Because Anxiety Causes Anxiety: Five Ways To Help An Anxious Child

Mental Health Awareness Week kept me very busy last week and, over the three CPD events I delivered, the biggest wellbeing issue I heard about was anxiety. 
Despite school closures being well behind us, the effect of Covid (and TBH, the mountain of unmet mental health needs that preceded it) is less a ripple effect and more very choppy waters for some young people.   

First of all, I think we need to recognise that anxiety is normal. All children (and adults) experience it in response to the typical slings and arrows of life.
But because it can be so debilitating and all-consuming, an anxious child can very easily lead to a professional or parent with an anxiety problem of their own. How do we help, and not hinder?

We may get stuck in not knowing how to handle a child’s anxiety, or become disconnected from our empathy.
Either way, it’s easy to minimise and dismiss, to address the problem through our adult eyes, rather than the child’s reality. 

For example, while most of us know that being forced into a scary situation is likely to amplify the fear, rather than desensitise it, that still happened to many children who struggled to adapt to the post-Covid classroom (It might also explain why so many are STILL anxious).

On the flipside, we can be so committed to meeting a child’s needs with compassion and empathy that we forget or invalidate our own:
“It doesn’t matter how I am, as long as my children are ok” is fine to an extent, but it’s not completely true. There’s a very interesting science called ‘entrainment’ which explains how our states of mind have a subtle (or not so subtle) impact on the people around us.

It’s especially true of children, because their brains are still maturing, and so are wired to unconsciously pattern on their grown-ups’ electro-magnetic energy field (which we all omit, whether we wish to or not).
(I was recently invited to talk about this on as a podcast guest; please have a listen here)

Regardless of how we respond to anxiety in children, it can feel like a very fine between pandering to it and being empathic.
Compassion-fatigue may also be very real, especially when we’ve maybe already told a child that there’s no need to be anxious, over and over again, all to no avail; it still falls on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to helping them develop the resilience and self-trust in their capacity to cope, but here are five ways to support children who have anxieties (or might one day, because they can rear their ugly heads about almost anything!):

1) Don’t panic with them
It sounds easy enough, but our autonomic response to a child in distress is often to match their energy, even when we’re in problem-solving mode. Emotional states tend be ‘caught, not taught’, so show up with the you want to see in them, rather than mirroring theirs.

2) Tell them you’re there
Very often, the assurance of another’s physical or emotional availability is enough to calm a frayed nervous system. Tempting as it might be to immediately rationalise, minimise or problem-solve, hold fire.
Remind and reassure as much as you need to that they’re not on their own and you’re going to stay close.
It’s not pandering, it’s about making them feel safe, and nothing meaningful can happen until that very first need is met.

3) Don’t minimise or rationalise (yet) 
The brain often switches into panic mode because it works like a smoke alarm (this is also a brilliant way to explain and normalise anxiety to kids); a smoke alarm doesn’t know or care whether the toast is singed or the house is burning down.
In other words, accuracy matters less than staying alive, which is all anxiety is trying to do. 

Any human needs to be calm and regulated (i.e. the alarm is deactivated) before we can recognise that our response is disproportionate.
Only once the child has achieved this state, focus on the solution with them, rather than fixing things for them. 

4) Make friends, or at least peace with it 
Yes, it might feel awful, but anxiety is not what or who the child is. Like all emotions, anxiety is messenger, simply trying to tell them something, and you both have the power to choose a response.
Teach your child to take a deep breath, to thank their anxiety for looking out for them, but they’re fine thank you.
This can be a transformation technique that they can learn to use independently (Karen Young’s book ‘Hey Warrior’ is brilliant for this).

5. Flippantly express your utter faith in them
Even if, beneath the surface, you are dreading the situation, remind the child or adolescent that they’re a competent human being, capable of handling themselves.
However, instinctive as it may be, don’t go overboard with the encouragement and praise. It can just magnify the whole situation and keep it firmly in ‘really big deal’ space, when the ideal is to make it feel like a minor inconvenience. 

Just communicate with calm self-assurance that you believe in them, and even if it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, they already have everything they need within them to manage. They’ve got this.

Don’t forget to listen to the podcast episode ‘The Power of Your Presence’ to hear more from me on this, and make sure you get gold like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up below.

PS) If your team need to stop firefighting and know how to address emotional health problems – not just symptoms – visit my website here for info on my CPD, such as ‘Re-empowering the Powerless Child’,
‘The Vulnerable and/or Adolescent Brain’, ‘Building a Resilient Brain’.