Anxiety is something that affects us all in our lives. It’s something we can’t stop and is a part of human functioning. Worrying about things can be extremely useful and helps to keep us safe, much in the same way that having anxiety is our bodies response to a threat, and so it acts in a way to help us to survive. Therefore, a certain level of anxiety in our body is perceived as normal and helpful, however, there are times when it becomes too much, significantly affects our lives and its impact is debilitating and overwhelming. At this point an intervention is necessary which will help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and help the mind and body return to more balanced functioning. Symptoms of anxiety can include so many different things, but some common traits may be excessive nervousness or clinginess, avoidance of things that once the person enjoyed, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance and a host of physiological symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, hot and cold flushes, trembling and shaking, feeling or being sick, dizziness or sweating. If these symptoms are present then your child may be struggling with anxiety difficulties.
There are ways that parents can support their children or teens to manage anxiety. As anxiety can have a complex presentation, creating a formulation or story as to why your child is experiencing these difficulties can be extremely helpful, not only to your child but also to yourself in understanding the type of anxiety and the reason why it’s started. A formulation may also help you to understand what is maintaining the problem; arguably the most important part of understanding the anxiety and working through it. A formulation consists of the ‘vulnerability factors’- what has made your child vulnerable to anxiety, such as another mental health concern or parental mental health concern. Then you have to consider the ‘triggers’- what events have happened in the child’s life that may have created some anxiety and finally the ‘maintaining’ factors- what is keeping the anxiety going. In most cases, avoidance is the single biggest maintaining factor and maintains the anxiety. Now you have your formulation, the anxiety should be clearer to understand. You may also want to share this formulation with your child as this is what a therapist would do. It can often be reassuring if the young person knows what’s happening to them and why. From this point, if you feel comfortable, you may want to explore more of the anxiety in depth. To do this you could adopt a CBT technique called Socratic Questioning. There is a variety of information available online, written by Christine Padesky, on the use of Socratic Questioning. This technique helps to uncover more detail about the anxiety. In most cases, the anxiety will require treatment by a qualified mental health professional but this will certainly help you to get started with therapy far quicker.
Some more basic yet useful strategies would include being a good listener and give your child the time to talk about their worries. Also, you would want to take the worries seriously and be emphatic. Try not to belittle the worries and instead be very curious about them. Many young people tell me that they feel misunderstood, that people don’t understand how hard the anxiety is to manage and that people telling them to ‘get over it’, ‘pull your socks up’ or such phrases can be very unhelpful. So keep an open mind about your child’s worries and just listen.
You may also want to give some gentle encouragement with regards to the avoidance strategies that your child presents with. In CBT we can this graded exposure. The role of avoidance maintains the anxiety, as every time someone avoids something that worries them, they never get to see if what they fear will actually happen. Only by doing the activity can the person challenge their belief systems and see that in most cases it’s not as bad as they think it will be. This should be done gently to start with, increasing with difficulty as the young person feels more confident. In many cases a phrase card with some positive affirmations on can be useful, and the young person can keep it with them and refer to it when they feel worried about something. This also helps to challenge beliefs and acts as a source of motivation. You may also want to encourage strategies such as deep breathing, especially if your child is experiencing panic. Due to the shortness of breath experienced with anxiety, regulating breathing is crucially important. Long deep breaths are very helpful in restoring the diaphragm to appropriate functioning. It will also help if you yourself stay calm, be reassuring and remind your child of the strategies that work. To orchestrate this you may want to do lots of psycho-education with your child this is the process by which you explain anxiety, it’s causes and the evidence base behind the strategies that work, all of which can be found on respected websites such as NHS Choices.
Many more strategies can be found online such as www.helpguide.org or www.anxietybc.com. Each child responds differently to strategies so it may be a little bit of trial and error until you find the strategies that work best. Be patient and consult with a professional if you feel that it can not be self managed within the family.