I have two very different children. One is full of confidence and fills every room she walks into with her personality and sleeps soundly each night. She has a matter-of-fact-view of the world around her. The other child stays up at night worrying about everything from how to log on to a computer at school, and whether he’ll find his friends at lunchtime, getting through a school day without me, through to degradation of the Great Barrier Reef.
Let me preface this by saying that I have the medical and psychological qualifications of a gatepost. What I do have is years of desperate-mum-at-midnight googling ‘anxiety in children’, coupled with loads of trial and error experience.
Here’s a rundown of some of the bigger challenges we’ve had and what’s worked in helping my son develop some coping mechanisms. The first couple are ‘big scary world’ problems and the other three are more day-to-day worries.
- Worrying about ‘bad things’ in the world
Kids get exposed to a lot of scary images in relation to war, from all around the world. My son, after seeing a few images of war and destruction on television, spent days crying, then formulating a detailed family emergency evacuation plan, complete with supplies, for when ‘the war comes here’.
So, the first thing we did was ban the television news at home – he was only 5 years old at the time and he just didn’t need to have those worries. Secondly, we spent some time talking it through with him, showing him where the conflict was on the world globe, so he could see how far away it was. We gave him small, manageable bits of information, but mainly reiterated that those things aren’t going to happen here and we took time to explain all that Australia has that makes it different to the places he saw on the television, the things we have here that are different to the place he saw on television. He needed to feel that we are ‘lucky’ to be living in such a safe place.
I don’t want to permanently shield him from the world. These worries will come up again from time to time, but I honestly don’t believe there is any point in acknowledging to an anxiety-ridden under-eight-year-old that we do have terrible things happening nearby – he’ll learn about that when he’s older and when he can cope with it. We make him feel that his home is safe; his neighbourhood is safe.
- Worrying about animal welfare issues
At age 6, my son watched the movie Babe and never quite recovered. He gets very sad about cruelty to animals and feels overwhelmed with helplessness about all of the farms that treat animals badly. Rather than entirely denying it happens, we sat down and worked out what we could do about it, how we could make him feel less helpless and provide him with a sense of his own ‘power to do good’. So, he decided to ‘adopt’ a few rescue animals at a farm. He can visit them and see them treated well. He also decided to become a vegetarian (it’s a bit up and down). He compromised a little on that, on the proviso that we only buy free-range meat and we don’t eat it every day.
- School anxiety
School drop-off has been rocky, with lots of clinging and tears. It’s hard to know whether this behaviour is triggered by the same, on-going worries, new worries, or whether a habit has been formed. Anything new or different from his usual routine does seem to trigger his anxiety worries. We have found the following to be helpful:
- We ask his teachers to let us know if there is going to be anything different happening at school, so we can prepare him by talking him through it.
- If I need to just stay and sit with him for a while, I do. It’s not that often, but some days no amount of confident and cheerful goodbyes are going to help. I know some people believe staying longer in the room is a terrible idea, but some days we just need to do whatever works!
- If there’s something specific coming up that he’s worried about, we talk through what he might say and do (sometimes even role-playing the situation), so he doesn’t feel as though he’s handling it for the first time.
- A consistent routine always helps, so we are always up, fed and dressed at the same time each school morning. Then we have time to talk through what’s coming up that day. He’s a sporty kid, so we’re at school early to fit in a bit of a run and a kick of the footy and start the day off on a positive note.
- Other suggestions for inside the classroom are: having a specific classroom job to do (his was to check the plants each morning, to see if they needed watering) and making to make the best use of his sensitivities by asking him to help someone else.
I did try giving him a ‘special necklace’ of mine to keep in his bag, but he thought I was crazy mad – because, 1. that people would tease him for having a ‘girl thing’ and 2. because (and I can see where he was coming from with this) “How would something that reminds me of you make me not miss you?!” Needless to say, the necklace idea was scrapped!
- Night time worries
A lot of my son’s worries manifest at night, when his mind starts racing and he replays his day in his head. This is something a lot of us do, of course! So, my aim is to give him as many tools and techniques to manage this, as I can. So, Here’s what works for him:
- We limit television right before bed – one detailed news update and it’s all over!
- We read stories before bed – happy stories; lots of happy stories!
- He shares a room with his sister – they’re company for each other
- We play an audio book in their room, as they’re going off to sleep
- They have a night light
- Comparing himself to others
My son pays a great deal of attention to what everyone around him is doing. This can be great; however, it’s not so great when he’s continually comparing his reading level, or maths ability, or running speed in relation to others. He can obsess over it, so this is what we do:
- We regularly talk to him about what he’s good at. I once saw John Travolta talk in an interview about his resilience, when he was getting knock back after knock back in his early days. He said that he was raised by a large, extended family who basically worshipped him, who told him he could do no wrong. So, when he was older and didn’t get movie roles, his view was, ‘what’s wrong with those people?!’. Now, I’m not raising my son as a demi-god and I don’t want a precocious kid. However, I do make a determined effort to build self-confidence in my kids. There will be enough people out there to tear them down, so I see my job as building them up.
- We’ve explored and found things he likes to do, things that he’s good at, to build up his confidence (for him, it’s gymnastics, athletics and story writing).
- So many times we’ve given him examples of how good he is at making friends. We’ve told him so many times that he’s good at making friends, that it’s now become part of his view of who he is, and as a result, it is something he is genuinely good at.
My last bit of advice is this: you are your child’s advocate. When they’re at school, your child is one of hundreds of kids and in the classroom their teacher has a room full of kids demanding attention. If your child is going to be sitting quietly being eaten up with worry, the teacher might not see that. Don’t be backward in talking to their teacher and school about this. I’ve been very open about letting my son’s teachers and the parents of his friends know about his worries and it’s been really helpful. His classmates know that he gets worried about things like big school assemblies, so there’s always someone there to hold his hand and look out for him.
I was really dreading his going back to school after these recent school holidays, because of the school morning tears I thought we’d have. I thought we’d have floods of morning tears. However, after talking through his worries all the way to school, when it was time for me to leave, he flashed me a huge smile and said, “I think it’s going to be OK now. See ya.” I don’t think he’s got John Travolta’s level of assuredness quite yet, but I think we’re doing something right.
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