Childhood should be a time of innocence, fun and happiness, with much to look forward to. At some point, however, it is likely that your child will approach you with worries such as: “I haven’t got anyone to play with,” or “I feel left out”.
Although upsetting, these are usually fleeting concerns and a common part of growing up which pass for most young people. But for others, their worries could snowball into long-term difficulties if they are not caught in time and addressed.
Anxiety-related conditions are on the rise and it can be hard for parents to know how to help their children cope with the ups and downs of life and also when to seek professional advice.
As Lara Kaye, mother of seven-year-old Gemma, explains: “It is so difficult. Gemma has always been a worrier. Spelling tests coming up at school or what she has heard on the news; she worries so much about all sorts of things that other children seem to take in their stride.”
This is not an uncommon story. In many ways, the pressure on children and young people today seems greater than at any other time, with widespread fears about the mental health of pupils who are struggling to deal with the pressures of a demanding testing regime.
At the same time, they are the first generation to live in the spotlight of social media. And that is without all the usual demands of just growing up and adolescence.
It is a far cry from what most parents want for their children.
Fortunately, though, you do not need to be an expert to help your child begin to talk about their feelings. By consciously thinking about how you encourage, talk and respond to your child about their thoughts and feelings, you can begin to give them the skills to work through their worries, enabling them to deal more confidently with the curve balls that the new school year, or indeed life, might throw at them.
Feelings are normal
Conversations about feelings start when children are little. It may sound obvious but take the time to ask your child how they are. The value of this cannot be underestimated. Let your child, whatever their age, know that it is normal for children — and adults too — to have worries sometimes. Explicitly let them know they can always talk to you.
Ensure your child knows you will not be cross, whatever their worry. Follow this through.
Remember, your child is learning how to find their way in the world and will make mistakes in how they handle things.
Spot the signs
Sore tummies, thumb-sucking and bed-wetting may be signs in younger children that something is bothering them. Headaches, uncharacteristic moodiness and social withdrawal are more common in older children and teenagers and are sometimes an indication of underlying anxiety.
Children may show their emotions in this way because they do not have the vocabulary to express how they feel, have a tendency to hold their feelings in or lack confidence in talking about their feelings.
Consciously ensure that moments of togetherness exist in your busy lives. Whether it is taking your children to school, putting them to bed or just being together when making dinner, children often confide when there are no competing demands for your attention.
The main thing is to be available to catch that worry long before it snowballs.
Go step by step
If your child tells you about something that has worried them, help them work through their thoughts. You may wish to tailor the phrases to the age and stage of your child:
• Provide praise for talking about their feelings.
• Repeat back: “So it sounds like… happened?”
• Identify the emotion underneath: “It sounds like you felt really hurt/frustrated/angry/worried… about this”.
• Help your child appraise the worry: does the situation warrant the level of worry that they have?
• And problem-solve if necessary: what do you think you/we could do to feel better about it or to stop it happening again?”
However tempting, avoid jumping in to immediately solve the problem.
Validate your child’s feelings and try not to trivialise the situation by saying “don’t worry”. Remember that worry may feel very big to your child.
Who owns the worry?
Step back and consider what messages you may be passing on to your children. Be honest: who was really anxious that your son was not invited to the class socialite’s party? Is your child really upset, or was it you who were upset for them?
Children mirror us in all sorts of ways — and fear and upset are often contagious.
Know the support
It is important that your child feels able to share their worries with the people who can help. Sometimes this may not be you. Find out the names of the people they can speak to at school and tell your child.
Consult the experts
If an issue becomes long-standing or you are worried, do consult education or medical professionals about the possibility of a referral to a specialist mental health service, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
Sensitive discussions about your child and disagreements about how things should be managed should be held away from young ears.
Get into the habit of asking your child about one thing each day that made them happy and sharing something that brightened your day, too. The Big Book of Blob Trees by Pip Wilson is a fun resource to use with your child, to prompt conversation about feelings.
Also consider creating a space at home (maybe the fridge door and some post-it notes) where family members can write brief thank-yous to others who have helped them feel good. Focusing on the positive aspects of life keeps things in perspective, which is beneficial for children — and parents too.
Dr Susanna Pinkus is an education specialist, consultant and writer. She is also the author of How to Create a Parent Friendly School