When people are anxious or afraid, they act in ways that are unpredictable. Children especially tend to act out their fears and insecurities because they are not emotionally mature enough to make sense of, or handle their anxieties in the same way as adults. Kids act out feelings in the same way as actors play a role in movies, but they act them out through behaviours instead of dialogue, because they can’t hold their emotions in.
Some children show hostility or aggression, because they can’t handle the often severe agitation that anxiety triggers. Some become more depressed and others exhibit more attention-seeking behaviour.
Parents can often read their child’s behaviour and look for clues as to what the problem might be, so they can provide a solution. At the same time, children need to be taught the skills to identify, articulate and manage personal and social situations that make them anxious or afraid. If your child demonstrates behaviours that you think are triggered by anxiety, it is important to try to teach them the skills they need to manage it in a healthy way instead of acting it out behaviourally, hiding from the problem, or avoiding the emotions that come with anxiety.
So how do you help your child overcome anxiety? Here are some strategies for parents to try:
Role play with younger kids
Look at pictures, a screen or magazines together and make up stories about the kids in the pictures - but do it in a fun way! Try asking questions such as: ‘Look at this child - she’s smiling. What do you think she’s smiling about? What do you think she’s going to do this afternoon? Do you think she knows her mum is proud of her? If you could ask her a question, what would you say to her? What question do you think she’d ask you?’
Then switch to another picture and say, ‘Now look at this kid - this one is frowning. Do you think maybe he’s afraid of something? Do you think he’s done his homework? If he hasn’t done it, why do you think that would be? What would you tell him to help her solve the problem of not doing it?’ And then reason it through with them.
Kids are not abstract thinkers, so you have to make things real and concrete for them. One of the ways to make it real is by using pictures. You can teach kids how to be more aware of their own emotions in a positive way through this method as well. For example, you can show your child a picture of another child who looks very confused or frightened, and ask them: ‘What do you think that child is saying to herself ?’
Often, your child won’t be able to respond to this type of question because it’s too abstract; kids are more black and white. So if they can’t think of anything, you can say something like: ‘To me, he looks scared because he doesn’t know what’s going on with the pandemic and when things will go back to normal.’ Or: ‘I think she’s sad because she’s missing her friends - what do you think?’ Ask your child which of those two emotions the girl might be feeling.
If your child says they don’t know, prompt them to take a guess between two emotions - either feeling happy or frightened. ‘Which one do you think she might be feeling? You’re a great guesser, what do you think?!’ And after they try, you can say: ‘Good guess! If I was her, and I was feeling sad or afraid, I would say things to myself like, ‘I can handle this, I just have to talk it out and we’ll figure it out together.’
It’s important to understand that normalising these kinds of ‘guessing games’ about what people are thinking will really help the effectiveness of this strategy. Do it in other ways, such as in the supermarket by asking your child: ‘Check out what that guy has in his trolley - what do you think he’s having for dinner tonight?!’
Encourage positive internal dialogue in children and teens
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