Slowly but surely we are coming to realize that many of the same mental health problems that plague adults also affect children. It used to be considered that children were too immature, both physically and emotionally, to experience issues like anxiety or depression. The tendency was, and often still remains, to brush over childhood concerns as a passing phase - the natural bumps and psychological grazes we all incur as a result of growing up. It’s clear, however, that many adult problems are laid down in childhood and whilst parents may acknowledge this they may still wonder whether their approach to childhood anxiety is helpful. Here are a few things to consider:
Standard Responses May Be Isolating
I"�ll begin with my comment about brushing over concerns. I don’t mean to imply that parents are insensitive to childhood anxieties, merely that the typical response is along the lines of offering bland reassurances, much in the way our own parents or other adults did to us. In the case of repeated anxieties, such as going to school, being bullied, etc., the ‘it’ll pass,’ or ‘everything will be fine,’ approach can send a message that you don’t really understand. For a child the emotions are mixed. Yes, you’ve given them attention and you show you care but there may also be a niggling feeling of being misunderstood, which can be hurtful and isolating.
Ideas For Managing Anxieties Differently
In much the way a therapist might approach adult anxieties it may be more helpful to allow your child to fully discuss their feelings and then move towards evaluating the pro’s and con’s of different courses of action. In other words, rather than telling the child what to do and how to do it, see if you can encourage them to come up with options. Of course, depending on the age of the child you may need to help shape some ideas or discourage ones that are inappropriate.
As much as we may want our children to be happy and active the fact remains that children develop and express themselves in ways that may be puzzling to adults. Showing curiosity is no bad thing. For example, when you see a child looking puzzled or unsettled, ask why. If you see them playing alone when there are others around, wonder why. Might they be socially anxious or troubled in some other way? Over time it’s good to explore emotions together. Children often don’t have the words to explain their feelings so toys can help. Some children project feelings onto a favorite doll or object, for example.
It can be tempting for parents and adults to try and fix things by telling a child what to do. Problem solving is a skill that develops over time and sometimes it is more beneficial to tuck a child under the wing and allow them to feel supported and loved while they explore ideas and options. The older the child the easier this may be, but even teens and adults can struggle with this so don’t expect too much.
In my next post I’ll be adding some additional thoughts and touching on the thorny issue of when it might be time to seek professional help.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.