Tips for parents on how to deal with anxious children

Changing goalposts, in and out of lockdown, affected many children in different ways

Parents can't change the outside world for anxious children but we can change their inner world by providing them with coping strategies, says educational psychologist Maria Osborne.

She works at Sensational Kids where therapists are "absolutely seeing" higher levels of anxiety and school refusal, which they attribute to two years of pandemic living. "Covid changed the way children perceive the security and predictability of the world," she says. Photographs and war stories coming from the Ukraine are now being added to the mix.

The changing goalposts, in and out of lockdown, affected different children in different ways. For some on the autistic spectrum who preferred being at home, returning to school was very hard.

There are other children who had got used to their parents being at home all the time. As parents return to the office, there may be new childcare people coming into those children’s lives.

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For children with a learning difficulty, online home schooling was very problematic. Tweens and teens recognise they are struggling more. “They can be quite anxious about that and resisting going to school because they are now aware ‘my learning is below the level of my peers’,” she says.

Some children are still afraid of coronavirus. “Just because we say it’s okay now, the strain is weaker, that’s a lot for a child to get their head around. They actually don’t feel comfortable mixing with everybody; they’re still sanitising 20 times a day.”

Sensational Kids is going to run in-person workshops for children aged 10-18 on anxiety-reducing techniques. What’s really exciting about working with children, she adds, is that their high degree of neuroplasticity means “you can change the chemicals of their brain. It is not their destiny.”

Here are a few tips for parents and, conscious of family time pressures, Osborne suggests they look at “piggybacking” new habits on existing routines, such as during the school run or at the dinner table.

Pointers for parents:

  1. Help children to think about their thinking: thoughts are not facts, they are just thoughts. Encourage children to regard them as clouds passing in the sky or logs in a river – they come and they go;
  2. Calm is contagious so try to foster a sense of peace at home, by working on yourself if necessary. Meditation will slow down your brainwaves and maybe all the family could try it;
  3. Do deep-breathing exercises together: just five deep belly breaths will bring the central nervous system from that "fight or flight" state to a relax, digest mode;
  4. Adopt an integrated approach, with healthier eating and getting out as a family to connect with nature;
  5. Put all phones away at dinner time and avoid the temptation of letting children eat in front of the TV;
  6. Give them age-appropriate chores and praise for jobs done, as this builds their competence and confidence;
  7. Most important of all, have fun with them and let them play.

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