I've had a few enquiries recently relating to helping children and young people with anxiety so thought it may be helpful to write todays blog post on that subject.  Anxiety is an emotion we will all experience at one time or another and it's often a reaction to stress or a sign that we are not coping.  Unfortunately anxiety is becoming increasingly common amongst children so I'm offering a few tips to help you to support an anxious child.    

1. Listen and Observe
Children and young people will express anxiety and stress in a variety of different ways.  Some are more obvious than others so paying close attention to changes in behaviour, routine and listen to the language used to express feelings and describe people and situations.  

2. Don't Minimise
If your child comes to you with a worry or concern be mindful of language which could seem dismissive or minimise the concern.  Phrases like 'don't be silly', 'is that all' or 'you'll be fine' don't always offer the intended reassurance.  It may increase feelings of anxiety or knock confidence further.  Try and listen to the concern, reflect back what you understand and validate the feelings expressed.  Acknowledging and putting a name to the feelings will help your child to recognise those feelings if they arise again and give them the confidence and language to share them with others.
3. Breathing Exercises
Learning how to breath deeply can really help calm anxious feelings.  Get your child to put their hand on your tummy and take some deep breaths.  You are aiming to pull the air down to the lower lobes of your lungs and your stomach should rise as you breath in.  You may need to practice this a few times to get a rhythm going.  By breathing deeply you are using more of your lung capacity and this allows you to take in more oxygen.  Brains need oxygen to function well and the deep breathing exercises should lead to a greater sense of calmness.  After you have demonstrated and allowed your child to feel your tummy expand with your in breath and deflate with your out breath encourage them to try to do the same.  It could help to get them to lie down and place something lightweight on their tummy, something like a piece of paper or pencil.  Feel free to make it into a game and see if they can lay still and move the paper (or other object) using just their breath.  Once they have got the hang of this see if they can hold the breath for a count of 2 and then push it out.  They should notice their tummy going up when then inhale and down when they exhale. 

4. Tense and Release
Another exercise you can try is to get your child to sit or lie down and work through the body tensing up muscle groups.  As you tense each group (for instance the left hand) get them to hold it for a second or two and then relax.  Aim to do the exercise when there are minimal distractions and give plenty of encouragement.  These exercises will feel a little odd at first but they can really help to explain how tension and anxiety can feel in the body and what we can do to release it.  When your child has got the hang of it you can combine it with the breathing exercises and get them to tense on the in breath and relax on the out breath.

5. Encourage Hobbies 
Hobbies can provide much needed fun and help to build confidence.  They can also distract a child from it's worries and help them to learn effective coping strategies for dealing with stress later in life.  Creative hobbies can be good for providing an outlet for emotions, so too can physical activities.  Look for hobbies that fit with your childs personality and aim for fun and relaxation over achieving specific goals.   

6. Offer Explanations
If your child shares a source of worry with you try to do your best to offer an explanation.  This may be hard, especially if the issue relates to something complicated.  It may not be appropriate to offer a full explanation but something is better than nothing.  Try to be as honest as possible as this will help your child to understand the situation and will help you if the issue is an ongoing issue, or one that is likely to need further explanation further down the line.  Also the explanation doesn't need to be perfect and it's okay if you don't know all the answers.  

7. Normalise and Reassure
We will all experience stress or anxiety at some point in our lives so explaining to your child that its very normal to feel scared or worried sometimes will help to reassure them.  Also telling them that these difficult feelings won't last forever and that things will get better can also help.  Feeling anxious isn't a sign of weakness and is something that is experienced by lots of people, including famous people and characters in TV programmes.  

8. Get Help
If your child is really struggling don't be afraid to ask for help. Having an outside perspective and speaking to an expert can really help and doesn't mean that you are doing anything wrong as a parent.  Mental health is still a subject that carries a lot of stigma and shame but this is gradually changing.  Being able to talk about feelings and getting help if it is needed will give your child more confidence to manage similar feelings if and when they come up again.

Useful Websites:
Anxiety UK - Information, advice and support on anxiety for adults, young people and children 
Young Minds - Information, advice and support to children, young people and parents on mental health 
OCD-UK - Information, advice and support for children, young people and parents about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, including an excellent booklet explaining OCD to children.
National Self Harm Network - Information, advice and support for people who are effected by self harm.  The site has some excellent downloadable worksheets including a useful list of distraction techniques.
Child Bereavement UK - Information, advice and support for families facing the death of a child and help supporting a child through a bereavement
Its Good to Talk - British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapies website with a directory of accredited therapists