Book illustration Restoration Yard

Helping Children With Anxiety

By Jen Wood

Covid-19 has caused so much disruption to our lives. Children feel this intensely, and many have been experiencing complex emotions around the recent return to childcare, nursery and school. So how do we understand their worries and go about helping children with anxiety?

For some, the hard bit was being stuck at home with the family, and not being able to see their friends face-to-face. For others, home has been a safe space and somewhere to avoid the difficulties that nursery and school presents. Now, with new rules and protocols, and invisible dangers like the virus, it’s hard for young minds to cope.

Children who were anxious before lockdown, are more likely to find these strange times and the transition back to a new version of normal difficult. I recently spoke to two mums about their experience of their children's return to nursery and school post lockdown. I've also pulled together a few of my tips on helping children with anxiety.

Emma Louise Sutton with her children who both were anxious about returning to a new normal

Emma Louise Sutton, of Ilkley, spoke to me about her son (3) and daughter (6) about their return to nursery and primary school: “Alfie is not usually an anxious child but this week was incredibly difficult. It took an hour for the nursery staff to peel him off me as he was inconsolable. Before lockdown, he had only been at nursery for three months, so it was very new and he’d been at home for six months, which for him is a lifetime. After living in a bubble, all of a sudden being in a group of up to 25 children was very confusing. Nothing looked the same, and with so many new rules it was hard for him when he was indoors. He was more himself in the playground.

“My daughter tends to worry about things, and she found the first day back at school really difficult. We had lots of tears, but she focused on seeing her friends again, and I was proud of how she coped.

“We’ve been using ‘feelings cards’ so that they can learn to express their emotions, and that’s been very helpful.”

Anna Biavati-Smith, a specialist speech and language therapist, and mum

Anna Biavati-Smith, a specialist speech and language therapist based in Midlothian, helps children with anxiety in their communication (selective mutism), as well as being a mum: “My 13 year old daughter has experienced anxiety as well.”

She adds: “For many of my patients returning to school after lockdown was easy and hard at the same time. Easy as they knew that everybody had been off, so it was not about them being unable to go to school due to the anxiety. On the other hand, it was difficult as, once again, they needed to face their social anxiety. Some children are not only scared to talk but also have other phobias. Being sick in front of others is a very common one.

“These anxieties are triggered by social situations, and after being at home for months, there was such a sensory overload that they felt overwhelmed. I encourage children and teens to stay with it, and not to expect too much of themselves at the start. Teenagers, in particular, are very conscious of how they appear to their friends and they worry about what others might say or think.

“One of the advantages of lockdown for the anxious child was the ability to be in their own home but facing school at the same time. So the triangle with PLACE-PEOPLE-ACTIVITY was balanced. Normally, being in school with the teachers and or at home doing homework is anxiety provoking, but during lockdown they were at home while also seeing their teachers and doing homework too. So they were facing a harder situation but in a familiar environment.

“I help my patients see that avoidance is not an option, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s not about rescuing, but about empowering children to develop the resources they need to cope with their feelings and have fun.”

Anna Biavati-Smith is a specialist speech and language therapist based in Midlothian, edinburgh-speech-therapy-wordsteps.co.uk.

Jen Wood also works regularly with anxious children. Here is her guide to helping children with anxiety and navigating difficult emotions:

Encourage them to talk about their feelings

The old saying ‘it’s better out than in’ is true in this case. The moment we name how we feel, we tame, therefore reducing the impact it has on us. I suggest using ‘a part of me is anxious…’ as a way of separating from the anxiety and minimising overwhelm.

Focus on the positives

I encourage clients to have ‘Magical Mornings’ by starting the day with a mindful moment of feeling their feet, their belly and their breath and then saying to themselves ‘this is going to be a good day.’ If that’s too ambitious, add ‘in some way’ at the end.
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Using ‘Three Good Things’ before bed is helpful too, as it encourages them to focus on things that help them feel better.
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Remember times when they coped with school in the past. If they managed it before they can do it again.

Focus on their strengths, rather than their anxiety or phobia

By drawing attention to what children do well, we focus energy in a different direction. We get what we focus on. What are their superpowers? These can be anxiety busters.

Grounding techniques

Having a selection of go-to techniques is useful. I like imagining that I am a tree and have roots growing from the soles of my feet.
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Sometimes I use 5-4-3-2-1. 5 things I can see, 4 things I can hear, 3 things I can feel, 2 things I can smell and 1 thing I can taste. You may have others that work.

Smile

When we smile, we trick the brain into believing that we’re happy and oxytocin (our happy hormone) being released. Also, our brain doesn’t know the difference between a real smile and a pretend smile. The impact is the same.
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I hope this helps firstly to let you know that you are not alone if your child is anxious about school, and perhaps gives you some ideas to try if anxiety does come up.
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Jen Wood is an emotional wellbeing coach, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher with 20 years’ experience. She is also our Wellbeing Consultant at Dalkeith Country Park. Jen offers individual wellbeing coaching, therapy and mindfulness sessions via Zoom or by phone.

For more information about helping children with anxiety and the work Jen does, visit her website at jenwoodwellbeing.com.