4 Things You Can Do To Help An Anxious Child
As an Occupational Therapist, I am often dealing with children that have anxiety, which may stem from many different issues; including developmental performance challenges, social and emotional difficulties. Whilst anxiety is not an areas that Occupational Therapists specialise in specifically, there are strategies that we acquire throughout our training and experience that can help to work with children with anxiety.
1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings:
Whilst it is in our caring nature (as parent, teachers, carers of children) to reassure the child that there is nothing to worry about ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be right’ phrases and attitude; this is often unhelpful.
I mean… think back to a time when you were really worried about something. To someone else, you’re worry might seem ridiculous, unsubstantiated and even petty; but to you it consumes your thoughts and feelings. If someone was to say ‘Don’t worry about it?, does it make any difference to how you are feeling? Not usually!
Instead, it is helpful to use phrases that instead acknowledge how the child/person is feeling with phrases like:
‘It seems to me like you are a little worried about…’
‘Your worries seem to be really getting you down’
‘Can you tell me, how big is your worry?
(you may use language such as big, small or medium or use gestures to help them communicate this to you)
2. Humanise their feeling
Help to humanise their feelings by relating your experiences to theirs (without making it about you); and help them to understand that worries are normal.
Use phrases like:
‘I sometimes worry about… too’
‘It’s normal to feel worried sometimes’
You can help to put their worry into perspective by asking questions about the worry, like:
‘What do you think will happen if you….’
(ask further prompting questions in order to try and relieve their worry)
3. Better understand their feeling
Sometimes it’s easy to assume where the child’s worry is coming from; and sometimes our assumptions are completely wrong. I once worked with a child who was refusing to do tests at school. It would have been easy to assume that she didn’t know the content well or just didn’t like being put in the position to be wrong, but on further exploration it was realised that she was happy to do NAPLAN, but normal testing in class where books were swapped for marking was what she disliked. Therfore it became more evident that it was more about being seen as wrong and being seen as ‘dumb’ in front of her classmates that was her real concern’.
It is therefore helpful to ask more open ended questions about their worry to give you more information.
4. Help the child find a solution
Sometimes we jump in with solutions as we are so eager to help, but it is more useful for the child’s self-development that they help to come up with a solution.
You can help the child to find a solution by asking questions, like:
‘What can you/we do to help squash the worry?’
‘Is there anything that would help the worry go away?’
If the child continues to have significant anxieties it may be helpful to visit a child psychologist for further exploration regarding anxiety disorders.