Hello and welcome to our February newsletter! The year is now in full swing, with most people back at work and their children settled into care for the year. Our feature article this month is delving into a topic that is well worth keeping informed about, anxiety in children.
Anxiety in children is not a new concept. In fact, there are many forms of anxiety considered “normal” as children grow and develop. Separation anxiety is an example that most people are familiar with.
But researchers are digging deeper and learning that other forms of anxiety are becoming more prevalent in children, often beginning in the preschool years. Let’s take a closer look at what’s ailing our littles and how we - as parents and educators - can best support and nurture them.
Recognising and supporting anxiety in children
Anxiety is something that affects many of us. Whether it’s a stressful job, financial struggles, poor health or any number of things, it’s not uncommon for adults to experience anxiety. Research, however, is emerging which highlights the disturbing fact that anxiety isn’t restricted to adults. A worrying number of young children are affected by anxiety too - displaying differently in each child. Learning to identify possible signs of anxiety in our children is necessary, so we can offer them the appropriate support, to move beyond and become strong, resilient individuals, marching confidently towards a bright future.
Children can feel anxious for a wide number of reasons at various ages or stages in their development. Mostly, these worries are a normal part of growing up. From as young as six months through to three years it's very common for a child to experience separation anxiety. This ties in with the point in their development that they become more aware of the world surrounding them, and begin to comprehend that it’s wider than their immediate bubble of comfort. During this stage, a child may become more attached to their primary carer/s and get distressed when separated from them. This has long been recognised, and with extra love and support from those closest to them - whether this be parents, grandparents, educators, or the like - most children adapt over time.
Other well known forms of anxiety associated with the preschool years can be attached to such things as loud noises, strangers, heights, the dark, or being on their own. Then as a child grows older, anxiety can develop around such things as ghosts and monsters, criticism, being uncomfortable in social situations.... but what do you do if your young child seems overwhelmed by everything?
A small child often takes time to settle into a new routine. Especially when they first begin care. Most adapt with time, love and patience. Many begin to thrive, develop bonds, form relationships, enjoy social interactions… but not all children. What if your child is still distressed daily at daycare drop-off months down the track? What if this behaviour were to continue for an hour each time? What if it’s the same compassionate carer every day, and the routine is consistent? Theoretically, all the boxes are being checked, so why won’t the child settle? The child has their comfort toy. Check. Child has a place to retreat where they feel safe and secure. Check. Child’s family is providing a loving but swift goodbye, and returning early each day so their child isn’t left anxiously wondering when they’re to be collected. Check. Check. Check. Stories such as this are becoming more common, even when great lengths are being taken. So if this sounds familiar, it’s worth considering the possibility that anxiety is playing a part.
A good place to start is by examining a child’s life as a whole. Especially if the child has previously been settled, and now isn’t. Ask, has anything changed? This could be as simple as a house move. It could be that a beloved grandparent has died, or perhaps mum or dad are travelling for work more often. Any change, large or small, should be considered as a possible trigger for your child’s behaviour. Sometimes, even the end of a wonderful family holiday with lots of quality time together can bring on a child’s anxiety. Eventually reality kicks in, families return to work, and a small child can be left feeling confused and upset as to the change in their circumstances. Establishing the issue allows the opportunity for a discussion at an age-appropriate level - and that may be all that’s needed.
What if I were to tell you that some very small children have been known to lose their hair due to anxiousness. Some have trouble sleeping or lose their appetite. Childhood anxiety is very real for some families and not to be brushed aside. In fact, last year in 2020, The New York Times published an article with a list of booksfocused specifically on childhood anxiety in the early years, stating “These days, anxiety is on the rise in all age groups, and toddlers are not immune”. It’s a brilliant place to start if you’re recognising traits in a child close to you.
In fact, sadly, it’s now safer to assume that childhood distress isn’t just a phase that your child will grow out of. Monitor it, take it seriously, and be ready to take action if it doesn’t appear to be improving, as the one thing that experts seem to agree on is that childhood anxiety can be the gateway to a plethora of mental health issues in life - and not just “later life”, but beginning much earlier on. Research is starkly highlighting that depression, and even suicide, is plaguing today’s youth, starting as early as the pre-teen years. Talking and communicating honestly with your children is the best way to ensure an open, trusting relationship is established, which may make all the difference in them approaching you with bigger issues weighing on them as they mature.
Severe anxiety can impact a child’s health and happiness and while some anxious children will grow out of their fears, anxiety will continue plaguing others unless they get help. Start by keeping a notebook or diary jotting down details and dates. This way, when you refer back, you’ll have a clearer idea on emerging patterns with your child, and how long you’ve held concerns for.
Supporting your anxious child
A child showing signs of anxiety can be supported by -
-Acknowledgement - don’t dismiss or ignore their anxiety.
Be a good listener. Let your child share their worries with you.
-Encourage your child to do things they’re anxious about, but don’t push hard if they’re unwilling.
-Waiting until your child actually gets anxious before stepping in. As a parent, it can be hard knowing your child gets anxious in certain situations, but give them the chance to prove you wrong and catch them only if they need catching.
-Be supportive - offer praise for doing something they’ve been anxious about.
-Avoid criticism whatever you do. Even when it’s hard to comprehend your child’s fear. It’s real to them.
-Don’t label your child as shy or anxious as they may begin to believe this is what they are.
How to know when you need extra help?
It’s not uncommon for a child to be anxious or fearful - they are small and the world is vast. It’s our job as adults to reassure them. To a point. When should you admit you’re out of your depth and seek a little extra help?
-When your child’s anxiety is stopping them from doing things they enjoy.
-If anxiety is interfering with friendships or family life.
-If you recognise that your child’s behaviour is very different from children in the same age group.
-When your child’s reactions seem particularly severe, like extreme distress.
Help is available
If you suspect that your child is experiencing anxiety, don’t feel that you’re alone. Help is available in a number of ways - from things you can do at home, to seeking assistance from professionals. Here are some suggestions.
Your child’s educator Have a discussion with your child’s educator, or the director of the centre they attend to see if they’ve made similar observations of your child’s behaviour. They may be able to help monitor the situation when your child is in care, and can likely guide you in the right direction if they believe extra help is required.
Your child’s doctor Speak to your child’s GP or paediatrician, who’ll be able to offer advice or refer you to an appropriate mental health practitioner (see ‘mental health sessions’ below).
Local health services Give your local children’s health or community health centre a call to see if they can offer some guidance.
Anxiety clinics Search the internet to see if there are any specialist anxiety clinics established in your area.
Online health services Online mental health services can help. Beyond Blue is a good place to understand a little more about anxiety. It’s not always easy to recognise as it manifests differently in everyone.
Kids helpline Kids Helpline has a website with information for parents and carers. There’s also the option for children between the ages 5-12 years to speak with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800.
Mental health sessions Medicare rebates are available for up to 20 free mental health service sessions from psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists each year. Start with your child’s GP to gain access to this amazing service, as it requires a referral.
Mindfulness Used throughout Australian schools, mindfulness is promoted as a way of maintaining positive mental health, along with teaching children how to calm themselves and control their emotions. There are many apps available that offer mindfulness for children, of which, Smiling Mind is one. Not for profit and free, so arguably worth a try, but try out a few to see which suits your family best.
Yoga for children Harvard University has written a helpful article on yoga for children worthy of a read to better understand the benefits of yoga to children’s mental health, stating, “A growing body of research has already shown that yoga can improve focus, memory, self-esteem, academic performance, and classroom behavior, and can even reduce anxiety and stress in children”. There are apps and Youtube sites galore offering children’s yoga, or you may know of a local business that offers classes in your area.
Play therapy Not always a widely known option, play therapy is a way of helping people - primarily children - who aren’t able to express themselves with words. Play therapists can ascertain information about a person through the way they play. Read more here.
Bowen therapy A lesser known form of therapy which stimulates muscles in a similar way to massage. Bowen therapy is used for pain relief, and some people utilise it for depression and anxiety. Furtherinformation available here.
Occupational therapy While O.T’s often help with physical issues (like strengthening muscles to grip a pencil) some occupational therapists also offer help with childhood anxiety. Some even specialise in the preschool age bracket, so it’s worth making a few enquiries to see if there’s anyone recommended in your area. Here’s a little more information.
Plan ahead In this age of working families and busy schedules, sometimes children can get anxious about their day-to-day routine. Taking the time to chat to your child while they’re relaxed - perhaps the evening before, when you’re cuddled up reading a story together - about the plans for the following day can reassure them. For smaller children, sketching a rough guide of their day or using routine cards can be greatly beneficial in helping them know the plan for the day, so there are no big surprises and they feel assured eg/ breakfast, get dressed, nan’s house for lunch.
Chiropractor, naturopath, kinesiologist, acupuncturist Many of the above practitioners also advertise that they’re able to help with anxiety. Make enquiries to see if one is more suited to you and your family.
Like many things, it often comes down to personal preference, belief and research. If you’ve found a practitioner has been helpful to you, or a trusted friend, in the past it’s likely you’ll be more willing to contact them in relation to your child. It may also be worth making enquiries amongst local families, friends, or mother’s groups to learn whether there are any practitioners in your area that come highly recommended for similar experiences… knowing someone else has walked in your shoes is always reassuring!
Remember, most importantly, to keep communicating with your child as they grow. They’ll get better at articulating their feelings as they mature, and if you’ve taught them that they can come and speak to you if they feel worried or concerned, you’re already a step ahead.
**Used to compile information on this somewhat heavy topic, offering researched facts and figures, is an article by The Atlantic. Based primarily on U.S statistics, but still highly relevant in Australia, where youth depression and suicide rates are also rising.
0-12 month development
Sleepless nights? Eight sleep strategies that’ll get you through!
Author: Erin Zammett Ruddy
Most new parents roll into parenthood full of positivity, ready to face this treasured roll head-on, but if your little one just won’t settle it can be incredibly daunting - not to mention exhausting. Sleep deprivation can break the best of us and while sleep just magically works for some babies, others take a little more to learn this coveted skill. It can be done though - don’t give up, see which tips the experts all agree on.
Read the full article here to see which tips the experts have advised, which may just be your lifeline!
1-2 year development
The early literacy checklist you’re probably already smashing!
Author: Today’s parent
Most of us are aware that literacy skills begin at a very young age, from the moment your baby first hears your voice in utero. There are so many simple things parents and carers can be doing each day to continue this trend. In fact, many of the suggestions seem like common sense… so it’s likely you’re in full swing already, without even realising it!
Parents naturally sing and chat to their baby, but there are extra ways we can give our child the best start without really changing much of what we’re already doing. Perhaps a few tweaks are all that are needed, and worth making a mental note of, to ensure your baby is getting the most benefit.
Refer to the original article for a complete list of the practices that are a sure way of encouraging your little one along the path to loving literacy.
2-3 year development
Why fine motor skills are so important
Author: Robyn Papworth
It’s safe to say that the majority of kids love playing with playdough. Add pipe cleaners and you’ve got a magical combination! Imaginations can run wild and basically anything your child can dream up can be created. But were you aware that those two simple ingredients also offer your developing child immense benefits in the form of honing and strengthening their fine motor skills? These skills are essential for a child to easily grasp a pencil when learning to write, or hold a pair of scissors when practising cutting, so they’re not to be overlooked!
Read on to get a better understanding of the important role fine motor skills play in your child’s development and get a few ideas on how to achieve this in an enjoyable way.
3-4 year development
Big emotions in your preschooler
Author: Raising Children Network
This is the age where feelings can begin to overwhelm our littles. Even though this can be an intense time, with a wide spectrum of emotions involved, it’s also a hugely positive stage as our children slowly learn to articulate to us, and themselves, how they feel.
Some days can be a whirlwind as emotions run high - from the dizzying heights of glorious happiness, to the downward spiral of sadness and anger. As adults, we need to recognise this developmental stage, know that it’s perfectly normal, and support our child through it with as much gentle compassion as we can muster - rather than frustration.
Read the entire article here to get a clearer idea of the emotional rollercoaster a preschool child rides.
4-5 year development
Things to learn before starting big school
Author: Amy Nelmes Bissett
One mother held high hopes for what she wanted her children to learn before they began school, and she was determined to succeed. While for some, it’s that their child can hold a pencil correctly, and others it’s that their child is fully toilet trained, each parent holds an idea in their mind of what their child will have achieved by preschool graduation. Read the article to see if this mother’s hopes are aligned with the hopes you hold for your own child.
Development of boys
Developing your son’s love of reading in the early years - and beyond!
Author: Stephanie Brown
Mum, and english teacher, Stephanie, explains how statistics are highlighting a gloomy future for boys and their relationship with books if they’ve not already locked in a passion for reading by late primary school.
A great initiative that has long been established in many schools is D.E.A.R time (Drop. Everything. And. Read). One that is easily carried into the family home. The idea is that each family member chooses a book, finds a comfortable place to relax, and everyone reads together, for pleasure, for a set period of time (usually around thirty minutes). It’s a simple, relatively cheap and calm way of encouraging reading, while also spending quality time with family members - young and old.
The complete article suggests ways to really encourage boys to continue loving their books for a long time into their future!
Development of girls
Creating a girly party to remember!
Author: Livia Gamble
Childhood parties are a right of passage, often remembered fondly, long into adulthood. Some parents greatly anticipate the perfect party for their child, while for others party planning is their worst nightmare.
Celebrating your daughter's birthday - whether it’s in a big or a small way - usually cannot be avoided, and while there are a number of elements to coordinate, making a memorable birthday celebration doesn’t need to equal expensive or elaborate. What you’re trying to capture... is fun! And fun can be found in the games you choose.
Throughout history, party games such as musical chairs, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and pass-the-parcel have been traditional at children’s parties, but are they still the games of choice?
Livia Gamble suggests some easy games sure to be a hit with a room full of girls (or even two-to-three besties) and you may be surprised that keeping it simple often promises the most fun! Read her original article here.
Crepe paper portraits
Quite a therapeutic craft project, consisting of small pieces of crepe paper - in a variety of colours of your choice - hand-rolled into little balls and glued onto a piece of card. Younger children may need some help rolling the balls, but it’s brilliant fine motor practice and can be done with your child as part of the process.
Supplies needed are minimal - 1. Crepe paper in a selection of colours. 2. Craft glue. 3. Card (we suggest using a piece cut from a cereal box) 4. A permanent marker to sketch the design Crepe paper portraits can be similar to paint-by-numbers, where you use an image (taken from a book or the internet) as a visual, re-drawing the outline onto the card in clearly divided areas for your child to fill with coloured crepe paper balls. Or, you can allow your child creative freedom to make any design they wish. *As seen on Parents.com.