Addressing anxiety in children

Last Updated 12 December 2012, 13:36 IST

Your kid says, “Mummy, what will happen if the aeroplane crashes?’’ when you are about to board a plane.

When you are travelling in a car, your child remarks, “We are going to have an accident.” Your child comes to you with a question, “Will our building collapse due to an earthquake? I am scared we will all die. All my friends are saying so.”

As parents, we can be at a loss of words or wonder why our children are talking this way.
A seven-year-old child had started pulling hair from the eyebrows without being aware that she had been doing it.  It was noticed that the child was anxious because her father travelled frequently out of town on work. There was another case of an eight-year-old  talking about her parents separating when there were no problems at home.

These children are going through something that we commonly know as anxiety.
At times, parents are not sure how to work with these problems. Children are exposed to a plethora of information through newspapers, TV, movies and the source of this anxiety could be any of the above or could be from parents, friends, school etc. Let us look at some of these situations:
“If you don’t finish your work, you will not be allowed to go home.”
n“If you do not behave yourself, we will lock you up in the bathroom.”
n“If you keep crying, Mummy will end up in hospital.’’ or “Mummy will go away.’’
n“I want a divorce from you. You do not care for us” — parents fighting in front of children.

Does such talk instil fear in you? How would children think and feel when they hear the above statements? When the child expresses his/her anxieties, given below are some typical responses:

n‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen.’
n‘It is not nice to think such thoughts.’
n‘I am having my own fears, why are you adding to them.’
n‘What is wrong with you?’
n‘Why do you keep talking about these things? Can’t you think of something nice for a change.’
With these responses we are usually doing the following:
nDeny their feelings
nIgnore their anxieties
nSuppress their thoughts
We operate from our own anxieties or fears.

We deny the child’s feelings because we are anxious ourselves and are not comfortable addressing such issues. It is not advisable to ignore these anxieties with the assumption that our children would know automatically when they grow up.  It is important to ensure that these fears do not become a phobia that could result in behavioural issues in the future.

It would help if we are aware, and watch out for signs that indicate that the child might be going through some stress and anxiety. Some of the indicators could be: Change in eating habits,Clinginess,Having nightmares and talking about it,Reacting very emotionally to something specific,Emotional numbing or lack of feeling about the event,Jumpiness,Persistent fears about another disaster,Sleeping problems,Change from the normal or routine behaviour, Children should be helped to address their anxiety and not run away from it or suppress it.

Identifying and acknowledging their feeling: It will help the child to become aware of his or her feelings. When a child says, “We are going to have an accident’’ a helpful response would be “You seem worried. Would you like us to slow down a bit.”
nEncouraging them to talk: Instead of telling them to stop talking or asking them ‘What is wrong with you,’ ask them ‘What are you thinking? What are you seeing or hearing or feeling?’ Be interested in them and encourage them to ask questions.
nAnswer their questions as honestly as you can without bringing in your own beliefs/ views/fears. Avoid exaggerated explanations.

Give them the reassurance that you will do what you can to keep them and all the people you care about safe.
nTry to bring in some humour and let them know that humour can change the way we look at things. For eg: A child is scared of a monster under the bed. Ask the child to describe the monster and then tell the child what he can do to make it less scary. You could call a cartoon friend  (eg. Doraemon) for help. Using vivid imagination and creativity can help the child face fear and using this strategy in other scary situations can also help.
nHelp to talk about nice things happening to people around us instead of dwelling on misfortunes. It is observed that things which create fear or panic spreads faster than things which bring happiness.

Children with anxiety need to be able to talk about their feelings and process them in healthy ways. Encouraging good communication skills through ongoing dialogue will help them learn to cope with their fears.

(Published 12 December 2012, 13:24 IST)

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