Anxiety UK claim that 1 in 6 young people experience anxiety. At no time is this stress felt more than during the exam season.
As a parent, you want to ensure that you are well-equipped to support your child and reduce feelings of stress as much as possible. However, it is also reasonable and healthy for anyone to express a certain level of stress.
This article will talk you through the things you can do to prevent high levels of stress arising in your child, as well as how to recognise anxiety and how to help your teenager through it.
Remember, it is common for children and young people to feel stressed due to school or university work, especially during deadlines or exams. However, it is important to remember that schoolwork may not be the cause of their anxiety. Your child may feel increased anxiety if you assume that they are worrying about their academic results – so try not to make any assumptions about the cause. Once you have spoken to your child about their stress levels, then you can identify the causes together.
It is advisable to be aware of steps you can take to reduce the chances of mounting stress in a child or teenager which becomes harmful.
Encourage your son or daughter to talk to you about their concerns and worries. They don’t have to tell you everything about their life, but if they know they can rely on you for support and ‘debriefing’ that can be a huge relief. You may be able to take some of their burden if they feel they are experiencing a stressful situation, or you may be able to explain why a situation is not necessarily as stressful as the child is viewing it.
2. Energetic activities:
Not all children love sport, but if you can encourage your son or daughter to do some form of activity (swimming, running, tennis etc.) which gets their heart racing then that could be a good chance for them to relax and clear their mind. Regular exercise has been continually proven to promote physical and mental well-being.
Enjoying a hobby such as yoga, art, photography or theatre are also ways to unwind and have a break from schoolwork, as well as to develop their passions and outside interests.
If possible, ensure your child or teenager feels their bedroom is a safe space designed to help them relax, free from loud surrounding noise and threats. Ideally the bedroom should be an area just for sleeping in, rather than working in or watching TV in, though of course this is not possible for everyone and my teenagers have always preferred to work in their bedrooms.
5. Bedtimes & routine:
To make sure your child or teenager is getting enough sleep, try and stick to a fairly fixed and stable daily routine and encourage them to do the same. Going to bed at a similar time each night, perhaps after having had a mug of milk, can help with the body recognising the end of the day and supporting a healthy sleep pattern. Encourage them to switch off and remove phones and any other distractions before going to bed.
Eating healthily has also been linked to lower stress and anxiety levels. Try to get your children to eat five a day, plenty of whole grains (brown spaghetti, rice, bread etc.) and generally stick to a balanced diet free of processed foods. Rather than banning foodstuffs, ‘all things in moderation’ is a good motto to stick to. Keep blood sugar levels to a fairly stable rate in order to avoid dips in the day that could trigger depression and fatigue. Achieve this by avoiding sugary or caffeinated foods and drinks and by eating or drinking regularly.
The symptoms of stress can be physical and/or mental. Your child may not recognise that they are stressed, so it is helpful if you can be on the lookout for the signs.
Physical signs can be:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Profuse sweating
- Overactive bowels
- Sleep problems
- Increased or decreased appetite.
Mental and emotional signs can be:
- Feeling of being overwhelmed
- Anxiety and fear
- Low self-esteem
- Racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions.
Helping your stressed child or teenager
Firstly, ask your child if they feel stressed. They may not like to admit it, not realise they are stressed, or it could be something else altogether.
Suggest that you take a break, perhaps together. The break could be treating them to a hot chocolate in a café, or going for a short walk, or visiting a grandparent if you have the time. Whatever you chose, removing them from the stressful environment and talking on neutral ground is a good option.
Work together to make a plan on how to reduce their workload or solve the problem that they feel stressed about. Explain that stress is normal, but that it shouldn’t be overwhelming and that you want to support them so that they feel well enough to continue.
Recognising an anxiety disorder
You may not realise immediately that your child or teenager is suffering from anxiety. People experiencing anxious conditions may not realise themselves what they are going through.
Anxiety is often longer term than stress, though they are similar in many respects. Your child or teenager may be experiencing similar symptoms to those mentioned above, but on a long-term, regular basis possibly without a specific trigger. Or, they may be especially prone to regular anxious periods.
Symptoms that your child may have an anxiety condition:
- The anxiousness they are experiencing is uncontrollable and long-lasting.
- The child’s daily life (school, hobbies and socialising) is being affected – by avoidance, reluctance to participate or by a change in behaviour or motivation.
- They have difficulty concentrating, feeling blank,
- They are suffering muscle tensing (e.g. jaw clenching)
- Your child is tired easily and often/seems unhappy
- The symptoms described above are being experienced regularly.
If you suspect your child has Generalised Anxiety Disorder, your GP should be the first port of call. Anxiety conditions are treatable by medication which many find helpful. However, there are also many other ways to cope with long-term feelings of anxiety that don’t involve medication.
If your child has a disorder, or is experiencing a period of anxiety or stress, the following are some wonderful things you can encourage them to do to reduce their stress levels.
1. Breathing exercises
These could be done whilst stretching, in a yoga class, or using a mindfulness resource, or just on your own.
2. Taking regular physical exercise
This doesn’t have to be strenuous, but it’s good to gain some endorphins and release some adrenaline.
3. Keeping a diary
Releasing and evaluating your thoughts and feelings can be a good way to see them in perspective. Or it can be a way to keep track of your emotions and to spot triggers and causes for certain feelings or behaviours. The act of writing down your worries can be therapeutic in itself. If your child doesn’t like writing, suggest they try talking to someone else regularly – a friend or family member.
4. Keeping stable blood sugar levels
This should avoid any sudden energy dips that can increase feelings of depression and anxiety.
5. Getting enough sleep.
This, again, helps avoid fatigue and heightened symptoms resulting from lack of energy.
Panic attacks can have many medical and emotional triggers, including severe stress, with women twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic disorder – which is classified as repeated and unexpected panic attacks.
How to help your child with an panic attack
- Stay calm
- Gently let them know what you think is happening and remind them you are here for them.
- Practise breathing exercises with them: counting, or asking them to watch whilst you raise and lower your arm can be calming.
- Encourage them to stamp their feet to release some tension.
- Encourage them to sit down.
Don’t pressure them to ‘feel better’ immediately or to calm down. Allow them to take their time.
Don’t instantly use logic or rationale to dispel their fears – this can increase their anxiety. Remember, the child isn’t choosing to be anxious.
Ask them about their experience of worry and anxiety.
Find out more about anxiety on Mind.com or at Anxiety UK to show them that you recognise they are suffering and want to help as actively as possible.
Be patient and loving.
Written by Emma Hammett, CEO of First Aid for Life
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