I just finished doing a worry workshop for a local primary school. The ABC's Behind the News filmed it (the video is at the end of this post if you are interested - a good one to watch with your 8 to 11 year old child).
One of the topics I talked with the students about was the importance of acting in brave ways - even when they are feeling worried and anxious. I can't overstate the importance of this step.
Here's what we know about anxiety in children - when children avoid things - situations/ people/ sensations/ feelings/environments - they get more anxious about these things as time goes on.
The more children avoid things they find scary, the more scared they get.
If children avoid going into the classroom on their own, going to friends’ houses, talking to adults, playing sport – or other things they find nerve wracking – they will usually become more scared of these things over time.
For example, I worked with a 10 year old girl called Georgia (names and details changed) who was really anxious about PE lessons at school. Given her very high level of distress, a well meaning parent and teacher suggested she go to the library during PE for a while, hoping that over time she would feel more confident. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect. The longer Georgia avoided PE, the more anxious she became. When I saw her, 6 months later - even the very thought of PE would lead her to having a panic attack.
There are a two processes which explain why avoidance increases anxiety.
First, when kids avoid something they have no opportunity to succeed, master or cope with the feared situation. They see other children coping well with the feared situation and lose confidence in themselves. They get embarrassed about not coping and label themselves as being afraid of that particular event.
Second, at a subconscious level, when kids avoid something - the part of the brain which evaluates threat notices them avoiding that thing. It says "aha - it MUST have been dangerous, or I would have not avoided it". This increases anxiety the next time around.
Third, when we are feeling afraid and we get away from/avoid the thing that triggered our fear - we have a huge sense of relief. This relief is VERY reinforcing and pleasurable. Kids will look to find that feeling as much as they can. This will mean the avoidance itself becomes something that feels good, and they will want to do it as much as they can.
To stop this cycle of increasing fear, we need to identify the brave behaviour we want our children to do, and to coach, encourage, reward and enforce this brave behaviour.
To start with brave behaviour might be a few small steps (go into the classroom one metre on your own and then mum joins you, just say hello to an adult, eat one tiny bite of a new food once a day, have a play date while mum is still at the house, sleep in your own bed for the first ten minutes of the night, use a calm voice for the first five minutes of homework and so on, for whatever the child finds difficult).
Sometimes we have to reward these small, scary steps. Sometimes we have to help them find strategies to make the steps easier, more fun or more managable. Sometimes we have to make these steps even smaller!
But however we do it, as parents we must help our children to act brave. The more often children act in brave ways, the less their worry will dominate their life.
When I was working with Georgia, her teachers, parents and I came up with a plan where she would do increasing numbers of PE each week. We helped her come up with an "excuse" she could use with her friends to say why she hadn't been doing PE for the last few months so she could save face. We helped ease her into PE by getting her initially just to help the PE teacher collect equipment. We rewarded her for her brave behaviour each time. We gave her ways to slow her breathing down and relax her muslces to deal with her fear. And at the end of the day, we didnt give her the option to avoid PE.
Within 6 weeks, Georgia was back in PE each week and enjoying it.
It's not always this straightforward - but as parents and carers of anxious kids, one of our most important jobs is to empathise with kids' fears but not allow these fears to take them away from doing important things.
For more information about how we work in Adelaide one on one with anxious kids, click on counselling below. If you don't live in Adelaide and would like to buy our "When Life Sucks for Kids" book (which includes chapters about worry and stress - written specifically for 8 to 13 year olds" click on the book image below.