How to support your child with anxieties
Children often display symptoms of anxiety which are not always picked up immediately. When there are stressors in their environments or if they have experienced a difficult event, children need to make sense and understand what has happened. This is not necessarily a problem, because making sense of positive and negative experiences is part of growing up, and helps to build a child’s resilience. However, some children can struggle to integrate their experiences or may not feel comfortable enough to approach adults for support.
Problematic behaviours at school
Unfortunately, children's emotional difficulties can often be misunderstood due to the associated behaviours. For example, anxiety can often lead to concentration problems or difficulties in the ability to process information. This can lead to teachers interpreting a child's behaviour as problematic and can lead to the following cycle.
- In school, a child may appear disinterested, s/he may be persistently late in handing in homework or may distract others in class.
- Teachers wishing to support a child with their learning, may focus on areas of deficit when communicating with parents. Teachers may encourage parents to support their child’s learning at home by giving extra homework or access to resources.
- In their efforts to support the child, parents may employ home tutors or reduce privileges in order to help him/her focus on homework/studies. If this does not lead to improvement, the parent may begin to feel anxious, concerned and frustrated.
- The parents' anxiety and disappointment may then feed into the child’s own anxieties, which of course is likely to lead to further ‘disinterest’ and problematic behaviour at school.
- This 'disinterest' in school is like to lead to frustration in school staff, which may be picked up by the child.
- The above behaviours may create a pattern/cycle which may maintain the child's anxieties. This in turn may impact further on his/her behaviour at school.
Problem with perfectionism
Some children may appear to be hardworking and well functioning, but may struggle when they get things 'wrong' or make a mistake. Children who at a young age demonstrate perfectionist traits at school may be experiencing underlying fears about disappointing others. This tendency to gain acceptance through social approval can be a sign that the child is struggling internally with feelings of anxiety and possibly low self-esteem. Although described positively by teachers who experience them to be very happy, the child's anxieties may emerge in other ways at home. These may include the following: sleep disturbance/nightmares, lack of appetite/over eating, frequent stomach aches and frequent headaches.
What can you do?
Although important to look out for signs of anxiety, it is important not to pathologise children. Rather, their anxieties should be addressed sensitively and help should be sought where appropriate.
- If you are a concerned parent, you may wish to initially speak to your child's school. It may be helpful to speak to different teachers or a SENCO as children can often present differently in different classes (particularly in secondary school). The school usually have their own support systems and links with external agencies. However, if your child is displaying a need for specialist input, you may wish to request psychological support.
- A clinical or counselling psychologist with experience of working with children and adolescents would be able to assess your child by speaking to you all as a family (if possible), and speaking to your child alone (if appropriate). There are many psychological models available which can help your child make sense of their anxieties and learn ways of coping better both at school and at home. This includes cognitive behavioural therapy which can be adapted for children to make it interactive, engaging and interesting.
- Psychological support gives children an opportunity to access their fears and learn to process them using different age related activities. Despite your child's difficulties, it is important to remember that children are resilient. With appropriate support from you as a parent and with specialist psychological input, your child is likely to make significant improvements both in their emotional as well as cognitive functioning.