Is your child anxious? Here’s how to help them

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By Samantha Selinger-Morris  – www.smh.com.au

To look at Sara*, smiling shyly over Zoom while tucking her hands into her pockets, you wouldn’t think there was anything much wrong.

“I can’t, like, hug my friends or anything,” says the 14-year-old when asked what she misses most since she began remote schooling because of the coronavirus.

Her parents tell a different story.

“She’s always been an anxious child, [but] she really loves her school, and all of a sudden that’s been taken away from her,” David* says of his daughter, who recently started at a new school in Canada where the Sydney family now lives.

Former Olympic swimmer Lisa Forrest, top, at 14, in 1978, around the time she was still battling the fear of not being good enough. Credit:AP Laserphoto

The pandemic has resulted in more “down” days – when Sara won’t leave her room – and a return of her social anxiety, which had previously settled considerably.

Former Olympic swimmer and life coach Lisa Forrest is dealing with a different type of childhood coronavirus stress – her son Dex’s anxieties about how to manage year 12.

“There’s a whole lot going on,” says Forrest of Dex, 17, who is now back at school two days a week. “All you can do is be encouraging, as much as you can… [and say] ‘Let’s just manage what we can, and let go with what we can’t.’”

Forrest suffered extreme stress as a teenager while training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and has written a book, Glide, about managing panic in modern life. But Dex is not always receptive to practising the mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing and meditation, that she now regularly uses to manage her own anxious feelings.

So how can parents help their children now?

Sydney clinical psychologist Dr Marcelle Moore says she has seen COVID-19 exacerbate the existing anxieties of many children. These include those with separated parents who shuttle between houses, sometimes with vastly different rules regarding pandemic restrictions.

For those families, Moore encourages the parents to closely adhere to government rules to eliminate confusion.

For other children experiencing anxiety – over uncertainty about the future, when they will hug their grandparents again, schooling, or other issues – Moore says the key is to help children manage their fears, by reminding them that they can take actions to remain safe such as pratising social distancing and washing their hands.

Moore says they can also learn to externalise their fears and be “the boss” of their worries by hitting pause on their thoughts to analyse whether they’re worth keeping. If they’re making them feel scared, they “go in the brain rubbish pile”. “The treatment for anxiety is not to take the fear away necessarily, but to increase our tolerance of the uncertainty the fear’s creating,” she says.

It isn’t all bad news.

“Because they’re not having to do the things that generally created anxiety for them, they’re actually feeling a bit more settled,” says Geelong clinical child psychologist Nahanni Sutton of numerous clients who have cancelled their usual sessions with her after being removed from school, the setting of much of their pre-existing anxiety.

For many children, returning to school can present its own set of anxieties.

Some younger children, in particular, who have relished being around their parents, says Dr Moore, may experience separation anxiety. Parents can remind them of the elements of school that make them feel safe and arrange for their teacher to meet their child at the school gate. For older children, parents might want to speak to their teachers in order to plan for how to manage their anxieties.

How to ease your child’s anxieties

  • Put predictable daily routines in place.
  • Manage uncertainty by controlling what you can: exercise, nutritious meals, a healthy sleep routine.
  • Practise relaxation techniques like deep breathing.
  • Focus on what you know for certain: what today looks like.

* Sources: Dr Marcelle Moore, Nahanni Sutton

And, Moore assures parents that children who experience anxiety as a result of the pandemic – and who are given the right tools – will learn a crucial life skill.

“If you don’t face your fear … you never know that it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be.”

*Names have been changed

 

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