My four-year-old is anxious about going to parties and swimming classes
He has now started avoiding things or telling me he doesn’t want to go
Responding to anxiety in children in the long term requires a patient approach from parents
I’m hoping you can guide me in relation to my four-year-old’s anxiety. He’s a worrier and it breaks my heart to see him so anxious at his tender age. However, I feel it’s something we can get over with the right guidance.
He has now started avoiding things or telling me he doesn’t want to go – for example he says that he doesn’t want to start swimming lessons because he says that he won’t be able to hold onto the edge for long enough. He also worries that there isn’t anyone to “mind him” when he gets to a birthday party.
I want to nip it in the bud sooner rather than later so he doesn’t miss out on all the fun things he should be enjoying at this stage of his life and free his little mind from the weight of worrying about future “non-occurrences”.
Could you guide me on where to start, recommend someone to see, a book to read and games/chats to have at home with him?
Thanks for any help you can offer.
At four years of age feeling anxious about starting swimming or staying at parties by himself would be very normal. In fact, some anxiety and new situations like this can be a good thing and a protective factor for young children. A little bit of anxiety makes them less impulsive and less likely to be reckless which would put them into danger.
In addition, some anxiety helps children prepare for new situations. For instance, it is good that you son is wondering who might “mind him” when he is going to a party by himself and shows he is working out what he needs to do to feel safe.
It is also good that he is talking to you about the specifics of his worries (eg that he won’t be able to “hold on” in swimming) as this gives you lots of scope to reassure him.
Also, when children express their worries to a listening and supportive parent, this makes them feel relieved and better emotionally even if the worry does not immediately go away.
Dealing with your own anxiety as a parent
It is hard to see your young child being distressed and worrying and it is easy to become worried and even distressed in response. However, the key to helping your son is to remain calm and to respond is a supportive, reassuring way. If he sees you upset by his worries (even by your body language) this could make him more worried or even stop him telling you in the future. The more relaxed you are and the more you can listen and support him, the easier it will be for him to manage.
Responding when your child is anxious
When your son is anxious, the first step is listen carefully. Name his feelings and reassure him that he is okay for having them. For example, you might say “you are little nervous going to the party – lots of children feel that”. Then you might praise him for what he is thinking: “It is good that you are wondering who will mind you at the party” before reassuring him very concretely – “Joe’s mum Alice will be there, you can always talk to her if you need something”. You might also take some extra preparatory steps to help him cope, such as introducing him to his minder in advance or going a bit early so he has time to settle in.
If he does get anxious, take time to soothe and comfort him. For example, you might take a break from any anxious situation for a minute to give him a hug, before returning to face it when he has calmed down a bit.
The key to overcoming anxiety is gentle encouragement and gradual exposure to the feared situation. You don’t want your son to avoid going to parties or to stop learning to swim but you do want to make it easier for him to get started in these activitiess. This means breaking the task into small easy steps that he can build upon. For example, before starting swimming lessons you might set up several paddling sessions in the pool with you before gradually increasing his independence. Be prepared to take a step back if any step is too anxiety-provoking to him. You can always try again the next day. Patience and gentle persistence is the key.
Resources to deal with anxiety
For more information on dealing with anxiety, I have a six-article series for parents that you can access on The Irish Times website. There are also some excellent child-centred resources and books you can read with children. There are many book series that prepare children for anxious situations such as the Usbourne First Experiences series or the Topsy and Tim books by Jean and Gareth Adamson. The latter have been produced as series of TV programmes by the BBC which you can easily access on YouTube. There is also a lovely Cbeebies programme – Wooly and Tig – about a three-year-old anxious girl with her special toy spider who comforts her.
Dealing with anxiety in the long term
Responding to anxiety in children in the long term requires a patient approach from parents. Lots of children have a tendency to worry or be anxious as they grow up and this can be part of their personality and not something that can be “nipped in the bud”. However, with a bit of help children can learn over time to manage and transform their anxieties. In addition, it is important to remember that a tendency to worry often reveals a thoughtful, imaginative and sensitive child underneath.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes.
His new book Bringing Up Happy Confident Children is now available. See solutiontalk.ie