know that it’s ok to make mistakes, to have wobbly days, to reach out for help and that there are things they can do, like mindfulness, kindness, breathing practices, that will help them feel better. For many parents, these skills weren’t modelled for us growing up, but the great gift is that we can be beginners with our kids and learn together. Enjoy sitting down and brainstorming some primer statements to help us in tricky moments like “when I feel shaky, I can take a long smooth candle breath, journal it out, talk to someone, wiggle my toes…” Having lots of different options to try is reassuring and you’ll be amazed with the creativity your kids will volunteer!
Reach out for help
If anxiety is becoming generalised or interfering with your children’s ability to cope with the demands of their normal day, or if you’d just like some fresh approaches to add to your toolkits, it is time to reach out. Speak to your GP and reach out to your school special needs coordinator. Sometimes kids just need a different voice from their parents. For older children there are numerous support lines they can access directly: YoungMinds have a support line offering 24/7 text support, just text YM to 85258, and Childline on 08001111 offers support via calls, chat or email.
(You’ll also find a wide selection of links for family and young adult mental health on our Mental Health Resources page here.)
Suzy is a mother of two, an author, Chartered Psychologist and Coach. She specialises in self-care, helping people manage their stress, emotions, and energetic bank balance. It was her life experience of motherhood colliding with the terminal illness of her father that sparked her passion for self-care which she now teaches to her clients, young and old, to cope during periods of stress, loss and change and to boost their resilience in the face of future challenges.
Suzy is on the editorial board for Motherdom Magazine, the Psychology Expert for wellbeing brand Neom Organics and is a founding member of the ‘Nourish’ app. She figure-skated her way through her childhood, growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and now makes her home in the hills of Hertfordshire, UK. Her first book 'The Self-Care Revolution’ published by Aster came out in 2017, 'Stand Tall Like a Mountain: Mindfulness & Self-Care for Children and Parents' and 'The Little Book of Self-Care’ came out in 2019. ‘Self-Care for Tough Times’ and her first children’s book ‘This Book Will (Help) Make You Happy’ by Wren & Rook are both hot off the press.