Anxiety is everywhere. According to recent research, 1 in 6 young people will experience anxiety conditions at some point.
This is perhaps not surprising in a world of overloaded after-school schedules, exam pressures, and an Instagram-inspired adolescence, exacerbating all the old angsts of teen life.
Even my 7-year-old, who has no access to social media or fashion magazines, has somehow mastered her photo-perfect pose. But as children grow, anxiety can manifest in vastly different ways: ranging from mild exam stress, to extreme social anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, specific phobias and chronic worry, amongst other conditions.
Often, these anxieties begin in childhood and intensify during adolescence, ultimately affecting confidence, learning, relationships, motivation, and later on employment, as well as general wellbeing.
Yet it typically takes over 10 years before people seek help!
Sometimes, only professional help will be adequate, but there are a number of strategies you can try to help your pre-teen nip anxiety in the bud:
Learn to Spot Their Anxiety
Like us, children display anxiety in plethora ways. Sometimes these are emotional: they might seem upset or short-tempered, they might become more introverted or nervous, or they might even behave with anger and aggression. Often, especially when dealing with the latter – if for example our children are rude or destructive – our natural reaction may be to respond with equal anger. But their behaviour may in fact be a red flag warning us that underneath their new ‘behaviour’, our child is struggling with their emotions, and needs compassion and help.
At other times, anxiety might manifest entirely physically: children may say they feel sick, or dizzy, or faint. One pre-teen I know began bed-wetting during his parents’ divorce. The key is to recognise what are the particular signs of anxiety in your child.
Talk About How They Are Feeling
This may be more of a challenge than it sounds. When children are feeling anxious, it can be hard for them to recognise that emotion, and even if they do, they may feel ashamed or that nobody will understand. If you already have a good talking relationship with your child, then you have a great base to build on. If not, now is the time to start fostering one. Try to listen without preaching. Try to let them know you will not judge. Perhaps share a time when you have also felt anxious or depressed. Most of all, hear what they are saying.
Validate Their Feelings
It’s difficult sometimes to resist the instinct to diminish or fix. “Oh well that’s not worth worrying about,” we might say, I have said, hoping to brush it away. Or, “Well just tell your friend/teacher/coach the following…” We do this with good intentions, we want to solve Life for our children, but what our pre-teens really need to hear at this moment, is that we get it, that we understand how they are feeling, and that it’s OK and normal to feel that way. That their feelings are valid.
Try reflecting back to them what they express: “I can see how that would make you feel anxious.” Or empathise with a time you’ve felt similar.
Help Them Find Tools to Manage Their Feelings
These may be different for each child, and this is not an exhaustive list, but what most strategies seem to have in common is time away from tech. The WHO has recently recognised ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition, and some consider it an epidemic for today’s teens. Even as adults, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by tech. I catch myself sometimes checking my news feed as I’m walking to the loo, something that as a writer, is suicide. Because I notice, acutely, when it is that I find my moments of inspiration, and it is almost never while looking at a screen. To process anything, to find calm and creativity, our minds need space, quiet, and stillness.
Scientific evidence shows that meditation actually changes the grey matter in the brain, particularly in areas related to emotional regulation. Those who meditate experience a number of benefits including improved cognitive function, better self-control, higher immunity, more empathy, and, importantly, less anxiety, depression and stress.
By observing the mind and cultivating a healthy introspection, we can regularly spring-clean our emotions, keeping track of which of our human tendencies are winning out, and realigning those that create negativity.
There are plenty of books and CDs to help you try this at home if you are a beginner, or groups you can join. Start off, by simply taking some time to sit still, and breathe.
We all know about the endorphins that are released when we exercise, but they should not be underestimated. They really do provide a chemical uplift to the spirit that while may not be enough to dispel an anxiety entirely, certainly help restore a sense of wellbeing and prepare the mind to face challenges. It’s also a good way to get rid of aggression, without actually hitting somebody! (A method personally tried and tested.)
Sport is also the perfect microcosm for life, providing an arena in which we get to put ourselves on the line, triumph, fail, pick ourselves up, and practise all of these things within a game that doesn’t really matter.
Especially for those who find it difficult to talk, being able to express emotion is critical. Simply transferring a feeling from inside our bodies to outside, can go a long way in releasing the anxiety we hold. This may take the form of a diary, a piece of art, a poem, or any other kind of emotional expression.
Help Them Find Solutions, Or Strategies Towards Them
I remember as a teen often not being able to sleep until I had decided how I would deal with a problem the next day. Sometimes we can’t control a situation or solve things on our own, but we can always work out that first step that we are going to take towards it. Even as adults, problems seem most worrying when we avoid them – that’s when they grow. Help your child to break down into small parts what factors of a situation are causing her anxiety, and the first steps she can take to working them out.
Display a Growth Mind-set to Failure
Sometimes, things simply suck, can’t be fixed, and failure is often at the root of anxiety. Failure, or fear of it. Whether it be social, academic, or any other kind of disappointment, many of us see the inability to succeed as a devastating end-point. But some of the most important, informing and educational moments of our lives come when we fail, or when Life hits us hardest. Not only do we build strength in picking ourselves up and trying again, but there are huge opportunities to learn and improve.
Help your child to see this by identifying failure as only a part of a bigger journey, a part that we all face. Again, if you can, share your experiences of this. Share stories about other people they admire who have triumphed after moments of failure and sadness, or not even triumphed, but got through. Most of all, let them know that success or failure does not affect the way you perceive or love them.
Help Them Identify Their Own Anxiety
Having a parent or friend to help with difficult emotions is hugely important for children. But even more crucial as they grow older, is learning to recognise the signs of their own anxiety in the early stages, so that they can employ all the tools you have practised with them to manage their own mental health. Not only through adolescence, but through all the years and challenges that lay beyond.
GITA: The Battle of the Worlds by Sonal Sachdev Patel and Jemma Wayne-Kattan is published by Harper 360 and is available to buy now (£7.99 paperback).