How you can help your anxious child

Do you have an anxious child? AILIN QUINLAN talks to the author of a new book, psychologist Malie Coyne, about how to understand and manage anxiety in your child
How you can help your anxious child
Dr Malie Coyne Clinical Psychologist and Author.

MALIE Coyne was an anxious child. The daughter of a diplomat who moved from country to country, she was a constant worrier who suffered from stomach-aches:

“I was born with an anxious disposition,” she recalls.

“I was a perfectionist. I had stomach aches. I worried a lot, about my family, about school, about moving to another country.”

Nobody really understood why she was anxious or made the connection between her anxiety and the stomach-aches, she says.

These days, Coyne is a clinical psychologist, a lecturer at NUI Galway, and mother of two girls, six-year-old Aimée and two-year-old Jessica.

Coyne is also an author — she has just published a book for parents about childhood anxiety; how to recognise it, understand it, and develop strategies to enable you and your child to manage anxiety together.

“I wanted to facilitate an understanding in parents that if a child says he or she is anxious, that they feel it is very real to them,” she explains. “I want parents to understand that there is something there; that there’s no point telling a child that there is nothing to worry about.”

Insisting to an anxious child that there’s nothing to worry about only serves to make the threat seem larger because it means you, the protecting adult, just don’t ‘get’ it.

Dr. Malie Coyne's new book, Love in Love Out.
Dr. Malie Coyne's new book, Love in Love Out.

Childhood anxiety has always existed in some form: “As human beings, we have a brain that attunes to threat in order to survive,” Coyne explains.

Research has also shown that about 15% of children are born with a more anxious temperament than others.

Meanwhile, children will often also pick up on, or observe, parents or other adults in their lives being anxious, which can make the child anxious, or the child may experience a traumatic childhood event can make them more vulnerable to anxiety.

However, Coyne also believes the modern world, and the way we live in it, has produced the ‘perfect storm’ which has contributed to an increase in childhood anxiety.

The pressures of modern living, and the focus on what she calls “the results rather than the process” has led to a growth in the problem.

Part of this is the penchant for modern parents to “overschedule” children in terms of timetabling many formal activities into their week, she says:

“This comes from a sense of fear in parents, a fear of their child missing out, as well as from parents wanting to give their children opportunities,” she explains.

The increase in anxiety can also be rooted in a parent’s ‘busyness’ and in the fact parents make their children so busy.

“There is a feeling that you have to fill their time constantly.”

In fact what children need is a stable relationship with their parents and some positive social contact — what they don’t need, says Coyne, is a “million activities or to be entertained incessantly.”

One of the key issues tackled by her book is how parents feel in response to their child’s anxiety.

“I wanted to write something which would help parents reflect on how they feel about their child’s anxiety,” she says.

That’s because the way a parent feels about a child’s anxiety will impact directly on the way they respond to it.

“The parent’s response is a crucial factor in how a child will manage their anxiety,” says Coyne, who has developed a four-step response called SAFE.

S is for Self-care: “This is about the parent reflecting on his or her own reactions to their child’s anxiety,” observes Coyne. Explore your own discomfort which is provoked by your child’s anxiety, she suggests, and think about what kind of message you may be communicating to your child through your body language and your words.

A is for Anchoring your child:

“Your child needs help to feel safe, but there’s no point in trying to reason with them, by for example, pointing out that there is no monster under the bed.”

What you can do is ask them how anxious they are on a scale from one to 10 and then get the child to jump up and down, make noise, or shake their body vigorously.

This releases some of the pent-up energy connected to the anxiety they are experiencing. Coyne also offers a variety of simple, effective strategies, including breathing exercises for “anchoring” your child:

“It’s about calming their bodies down,” she explains.

Clinical psychologist Malie Coyne.
Clinical psychologist Malie Coyne.

F is for Feeling ‘Felt’: This is about letting the child understand that they have been heard by discussing what is causing the anxiety.

“If it’s about attending a birthday party, ask the child what it is about the party that is making them anxious.

‘Unpack’ the worry and give them the experience of feeling heard.

This means that the child feels listened to, she explains.

“Next, continue by wondering aloud what it might be about the birthday party that most worries the child.”

E is for Empowerment: Depending on the child’s age, you can ‘empower’ a young child through the use of playful techniques, she suggests.

“If, for example the child is afraid of monsters, you could say, ooh, the monster! What does he look like? Can we put some silly glasses on his nose? Could we use this jar to trap the monster?”

Use humour to diminish the fear while going along with the story in a playful way.

Coyne recommends the use of breathing techniques and mindfulness, to help an older child manage their anxiety, as well as ‘kindfulness’, which are strategies to help the child become his or her own best friend and encourage him or her to be kind to himself or herself.

She also advocates the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for children over the age of 10.

“This offers strategies to enable the child to examine and question his or her anxious thoughts along with the things the child avoids doing as a result of these anxious thoughts.

“It helps them manage their fears,” she says.

Her book offers a variety of stress-reduction techniques, including a ‘Fear Ladder’, ‘Bumblebee Breath’, learning about ‘Red Thoughts’ and ‘Green Thoughts, creating a Wheel of Awareness, Giving Worries a Name and making a Worry Box (see page 7).

Love in, Love Out: A compassionate Approach to Parenting your Anxious Child, By Dr Malie Coyne, is out now, €16.50.

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