I recently asked a young girl who was talking to me about her anxiety, if she could remember the first time she experienced the symptoms associated with it. She easily recalled standing at the front of her grade 4 classroom when the first wave of panic passed through her. She said that her heart beat more rapidly, her mouth became dry and her hands felt weak. She managed to get through her short presentation, but the experience left her not wanting to feel the same ever again. That evening, she shared what had happened with her mother and her mother offered to speak to the teacher.
In response to the mother’s call, the teacher suggested that instead of standing in front of her peers again, and in order to avoid feeling anxious, that he would accommodate her by allowing her to present to him alone during a lunch break. Both mom and daughter were relieved to hear this.
However, two years later, and feeling anxious in other situations such as when she was asked to take a small part in the end of year school play and even when a waiter in a restaurant asked what she wanted to order, her mother called on me to help. A bright young girl and very self aware, she responded very maturely to my question about whether or not the accommodations were helping her overcome her anxiety. She had already concluded that they weren’t and in fact, realized that they may be making the anxiety worse. When asked what she felt was the best way to overcome her anxiety of speaking in front of her classmates, she astutely shared that in order to overcome her anxiety, she needed to do what she was afraid of. I was very impressed that she responded in this way because she was absolutely right.
For children who are younger, I sometimes share the story of the fear monster and how avoiding him only makes him bigger and stronger. It is like, I say, feeding the fear monster. The only way to have the fear monster shrivel up and disappear is to confront him. However, I know that this is often easier said than done. Its hard to confront the fear monster if you don’t have the tools to ward him off or the self confidence to stand up to him. So, often children are helped by recognizing the warning signs of feeling afraid, where in their bodies the feelings are most intense and how to calm themselves. They are also helped by knowing that once fear has reached a ten out of ten, it won’t get any higher and so it has to come down. They are also helped by knowing that fear is a normal human emotion and that they don’t have to get rid of fear, just know how to face it.
Often, its helpful to give children the words to say inside of their heads. Words such as, “I know why I am feeling this way. I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my peers. However, nothing bad is going to happen. I wont freak out or run out of the classroom. All of my classmates probably feel the same as me when they’re up here, too. I’m going to do the best that I can and when its over, I will feel proud of myself for getting through it and each time I do, it will get a little bit easier and I will feel less anxious.” I know that this is a long script, but depending on your child, it can be condensed or just discussed ahead of time.
Most children (and adults too), prefer not to have all eyes on them. Most also fear forgetting their lines or steps in a dance. Some are afraid that some catastrophic event will happen while they’re being watched. If your child falls within this majority, try to help him with the knowledge that this is quite normal – plenty of people feel this way! With coaching from you, or in more extreme situations, getting professional help, he can work towards developing the confidence to confront what he is afraid of and not let fear stop him from participating in regular activities.
If a preschooler is showing signs of being anxious, just know that this is an entirely normal developmental phase and don’t push her too hard to get over it. However, if the anxiety persists beyond the normal stage, then you might consider your role in helping or hindering the anxiety. Of course, with this age group, you can’t approach fear from a cognitive behavioural perspective as you would with an older child who can reflect and process thoughts differently.
Normalizing fear is important. However, in age appropriate language, helping your child recognize that running away from fear would make it worse, is important. Remind your child of a time when she tackled something she was afraid of and how this helped her feel more confident the next time. If your child can’t remember a time that she tackled fear, perhaps you can share a time when you did and how this impacted you.
Teens are particularly self conscious and it doesn’t take much for them to feel that all eyes are on them, and it makes them especially uncomfortable when they really are. This age group is particularly able to employ more of a cognitive behavioural approach when addressing fear and are able to reflect on what they are feeling, when and how.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Fall 2017.