How to nip worry in the bud for anxious children

Children can be taught how to manage anxiety — and it can even pre-empt mental health issues in later life, writes Áilín Quinlan

You mightn’t think it, but children worry — and sometimes quite a lot.

So while Christmas can be a wonderful time full of excitement, the disrupted routine, increased social interaction and avalanche of sugary treats may lead to a sense of heightened nervousness among children who are prone to anxiety, explains author and psychotherapist, Carina McEvoy, who has recently published two books on the issue of childhood anxiety.

Parents can counteract this by creating an air of calm in the home and by balancing screen-time with other family activities, including lots of fresh air and exercise — and also by taking a firm hand in terms of sugary food intake.

Anxious children may also worry about meeting people or being the focus of relatives’ attention, so don’t force them to perform their party piece if they’re uncomfortable, advises McEvoy, who says that when she began to see anxiety surfacing in her small daughter — and heard other parents reporting it in their children — she invented a lovable little worry-wart called Mo, and wrote two books about him, one for children and one for their parents.

Author Carina McEvoy

The mother of two girls, Anna (9) and Ellie (6), McEvoy noticed that as Anna grew, she seemed to worry quite a bit. She worried about going to sleep, about asking to buy something in a shop and about her mother leaving her to go to work in the morning:

When Anna started primary school, and Carina began meeting other parents at drop-off and collection time, she began to realise that childhood anxiety was no rare thing.

Quite a lot of small children were anxious and, she discovered, their parents rarely seemed to know why.

“The child’s book approaches the topic in a child-friendly way, using very simple terms that they can understand,” she explains.

“The book is presented from the perspective of a little purple creature called Mo who has two arms and a big face with very clear expressions:

It’s very obvious how Mo is feeling at any particular time.

“Mo sometimes worries but he has learned why he worries — and why it can be good to worry, because worry can keep you safe and it is a very natural emotion,” says McEvoy who emphasises that she uses the word ‘worry’ rather than ‘anxiety’ as children understand it better.

“Mo has also learned that his thoughts have the power to make him feel a certain way.

“He shares this with the child and also the fact that he has also learned 17 cool tricks on how to manage his worry.” Much of the content is rooted both in her own experience with anxiety throughout her life, and in the experiences of Anna, she explains:

“When I am writing the book Anna is in my mind all the time,” she says, adding that many of the successful techniques she used to coach Anna in dealing with her anxiety, are contained in the book.

The 88-page children’s book, Sometimes I worry … How About You? is interactive, allowing the child to write or draw their responses to Mo’s questions.

The parents’ book, Sometimes My Child Worries … What Do I Do? delves deeper into the issues around childhood anxiety, and explains the various techniques which can be used to help.

The books, which were carefully reviewed by a tutor in child psychology, a primary school teacher, two psychotherapists and some parents, says McEvoy, who lives in Courtown, near Gorey, have received positive feedback.

“I experienced a lot of anxiety in my own childhood and that contributed to the book,” McEvoy recalls, adding that according to figures from the support group Mental Health Ireland 80% of adults who suffer from mental health issue reported experiencing childhood anxiety.

“If we can teach children that anxiety is manageable, we can potentially pre-empt mental health issues in later life for some people,” she explains.

The twin books, which hit the shelves in recent weeks, had to be self-published:

“Childhood anxiety does not seem to be taken seriously by publishers,” says McEvoy, adding that when she contacted publishers, the feedback was that although they loved the content and the layout they felt “there was no market for child anxiety.”

“I decided to self-publish because I could see there were so many families who needed help,” says Carina.

According to the Children’s Rights Alliance report, in 2017 there were 7,000 children in Ireland waiting to see a psychologist.

And as McEvoy observes, there has to be a root cause somewhere….

Sometimes My Child Worries … What Do I do?” and Sometimes I worry … How About You? can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk or purchased in good

bookshops.

For more information www.carinamcevoy.com 

Five top tips for anxious children (of any age) 

1. Understand that ‘worry’ is not only a completely natural and normal emotion, it is also a very important one to keep you safe!

2. What you think about in your head can affect how you feel. If you have nice thoughts, you will feel nice. If you have sad thoughts you will feel sad! You also have a very special superpower — you can change what you are thinking about in your head! If you’re feeling bad, use that amazing imagination to think how you could feel better.

3. Copy your favourite Superhero at times when you feel less confident.

Imagine how her or she looks and stands.

Stand like them — put your head up and your shoulders back like they do!

Imagine how it might feel to have their bravery and courage — then copy that feeling.

4. We can all hear our own thoughts in our heads. This is called ‘self-talk’. Can you hear your self-talk? You’re ‘in charge, so if your self-talk is not nice and kind, you can tell it to be nicer and kinder! You’re the boss, remember!

5. Have some thankful time. Every night before you sleep, write down, draw, or even tell someone, three wonderful things that happened you that day that made you feel good!

Five tips for parents of anxious children 

1. Let go of the pressure to be a perfect parent:

All your child needs is love and comfort. Let go of the need to feel you have to get everything perfect. It’s a great lesson to pass onto your child that it is okay to be okay. We don’t have to strive for perfection.

2. Beware of labelling your child with ‘anxiety.’ This is a complicated term for a child to understand and carries negative connotations.

If we label the child as ‘anxious’ they will think they have something ‘wrong’ with them.

Use simpler words such as ‘worry’.

Worry is not something we want the child to stop doing, we just want them to be able to manage it better so they can worry in the right context.

3. If your child is worried about something, listen to them. Stop what you are doing and focus on the child completely. Come down to the child’s level so you can connect with him or her through eye contact. Show you are listening by your body language. Sometimes when a child feels he or she is really being listened to, that is enough to solve the issue.

4. Avoid saying things like ‘don’t worry about it’ . Let the child know it is okay to worry, and teach him or her life-skills such as problem-solving, planning and decision making to overcome those worries.

5. Help a child with emotions — to identify them, understand them, feel them and not feel ashamed of them.

For children also, it can be very empowering for them to be able to understand what it is they are feeling.

Once they understand what their emotions are, the sensations they bring and how to let them go, then emotions become more easily managed.


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