Anxiety: How you can help your child - with five simple coping techniques

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Over the course of the pandemic, many children have been feeling worried and anxious. Mental health services have seen a significant increase in anxiety, depression and the use of unhelpful coping strategies – for instance, using food, self-harm, tantrums and avoidance of worrying situations - to manage tricky feelings.

We spoke to clinical psychologist Doctor Anna Colton. She explains the causes of anxiety and offers some techniques to stop anxious thoughts, as well as tips on how to help your child manage their anxiety:

What causes anxiety?

"Anxiety evolved to protect us. It’s generated by our primal brain, which has the job of keeping us safe and out of danger. Our primal brain constantly scans for danger and as soon as it detects a threat, it floods us with adrenaline, creating physical symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, trembling, nausea and more. This causes the fight/flight/freeze response that people experience when suffering from acute anxiety.

"If we’re in life-threatening danger we need these automatic reactions. Thankfully most of the time we don’t need them, but they can easily kick in - causing anxiety, distress and negatively impacting our life."

The following films each feature a technique that you can share with your child - to help control anxious thoughts:

How to tackle anxiety: The School Bus
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How to tackle anxiety: Just say stop!
video
How to tackle anxiety: Challenge your thoughts
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How to tackle anxiety: Breathing techniques
video
How to tackle anxiety: Stand up to the bully
video

We also asked Dr Anna for her top tips to help children manage anxiety:

Talk to them about it

"Don’t underestimate the importance of helping your child to name their feelings. If they can’t name them, they’re then unable to understand them and work through them. Talking about why they feel worried won’t increase their worry, it’ll free them up, help them feel they’re not alone and open up space to talk about different ways to manage it, and different things they can do that will help - for instance - meeting friends to walk to school together."

Celebrate their successes

"It’s easy to focus on the losses and stresses of the last year, but all children and young people have shown remarkable resilience, strength and determination during the pandemic. The impact has been profound, even for those who seem to have sailed through the ever-changing rules about what they can do, who they can see, how they learn and how and where school happens.

"With all children it’s important to acknowledge and congratulate them. They’ve adapted, coped and got through the last tumultuous year. Celebrating this with them will help them to shift their focus onto their abilities and to feel proud of their successes. This, in turn enables them to build their self-esteem and to feel stronger."

Put in worry time

"For younger children in particular, worry can be all consuming and if you’re not careful you can find all free time in the day is taken up talking about worries and going round in circles. Set aside 20 minutes at the same time each day to sit down with your child and metaphorically open the worry box to 'see' and discuss their worries. At the end of that time, you metaphorically shut the box, locking the worries away in it. Once worry time is over, that’s it until the next day."

Challenge the thoughts

"A thought is just a thought. It’s not a fact, and just because you or your child think something, it does not make it true. So, every time that your child tells you their anxious thoughts or worries, validate them and show them you understand, but then challenge the thought. Is it a fact? Probably not. Does your child have to listen to it? No. Is there a way of doing something practical to address it? If so, then do that? Is there anything else practical that can be done? If not, then the worry is not helpful and so doesn’t need attention."

Distraction

"Have you ever noticed that when you’re distracted or fully engaged in an activity or conversation, you worry less - or don’t even notice worries? This is because worries need attention to grow and when we’re distracted, our mind isn’t free enough to give the worries attention, and so they reduce. It doesn’t matter what the distraction is: board games, walks, TV, watching a film together, ball games, time with friends, cooking and baking…anything that occupies the mind."

If you think your child needs more support, let them know about helplines, textlines and online services that are available to them. You could also speak to your GP, who can provide help and refer them to mental health services if needs be. You could look at the resources together. The BBC Action Line is a good place to start.

The BBC Headroom campaign has links to lots of helpful content.

If you’re not sure of what to do and need some extra support, visit the Young Minds website for more advice.

There are two more films from Dr Anna in our collection about tackling anxiety here and here.

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Parents' Toolkit