Not all children are built in the same way. Some of them are outgoing, some of them are a little more reserved, some are brave and fearless, and others seem to be fearful of everything. For children who are particularly fearful, and this fear makes life more challenging for them than it should be, there is often an underlying anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed.
We all have the ability to feel fear. It is an important response within the body that has been put there to protect us from danger. When our brain senses that we are in danger, it automatically makes the body respond. This typically involves increasing the heart-rate, increasing muscle tension, narrowing our focus, and generally getting us ready to run away fast or to stay and fight – the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is normal.
Anxiety is when the brain begins to think that situations are dangerous, and so it starts the fight or flight response in the body, even though there might not actually be any danger present. For example, it is common and normal for children to experience some uncertainty when they are apart from their primary caregivers. Over time, they generally become less fearful as experience tells them that there is nothing to fear. For children with anxiety, their intensity of fear can be so high that they cannot tolerate the physical and emotional experience of the fear, and so they resist any separation from their primary caregiver. This prevents them from engaging in ‘normal’ child behaviours such as playing with other children, going to school, or being able to sleep in their own bed.
As parents, we can be the most effective therapists for out children. We know them the best and we often see them more than anyone else. We just need some specific knowledge and skills. So how do we help our children to beat anxiety?
Here are a few ideas:
Firstly, we need to encourage and reward ‘brave’ behaviour. When we see our children doing something that we know they feel a little fearful about, then we need to acknowledge their brave actions and reward their efforts. As adults we sometimes fall into the trap of rewarding the absence of anxiety in children, believing that this is the goal. But it isn’t. By rewarding the absence of anxiety we can accidently send the message to our children that what we want is for them to look like they are fine, to not show any fear, and this isn’t helpful. Instead, we look for and reward the times when we can see that they are feeling anxious, and even though they are anxious, they choose to face the fear, being brave, and not let the anxiety stop them.
Secondly, we need to talk with our children about their feelings, helping them to identify when they feel anxious. One of the best ways to do this is to give them our own personal examples of when we have had to be brave. We should also give them examples of times when we were not able to overcome the fear as this helps them to know it is OK if they just don’t feel brave enough all of the time.
Finally, research tells us that anxiety can often be inherited. This means that when there are anxious children, there is often an anxious parent. If we are an anxious parent then it is important that we are also working on beating our own anxiety. By doing this we will gain additional therapeutic skills, as well as being able to model healthy and proactive approaches to dealing with anxiety.