The rise of anxiety in our children and 3 things you can do to help them

10 Aug 2017
"According to statistics provided by beyondblue, it is estimated that in any one year, around 1 million Australian adults will experience depression, and more than 2 million will have anxiety."
This is an alarming statistic and a reason why there has been a lot of focus in the media on the rise of anxiety across society, but the rise in children in particular. The rise of mental ill health is having a huge impact upon learning outcomes, social skills and productivity, not to mention increasing suicide rates, drug use, and a whole host of other debilitating and negative outcomes.
Social media and its unrelenting, voracious appetite and attention seeking is a big contributor. Our kids are the first generation to be born into a 24/7 digital world and the constant connection it demands. Their exhausted, time-poor and distracted parents are equally attached and plugged in to the same online world. Facebook, Insta, Twitter, email, news, events, the constant stream of information is literally driving us crazy. And sadly our kids are feeling it too.
There are many things we can do to address this growing epidemic of anxiety. I'll be talking about these in upcoming posts. But right now you're reading this post because you have an anxious child or teen and you have no idea what you can do to reach out to them, to help.
Ideally, you need to adopt these strategies, anxiety impacted or not, as early as possible. Once your child is a teen, communication is exponentially more challenging and so introducing new strategies can be a test, but not impossible. In fact, your teen may be relieved at your attempts to reach out when they're feeling particularly vulnerable.
If you're a parent of an anxious child below are 3 things you can do to get you feeling a little more resourceful to help them and you address it:

1) Manage your own anxiety around your children.

They model your behaviour. Do you suffer from anxiety that hasn't been addressed? It may be that you did not even realise that you were projecting your own feelings if you are susceptible to anxiety. I have witnessed a parent who is extremely anxious about everything; their child falling over, spiders, strangers, eating hard lollies, playing with others, not playing with others, riding around the block, what they wear, the list goes on. It's no surprise to find their child was too scared to even go to the toilet by themselves when young, but has now begun to act out as they get older, in response to their mother's controlling and anxious behaviour. Not only is the child lacking in resilience or a strong sense of self determination and empathy, but their parent has no idea of how to communicate effectively through their own mental fragility.
Or it may be that seeing your child begin to suffer from anxiety that you're affected, particularly if you have no idea of what to do or how you can help them. We are in a whole new, and often scary world where many of us are ill-equipped to deal with new and unprecedented challenges. You're not alone but there are things you can do to build the resources you need for such circumstances. Understanding what you bring to the table, how you're going to respond, and what you're going to project are good starting points.

2) Condition your child to think about things going well.

This is more than positive thinking, it's about using positive language. I suggest you begin to consciously clock the language you use when speaking with your children and pay extra attention to how they respond. I hear a lot of 'be careful', 'stop', 'no', 'don't', 'you'll hurt yourself', 'what were you thinking?', 'calm down'. Set yourself a task to really listen to the words you're choosing to speak to your kids with. Are you using positive, empowering language or negative, critical language? Once you've got a handle on how you're communicating take the next step and begin the process of conditioning your child to think about things going well. Help them set their focus by asking things like 'what's the best thing that's going to happen today, this week?' and then at the end of the day asking them what were the 3 best things that happened that day. Get into a rhythm of your communication by focusing on the good things that are going to happen or have happened rather than all the things that aren't going so well. Getting them to fill out a journal with the 3 things they're grateful for and 3 things that make them feel happy/healthy begins to create new pathways for thinking as well as build more resilience when things don't go as planned or they hit a road bump. Because let's face it, things don't always go as we'd like them to but those that bounce back from setbacks are those that choose how they're going to respond when things get tough.

3) Get specific.

Remember anxiety is a fear of something that has not yet happened. If the situation they were fearing eventuates, it then becomes an emotion of anger, sadness, or guilt, all of which need to be dealt with. However when anxiety rears its head (the situation has not yet happened), ask them what specifically they are anxious about. Use questions such as 'what are you anxious about specifically?', 'how does that make you feel anxious?' and 'suppose it worked out well would you still feel anxious?' instead of 'why are you feeling anxious?'. For example: your child is facing an exam. This is a real event that's going to happen but hasn't happened yet. Understandably they feel apprehensive. However often it escalates to feelings of anxiety leaving them unresourceful. Using 'what about the exam are you specifically anxious about?', 'how does that make you feel anxious?' and then 'just suppose you do really well in that exam, having prepared for it, would you still feel anxiety?' or 'imagine after receiving the results that you deserve, having prepared for the exam, would you still have anxiety?'These lines of inquiry will uncover and ultimately unpack what is going on inside their head with respect to their feelings around the impending exam, as opposed to 'why are they feeling anxiety' which enables them a justification with no ability to address the underlying feelings. These slight tweaks in inquiry can reveal completely different responses enabling an empowered approach to the future event rather than being overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues that I see at my trainings. I have helped hundreds of people to equip themselves with tools and resources to overcome and help others overcome anxiety. If you'd like to learn more check out my Make Anxiety History program. Click here for more.
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