Guest Post - ‘Children and Anxiety’ by Karen Young, Author of ‘Hey Warrior’

May 22nd, 2018
Our children have important work to do. They are explorers, adventurers, dragon-slayers and magic-makers. During childhood and through their adolescence, they will discover who they are and establish their very important place in the world. They have everything inside them they need to do this, but they will need space, time, the freedom to be, and the freedom to get it wrong sometimes.   

For too many children, anxiety gets in the way. Anxiety is a very normal human response designed to make us stronger, faster, more alert, more powerful and more able to deal with threat. It’s the work of a strong, healthy brain doing what strong healthy brains are meant to do – warn us of danger and keep us safe. 

Anxious brains do this beautifully, but sometimes a little too much or a little too unnecessarily. This is when anxiety can become a problem. Anxiety can come with many symptoms, including a racey heart, sick tummy, clammy skin, tense muscles, and worrying thoughts. These symptoms can feel awful, but they have a good reason for being there. Understanding how anxiety works and where it comes from is an important part of turning anxiety around. 

Children are powerful when we empower them, and the right information is key. This was the driving force behind 'Hey Warrior'. 'Hey Warrior' explains what anxiety is, why it feels the way it does, and how children can take their anxiety back to small enough. Anxiety has a sneaky way of tilting the focus to the negative, so an important part of 'Hey Warrior' is also helping children realise the courage, strength and potential that is in them – because extraordinary things happen when kids feel safe enough to be brave enough. About 1 in 6 children will experience intrusive levels of anxiety which can interfere with school, friendships, and many other aspects of daily life, but most children will experience feelings of stress and anxiety at some point, such as before an exam, performance or sporting match. 

Our job as parents isn’t to lift our children over every challenge, but to give them the skills and qualities to do that for themselves. Nurturing strong mental health will strengthen all children from the inside out, and give them the foundations to deal with stress, face challenges, and move through life with courage and resilience. Here are some ways to do that:   

1. Leave plenty of time for free play. Children need to play. Food, water, love, play. It’s that important. Research has found that the more playful children are, the greater their ability to cope. During play, they have the opportunity to experiment with real life, explore their physical limits, friendships, and emotions, but in ways that feel safe for them. They can put themselves in situations that push them right up against their edges, but with the inbuilt safety net of knowing they can pull back whenever they need to.   

2. Encourage a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness creates structural and functional changes in the brain that support a healthy response to stress. It also promotes better sleep, builds attention, focus, kindness, and the capacity to deal with big feelings. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including some great apps (such as Smiling Mind), but at its most basic it involves focusing on one thing at a time in the moment, whether it’s eating, walking, breathing, or their senses generally (what can they feel against their skin, taste, hear, smell).   

3. Shhh. Let them talk. Anything we can do to show our children that we’re there to listen to them, and that we can cope with anything they feel or say, will be powerful. It can be tempting to talk more than we listen, or to feel as though we need to ‘fix’ things for them. The truth is we don’t need to fix anything and there is often more magic in giving them the space to discover their answers for themselves. They are the experts of how they feel and what they need, and you are the safest place in the world for them to explore this.   

4. Exercise. Exercise is the wonder-drug-but-not-a-drug of the mental health world. It changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that strengthen against stress and anxiety. In the same way exercise helps keep our bodies strong, it also helps keep our brain and mental health strong. All children have greatness in them but when anxiety hits, it can steal them for a while. When we strengthen their mental health, we strengthen the armour that will help protect them from stress, anxiety, and a world that can have too many hard edges sometimes. Strong mental health will also fuel healthier relationships, a greater capacity to learn and deal with challenges, and a richer way of responding to the world.  
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Tags: anxiety, author, children, hey warrior, karen young, mental health

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