What can parents do to help their children?
There are lots of ways parents and carers can help their children with anxiety.
Talk to them about anxiety
Many children and young people don’t know what they are feeling when they are anxious, and it can be very frightening and overwhelming. They might think they are very ill or that they are having a heart attack. Talk to them about what anxiety is and about what is happening in their body, and why. Understanding what is going on, what it is called, and why it happens, can really help.
Techniques for when the child is very anxious:
Help them to recognise anxious feelings so they can tell when they are becoming anxious and can ask for help.
Tell the child it will be ok, and that the anxiety will pass. It can be helpful to describe the anxiety as a wave and help them to ‘ride’ or ‘surf’ the wave and see how it gets smaller after it peaks.
Get the child to breathe deeply and slowly, in through their nose for three counts and out through their mouth for three counts.
Breathing into a paper bag can help.
Distract them by focusing on something else
Give them a cuddle or hold their hand if they will let you, as touch can be soothing.
If possible, use relaxation techniques. The following website has some good ideas:
It can help to talk to the child or young person about finding a 'safe place' in their mind i.e. somewhere that they feel relaxed and happy. It may be a grandparent or friend's house or a holiday beside the sea etc. which they can picture when the wrong thoughts come into their head or they are feeling anxious. Sometimes holding a memento like a seashell or pebble can help.
If the child or young person is feeling the need to check things or repeat certain actions, counting up to 10 before doing the checking action can be helpful too it delays the reward.
Longer term suggestions for managing anxiety
Encourage the child to notice what things make them anxious. Talking it through can help but the child can also keep a diary or a ‘worry book’ if they are old enough to do this.
Use a ‘worry box’ where the child can write the worry down and post it into a tissue box so it is contained. (Some children will enjoy decorating the box, too). They can post their worries every day if it helps, or leave the worries in there and take them out after a week to see if they were worth worrying about (if not they can be torn up).
Alternatively, designate a specific ‘Worry time’ for around 10 or 20 minutes in the evening (but not when the child is in bed), so worries can be saved up for that time. This will give the message that the worries are not dangerous and can be contained.
You can try to help your child put their worries into perspective by re-labelling them according to who needs to worry about them. For example worries about finances might be re-labelled as the parents' business.
Help the child to measure how anxious they are on a scale of 1-10 and notice this at different times, to see how it gets better or worse
Notice what things help them relax or feel better and work with your child to find strategies when they are anxious, they will often know best what works for them.
Show them how to think positively. Name their ‘worst case scenarios’ and think with them how to sort out the situation if it happens - ‘I’m worried that we’ll miss the bus’ ‘What do you think we could do if that happens?’ ‘We could get the next bus’
“After her grandma died my daughter was really scared that me and her mum were going to die too. We made a worry box with her and posting the worries in it every evening really seemed to help her.”
General tips to help keep calm
Encourage them to do some regular exercise, as it can reduce the levels of stress hormones
Learn relaxation techniques
Encourage good sleeping habits – calm bedtime routines, and not too much screen or computer time in the evening
Try and help your child to have a healthy diet and not eat too much sugar or additives or drink caffeinated drinks
Encourage them to some art, writing or listen to music regularly
Getting professional help:
If you feel your child’s anxiety is not getting any better or is getting worse, and efforts to sort it within the family have not worked, it is a good idea to ask for some professional help.
Family Doctor (GP): You can talk to your doctor on your own, or with your child, or they can have an appointment without you if they are able to do that. The doctor should listen to your concerns and may offer some advice about what to do next.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services: The doctor can also refer your child to a specialist service where the workers are trained to help young people with problems. This might be at a local service called the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Professionals who work in CAMHS services include psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists. CAMHS should offer help and support to parents and carers as well as the child. For more information, see the YoungMinds Leaflet ‘What is CAMHS?’.
“My stepson saw a psychologist at CAMHS for his anxiety, it helped him understand the feelings he was having and how to deal with them. He is much better now and has gone back to school to do his A levels.”
Youth counselling services are specially set up for young people to talk about what’s worrying them, and get advice (see below for more information), and your child may be able to get help from them without going via the doctor. (Youth Access, details at the back, can tell you which one is nearest to you).
“My daughter didn’t want to go to the doctors, but she contacted a local counselling service herself and they were really helpful. She saw someone for a few months and her anxiety got a lot better”
Support at School: Your child’s teacher needs to be aware of their anxiety so they can support your child in school, so it’s worth asking if you can have a meeting with them. Other school staff who might be able to help include school counsellors, school nurses and learning mentors and the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO). If school think your child needs help from outside they can ask for specialists from the local Education Authority, for example an educational psychologist, to assess your child’s needs. If your child’s anxiety is preventing them going to school, Education Welfare Services need to be involved.
Telephone helplines or online services can also be good for children and young people, as it’s sometimes easier to talk to someone who doesn’t know them or to write things down. Organisations supporting sufferers of anxiety can also help parents and carers - see the back of this leaflet for more information.
What kind of help is available?
There are different types of service that can help your family if your child suffers from anxiety.
Talking therapy or counselling
For an anxious young person, talking about what is worrying them to a trained person can be really helpful. It can help them work out what is making them anxious, and think through what they can do to help the situation.
If the child or young person is being seen at CAMHS, they might see a child and adolescent psychotherapist, or a clinical psychologist. If they are at a Youth Counselling service, it will be a trained Youth Counsellor or psychotherapist. In either case, the young person should have an agreed number of sessions and these should be at the same time every week. Unless the child or young person says they are at risk of harm, the therapist or counsellor will keep what they say confidential from parents and carers.
If your child is offered help by CAMHS, you may be offered family therapy where parents and siblings are involved in the sessions too.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is a specific type of talking therapy that helps people to understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviour and helps them to think about things differently. CBT has been proven to help with mild to moderate anxiety and is quite commonly offered to young people who are anxious. Your child will work with a trained therapist to find ways to change the way they think and behave in the situations that make them anxious. They may also learn some techniques to help them relax.
If the doctor or specialist thinks your child’s anxiety could be helped by medication, they may be prescribed an anti-depressant (not all anti-depressants are recommended for anxiety), which may help them to calm down and feel differently about things. Antidepressants usually take around two to four weeks to work properly so you or your child may not notice the difference immediately.
Some people experience side effects when taking antidepressants so your child should be aware of this and should tell their doctor if it happens. If the side effects are very unpleasant the doctor may be able to change the type or adjust the dose.
Encourage your child to ask for information about their medication if anything is unclear, or you can do this with your child if they agree.
The YoungMinds Parents Helpline offers information and advice to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a young person up to the age of 25.
You can email the Parents Helpline by filling out the online contact form and selecting ‘Parents Helpline’.