Anxiety in children is a common problem. In fact, it is predicted that approximately 20% of children experience problems with anxiety. The most common types of anxiety in children include separation anxiety, specific phobias, and social anxiety.
Many children also have problems with school attendance, and it can disrupt bedtime and sleeping routines. Anxiety can also affect physical health, leading to tummy complaints, diarrhoea, and headaches.
Anxiety can subside as children get older; however, for some children, the problem persists and psychological intervention is necessary. Some kids are also placed on medications to help deal with the problem, but the long-term safety of anxiety medications for children is uncertain.
In this article, we give several recommendations to help you manage and reduce your child’s anxiety. There is no magic solution, so it best if all these (or most) of these recommendations are implemented by parents.
1. Support good sleep routines. The quality of children’s sleep will affect both mental and physical health. It is therefore extremely important that you establish healthy sleep routines for your child.
This involves setting regular bedtime routines, ensuring your child ‘winds down’ before bed, making sure that electronic devices are stopped a few hours before bed, and ensuring your child has a comfortable bed and soothing bedroom environment.
2. Encourage healthy eating. Research has now confirmed that our diet can affect our mental health. It has been shown that eating an unhealthy diet consisting of high-sugar foods, packaged items, soft drinks and take-away can increase anxiety and depressive symptoms. So it is important that you give your child healthy foods every day. This includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean protein sources such as eggs, fish and beef. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for good mental health and this is primarily derived from oily fish and some seeds.
3. Encourage regular exercise. Exercise is good for both physical and mental health. Some studies in adults have actually shown that exercise is as effective as antidepressant medications and psychological therapy.
So encourage your child to exercise most days. Choose something that he/she is interested in and finds enjoyable.
4. Be a good role model. Children learn from others. That’s why it is important you teach your child healthy habits. This includes showing them how to effectively deal with stress. You also need to model healthy lifestyle habits. If you are struggling in these areas, then seeking support for your own mental and physical health may be helpful.
5. Encourage participation in fun/enjoyable activities. Regularly engaging in fun and pleasurable activities is an important way to reduce anxiety. When we are having fun, our mind takes a break from worries. This can be incredibly soothing for the body. A mind and body constantly under stress can be very draining and makes us less likely to bounce back from daily stresses.
6. Limit exposure to negative media. If our mind is filled with negative media messages then it will only feed our anxiety. It is therefore very important that you monitor your child’s exposure to negative media.
This can be from the news, but for many children, exposure to messages on social media can be a real problem.
7. Reduce exposure to technology and computers. Research confirms that children who spend more time on technology or playing electronic games have worse mental health. So it is very important to place limits on this.
Encourage your child to participate in outdoor activities. You also need to model this behaviour.
8. Teach appropriate coping skills. You need to teach your child effective ways to identify and manage his or her emotions. This means learning to name the emotion, the physical sensations associated with it, and then appropriate ways to deal with it. There are several options here. These include talking to others, engaging in a soothing or pleasurable activity, limiting withdrawal from others, and even learning relaxation strategies.
A great and free relaxation app that you can download is called ‘Smiling Mind’. If your child is particularly having trouble learning appropriate coping skills, then psychological support from a mental health care practitioner may also be helpful. Cognitive-behaviour therapy is an effective treatment for child anxiety.
9. Take natural, soothing supplements. When we are stressed or anxious our body increases levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are designed to place us in ‘fight or flight’ mode. People with anxiety and excess levels of these stress hormones make them more susceptible to anxiety. We also have brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters which can influence our response to stress. One important neurotransmitter is called serotonin. Levels of serotonin are believed to be lower in people with anxiety.
There are several nutrients and herbs that have been shown to normalise stress hormone and neurotransmitter levels. Some of these include magnesium, vitamin C, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids. Bacopa (or Brahmi) is an Indian herb that has also been shown to support good brain health. Taking a supplement with these ingredients may help support your child’s anxiety and overall mental health.
If you have a child suffering with anxiety, then it is important that you make necessary adjustments to help support his or her mental wellbeing. Implementing strategies listed in this article can have a profound and positive effect.