Coping with stress and anxiety in ages 4-11
Stress and anxiety are natural components of life. The body’s response to these can be both helpful and unhelpful; for example, moderate stress is great for getting projects completed and for building resilience. Likewise, anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress – the type of stress where we experience something new and this can cause a fear or nervous response. Anxiety heightens our awareness so we can take in all the information to determine how safe this change is.
As you can see, these two – stress and anxiety – go hand in hand, and for the most part, when we experience these we take a break. Our body gets to rest and reset itself and the nervous system calms. It is when we are faced with chronic stress that our natural responses can start working overtime as we don’t give our body and mind a chance to rest and reset.
This can be troubling enough for adults, but can be even more unsettling for children, as often the signs are seen as ‘difficult behaviour’. Things such as difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping or having bad dreams, changes in appetite and food choices, irritability, quickness to anger or tears, staying close to well-known adults (e.g., parents, caregivers, etc) and worrying/negative thinking may be a sign of stress or anxiety in our children. Remember though, that stress and anxiety aren’t necessarily bad things, but it is good to get to the root of a change in behaviour as soon as possible to help coach our child through the tough time they are facing.
Determining the cause of stress/anxiety in children.
Often younger children won’t really know, if asked, that they are stressed or anxious about, so it is up to us as the adult to deduce by watching, noticing, and providing opportunities for open conversations. Every child is different – some may respond straight away to a stressor and others may take a day or two before they experience outward symptoms of stress and anxiety. We may need to recall several day’s worth of events to find out the source of the stressor.
Be aware of their play – younger children often process their experiences through play.
Be curious about their drawings – ask them to tell you about them.
Ask questions starting with “I wonder” – this will let your child know that you are genuinely interested and will invite them to be curious with you rather than requiring an answer from them. E.g., I wonder what fun things there may have been at school today, I wonder what things may have been hard/challenging at school today..…
Check in – how are you feeling? How are the family/important people in your childs’ life coping. Often our children’s stress and anxiety can be a mirror of our own, or someone close to them. Look at the important people in your child’s life and imagine these people like pillars holding up a roof. If one pillar falls, the rest is shaky, so it is in everyones best interests to help the fallen so that stability can be restored.
Make a set time for one-on-one connection with your child every day – this will increase opportunities for open conversations. Rub their feet, do their hair, draw/doodle or colour with them, kick a ball around, etc…
Helping your child manage stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety will feature a lot throughout the life of your child, so what we are wanting to do here is set them up with healthy ways of coping so that they can notice the signs, accept the feelings as ok and know what they can do to help themselves (also what you as a parent can do to help).
Take time out. When life gets overwhelming it is ok to take some time away from the normal schedule to rest and relax, practice self-care, and give the body and mind time to restore and rejuvenate.
Food choices – Educate your child on the impact that food has on their body e.g., sugar and caffeine will feed stress and anxiety rather than starve it. Encourage them to experiment with different foods and notice what effects they have on their body.
Adult information – It can be easy for our children to have access to information that isn’t necessarily targeted to their age group. Be mindful of the conversations you have around your children. Be mindful of what your children are watching/listening to. Mainstream media can often be sensationalised which can instil uncertainty and confusion into younger children.
Play it out with your child – If your child processes their experiences through play then you can take this opportunity to coach them in how to handle things using this method, e.g., let your character talk about their feelings and how they are going to try accepting and working with them – see below for ideas).
Engage in conversation about perception – we all perceive the world differently and we decide what we see. Play a game with this in mind, e.g., listen to a song and ask your child the words they hear in a particular part of the song. Then you say the words you hear – perhaps you hear different words. Look at a flower and talk about what you see or think of when you see it – perhaps you think different thoughts. If we have different thoughts and see things differently, perhaps we can decide how we see or think about things…?
Be predictable – when children are faced with uncertainty they will cling onto things that are predictable. Maintain meal, bath and bed times and try to maintain your own demeanour – be the lighthouse they need in the storm.
What they can control – invite them to identify things that are ‘within’ and ‘outside of’ their control. If what is worrying them is inside their control, help them to problem solve and come up with a plan. If it is outside of their control, invite them to see it like the weather and accept it on the day (rain or shine), but wear appropriate things to protect themselves i.e., give them a raincoat of action they can take when things are tough.
Share your experience – you undoubtedly have been stressed or anxious at some time in your life. Share the story with your child and what you did that helped.
Cardio – if your child has an increase in energy, fidgeting etc…. invite them to join you in some fun exercise – dancing, create and run an obstacle course, go for a light run/walk/jog in the bush, light bike ride, swimming etc… This will help release some of this energy in a positive way and if kept light, will return to Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS).
Increase PSNS stimulation – inviting your child to join you in yoga (cosmic yoga is great), qi gong, meditation, mindful games, etc… on a daily basis can help to increase PSNS responses and encourage the body to rest and relax which will help the repair from stress and anxiety.
Breathe – Invite your child to focus on their breath alongside you. Perhaps they want to put a teddy on their tummy and watch it rise and fall. When they are having a tough time they can imagine their tummy is a balloon – breathing in to blow it up and then breathing out, imagining they are blowing out a hundred candles (try to encourage a longer outbreath than inbreath). Three breaths like this can drop them back into PSNS when they feel anxious/stressed. Get them to experiment with their breath – I wonder if my breath changes when I am scared? I wonder if it changes when I am happy? Etc….
Awareness of thoughts – if they are aware of worrying thoughts, invite them to imagine the thoughts coming out of their mind in bubbles, and either allowing them to float away, or popping them.
Non-allopathic modalities – there are many non-allopathic modalities available that can help with stress and anxiety – holistic pulsing, massage, essential oils, water therapies, herbs, mindfulness, etc… ensure you seek someone trained in working with children.
Getting professional help – if you feel your child needs further help always seek the advice of a professional.
We are currently experiencing a time where we, including our children, are more sensitive to the energy exchanges happening within and around us. We all naturally need down time to release others energy that we take on, but during this time we may need more than usual. Unstructured time in nature and in water can be particularly healing at this time. Often, stress and anxiety will heal itself within our children over time, but being consistent, having a deep sense that your child is ok just as they are and that they don’t need ‘fixing’ can be a good start.
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As published in The Inspired Guide Issue #16