The rate of anxiety in children has been rising steadily since 2007, with nearly 1 in 3 expected to experience an anxiety disorder before turning 18. Importantly, there has always been a prevalence of anxiety in children and young people, and truthfully, we will all experience this mental stress at one time or another. But that doesn't make it any less worrying that our young people are experiencing more mental health issues than ever before.
There are a number of reasons why this increase has taken place. In the age of the digital society and social media, children and young people are constantly connected and growing up against photoshopped imagery and critical responses giving way to the easiest ever way to compare themselves to others. Then there is the ever increasing uptake of further education leading to greater academic demands for success while at school. This competitive culture isn’t an arena which everyone is happy to exist within.
Essentially, the idea of perfection and high expectations are fuelling anxiety like never before. But what can it look like in a young person? They may share their thoughts which have a more negative slant, such as worries or fears. Their behaviours are an indicator for anxiety too. Are they avoiding social interactions regularly? Are they refusing to participate in activities where they may become the focus of attention? Are they displaying an increased irritability? It can even manifest itself in a number of physical ways, such as shaking or trembling, reporting of stomach aches and even nausea.
Knowing what you can do to support young people with anxiety isn’t always straight forward; they are individuals and will respond in a range of ways. But doing something, however little, will make a difference. Here are some ideas to get you thinking.
Grab a notebook
Understanding what is taking place for young people is a big part of moving forward. Rather than asking them to document their feelings, you taking a notebook and making small notes about what is happening for them will inform your thinking and help you to unpick what is happening. Record some of what they tell you, what you observe and what your thoughts are. This could be about their triggers, their behaviours and your ideas that might help them grow and challenge their anxiety. Then, in turn, use this information to create conversation prompts or questions for them, or activity ideas to use with the following approach. Logging the journey you are on with them will help them in the long run.
Take small steps
If your child is demonstrating anxious behaviours, then it is time to get tuned into the idea that small steps will support them best. The stepladder approach was created to help children with social anxiety, and can be employed to help young people overcome their anxieties, when broken down into manageable activities. At its core, it endorses the principle that avoiding the thing that stresses us, is only going to give anxiety greater power over our mental health. Therefore, supporting children through the stepladder approach will require a lot of positive reinforcement and praise as the work towards facing the issues that are challenging them. Every step forward is a win and they should feel that - their self esteem is going to be key to overcoming anxiety.
Offer some strategies
Children are learning ways to do things all of the time, so why not support them in learning some coping strategies with the physical and mental effects of anxiety? Teach them to identify negative thoughts, which reinforce their sense of anxiety. Make them aware that these thoughts are often not true and are controlling the way they feel about themselves. What may follow from this is sharing some coping strategies to combat those negative thoughts and reinforcing the positive messages will allow them to take the small steps to overcoming their fears and anxieties. If they are experiencing social anxiety, helping them work on friendship skills in a safe, private space can have a big impact, providing the platform for honest discussions about what to do and how to do it.
Be the difference
There are a number of ways in which adults can protect young people in their anxiety, and they can have a big impact. In the first instance, model some positive behaviours around mental health: share some of your feelings towards activities in your past or present and how you manage those to then overcome emotion and go about your day. Another approach could be to avoid negative labelling and, in turn, frame their personality in a positive light: 'you aren’t shy, you are confident around people you know'. In doing these, you’ll demonstrate that there is a positive perspective on what they may be feeling, which can often be wholly negative. You are turning on the light in their darkness.
These ideas will take you from wanting to make a positive difference for children and young people, to actively playing your part in their anxieties. A mindful approach to helping someone is what will make your efforts a success. Never forget that there are professionals available, and seeking their expertise is not a sign of weakness on anyone’s part. So take your time, think it through and be unwavering in your support. You might also like to read about bed time routine tips.