Anxiety and Overwhelm in Children - Prevention is as important as cure

At this time of year so many children are looking forward to a sprawling summer, 6 weeks, more for some, of freedom from routine, long days, trips to the beach, holidays abroad or at home. I remember that feeling. Each day seemed to last forever.

For some children however this is a time of year that becomes peppered with Anxiety and overwhelm at the slightest reminder of their return to school, changing class, changing teacher, changing schools, facing class mates they felt intimidated by; There is respite for them when they are included in fun events which distract however the underlying uncertainty can manifest itself in other ways, the feeling of fear which bubbles beneath can show up in ways that may be less than obvious to their family.

They may become overwhelmed in busy environments, queues at theme parks, busy shops, noisy leisure centres etc. They may even suddenly develop fears about things that had never previously bothered them, like aeroplanes, going out, bugs, spiders and so on

Very small children may not have the ability to understand and so communicate their overwhelm and so can act out or become 'overly' emotional or clingy.

As they become older some children are better able to explain the feelings that they are experiencing, or they may tell you that they feel it as a feeling in their body rather than a specific thought that can be managed. They may go as far as to experience panic attacks, it may all seem inexplicable on the surface, there may seem like there is no trigger point to have brought about this behaviour.

Our brains can only process a certain amount of information, and if a child, or an adult, has underlying thoughts of uncertainty, insecurity and fear, then the layers of sensory input involved with long days filled with new people, places, noises, interactions can be the tipping point; add in to the mix the uncertainty of a changed routine often leading to later nights so less sleep, can eventually become too much for the younger mind to process.

The best way to deal with the Overwhelm is to pre-empt it, something we all manage so well when children are smaller but can lose the habit for once they start school.

If your child has an Anxious mind or is prone to overwhelm, it is likely they are creative, it is also likely that they have learned the habit of responding with anxiety, it is highly unlikely they were born anxious, but more likely instead that they have learned this behaviour and or thought pattern or they may be stuck in the habit of responding that way as they struggle to meet their basic human needs for certainty and connection, certain that an anxious response will bring them instant comfort, connection, and attention from a particular adult. (This is not likely to be a manipulative or conscious thought)

Pre-empting the overwhelm

So what can you do to help your child to avoid the build up of overwhelm? Well it may be more obvious than you think.

We need to keep things as 'normal' as possible for children, we all crave a level of certainty in order that we can function, so the closer you can stick to their usual routine the more balanced they will feel. This can be achieved by not wavering too far from their usual bedtime, the odd late night is of course fine, but if you find that they still wake up at their usual time even after a late night then this lack of sleep will build up and cause a series of emotional and physiological issues. Children can and probably will think they know better, have dozens of reasons not to go to bed "I'm not tired", "Just one more TV show", we all know the list, but children weren't designed to self monitor or even identify signs that they are pushing their own boundaries, if they were the phrase 'over tired wouldn't exist.

So as tempting as it is to give in and let them stay up later, children really need the routine.

Maintain their positive relationships during the holidays; arrange regular play dates or meet ups with their school friends. The more they stay in touch with the people from their school environment, the more they will be able to take a reality check on the positive elements of returning to school, removing their focus from the things that worry them about their pending change. This can be difficult for some parents as approaching others to arrange play dates, or even going along to them can make the parent themselves feel uncomfortable, but the more they see you interact confidently the more they will take their cues from you that interaction is a positive experience.

They need to learn via experience that Fear and Nervousness are perfectly natural, because we are designed as humans to feel fear in order to keep ourselves safe, the more they learn to feel nervousness and manage rather than fear it the better able they will be to manage it and nip it in the bud.

This can be achieved by creating little tasks, either with them or subtly:

If they get nervous talking to people, then get them to order the food in a restaurant, ask the shop assistant a question, ask for directions.

If they are nervous without you and are old enough then get them to walk to the end of the street alone, send them on a play date to a school friends house with or without you, simple little tasks that can be managed within safe boundaries.

As they achieve these tasks they will be learning that something which created a nervousness within them really wasn't that bad.

Do this consistently and they will learn in a very short period of time that while they feel nervous or fearful they can overcome it, they will learn to recognise the feeling coming up and learn that they can manage it and find a solution, they will also learn that overcoming this leaves them with a significant sense of achievement.

Create a vision board. If you have a child who struggles with anxiety and overwhelm, the chances are that they are very creative and they have a very powerful imagination.

There are free resources online which will help you to make a start, but essentially a vision board is a great tool to help children shift their focus on to the positive.

By creating a vision board they can let their imagination run riot with something they would like to do, be, see, learn, or places they would like to go.

So an 11 year old anxious about going to 'big school' might have a goal for what they will learn in the first year in their new school.

Their goal may be to learn French to go to France on holiday next Summer..

By focusing on a positive point in the future you can the help them start to break down the steps to get there.

This may also help them to open up to you and break down what their actual worry is, which will help you to pinpoint their issue and address it specifically... much easier than tackling the overwhelm that they or you cannot get to the bottom of.

Get them to teach you something. Our confidence in our abilities grow when we believe that we know something that others do not. People with anxiety are often dealing with a level of uncertainty that they are not comfortable with, so allowing them to develop and tap in to their own certainty at any point is a useful tool for life.

When my son has too much uncertainty around him he defaults automatically to discussing dinosaurs at length and in detail, at just 5 he knows that his knowledge in this area is strong and by talking about it he is able to feel certain and confident in any environment. Especially at school. It also helps him to release any pent up emotions, stopping them from getting out of control.

Your child may be confident using computers, playing sports, playing an instrument etc, if you start the holidays with a collective goal and ask them to teach you more about their strong subject over the 6 weeks, they will develop a confidence in themselves and will learn from you that it is ok to be uncertain about things.

Break down the process of returning to school, involve them in buying new uniform, read about their new teacher on the school website, take them past the school a few times, the whole time using it as an opportunity to talk to them, acknowledge their feelings and show that you understand.

Share stories with them of your first day at school, allowing them to understand that you once felt nervous, allow them to hear how you went on to make good friends and enjoy a good school experience.

You could explain daily life as an adult when you feel nervous at times yet you face the problem and realise it wasn't as bad as you had imagined it would be. This will help them to realise that you understand how they feel without feeding in to an existing fear or nurturing the attachment to their anxious thought patterns.

There are techniques that we use in a therapy setting which you can learn to help your child if they are experiencing anxiety and overwhelm, including Tapping, relaxation, self hypnosis, meditation and all of these can be taught either directly to the child, to the parent or to you both.

But these things that you can try together during the holidays can help your child to develop coping mechanisms.

Once they feel a level of balance in each day they will be better able to manage the more complex thoughts that lie beneath the overwhelm.

Emma Reynolds Hypnotherapy