How You Can Support Your Anxious Child9 min read
It isn’t easy to support a child with anxiety, especially if they are a teenager. Here are some steps you can take.
Recently I heard from Mary, my BFF since primary school, that her once-bubbly 14-year-old daughter is now suffering from anxiety. She’s isolating herself in her room, has a poor appetite, and refuses to talk to Mary at all! Aiyo, you tell me which parent won’t be worried? So I decided to organise a chit-chat session to introduce Mary to my psychologist friend, Ooi Sze Jin. She learnt a lot from the session and we thought to share it with all of you. So go grab your kopi or teh and let’s begin!
Hello Sze Jin! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
SJ: Sure! Hi, I’m Sze Jin (SJ), a registered clinical psychologist in Singapore with my own private practice, A Kind Place. I specialise in working with youths and adults to address issues such as anxiety, trauma, and other relationship challenges.
My friends have been telling me that their kids are really stressed and anxious nowadays. What are some things that might cause anxiety among them?
SJ: Firstly, friendships can be a contributing factor. This includes whether their children fit in with certain groups of friends, or whether they are liked by their peers. If the children are older, romantic relationships could be a factor as well. Children’s performance in school can also affect their moods. This includes if they are doing well in school or if they are coping well with the stresses of school life.
Another possible source of anxiety could come from their parents themselves. Children tend to learn a lot through their daily observations. So if their parents are constantly anxious, children might mirror that behaviour as well.
Can you tell us how “anxious parents” behave?
SJ: Such behaviour varies for different individuals. An example could be parents worrying about their kids’ grades, or being stressed with thoughts such as, “I need to get my child into this specific programme”. If parents are constantly kanchiong (harried or uptight) and rushing around, the children can feel it as well.
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So you’re saying parents could be the ones making their children anxious?
SJ: You see, humans have mirror neurons. When children see their parents acting in a certain way, there is a likely chance that they will also mirror that. So yes, parents might be putting stress on their kids unknowingly.
This could be further amplified during the pandemic, where many parents are working from home. Spending more time with one another means children can see how their parents deal with stress and react in different situations throughout the day. That might also make them more stressed or anxious. For instance, if parents are always frustrated and angry in a meeting, that's something the children will observe first-hand as well.
Oh, I see. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to know if children are really anxious. How can parents tell if their child is just worried about something or if it’s something more serious like anxiety?
SJ: There are certain criteria used in the diagnosis of depression or anxiety. There are some overlaps, but one key factor is how much distress something is causing the child and how it interferes with their day-to-day functioning.
Take for instance, a stressor such as a test or an exam. If the child is still happy, has friends, gets along with others, and has a good relationship with their parents, it’s probably just a one-off thing and the child has the ability to deal with the stressor.
What are some signs parents can look out for?
SJ: Parents should pay more attention if they start noticing that something is affecting their child’s day-to-day life for an extended period of time. Some signs include crying every single day, or changes in their appetite where the child doesn’t want to eat or is suddenly eating a lot.
There could also be changes in their sleeping habits – such as having difficulty falling asleep or having nightmares – or a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy but don't want to do anymore. For example, not wanting to go for their CCAs suddenly or isolating themselves from their friends. All these are signs parents should take note of.
But you know, although we parents want to support our children, sometimes they just don’t want to come to us. Why do you think kids find it so hard to turn to their parents?
SJ: There are many reasons behind this. Firstly, they may prefer talking to their friends than their parents. Or it could be that the child already sees that their parents are very stressed, so they don't want to add to their stress. Another possible reason is that they have actually tried turning to their parents but unfortunately, the way their parents responded might not be what they wanted or needed to hear.
Could you tell us more?
SJ: Their parents could have unknowingly invalidated their feelings, saying things such as “Don’t think so much and you’ll be fine” or “It's not a big deal.” If the parent is busy, they may even brush their child off with responses such as “Maybe later, I’m busy with work.”
Another negative response may be that their parents got flustered or even angry at their child. So if we use the example earlier that the child doesn’t want to go for their CCA, their parents might get angry and scold them without understanding the real reason behind it, which only makes things worse.
Can you share with us some practical things parents can do or say to support their children?
SJ: Sure. Here are 5 things parents can try:
- Seek to understand. Try asking open-ended questions and actively listening to your child. Teenagers especially often feel that their parents don’t understand them and don’t know what they’re going through. If they feel heard, that might encourage them to speak more.
- Don’t try to fix or solve the problem immediately. It’s natural for parents to want to problem-solve, but when your children come to you with a problem, don’t invalidate their feelings or jump into problem-solving mode. Instead of giving your child the solutions, try asking questions to guide your child to find their own solutions. For instance, if he or she doesn’t want to go for their CCA, you can try asking:
- “What’s stopping you from going?”
- “What would you rather be doing instead?”
- “Is there anything I can do to make things better?”
- Be aware of your reactions. Instead of flaring up or becoming too emotional, try to remain calm and composed, because otherwise your child might feel like they did something wrong. If they see parents solve problems through shouting and screaming, they’ll pick that up as well.
- Practice expressing simpler emotions. Instead of starting with the heavier and more difficult emotions, try asking your child to express easier and safer emotions such as what makes them happy. From there, you can slowly move into talking about more difficult emotions.
- Family time. Try spending more time together and being present with one another. Try initiating a conversation. Ask them what they would like to do for the next family outing, or just try doing things together. These would not magically make their problems go away, but it might encourage trust and openness through showing that you care and that their opinions are important to you.
Image source: Unsplash
So what can parents do to encourage their kids to open up?
SJ: Start small. As mentioned earlier, parents can start off with having family time together. Encouraging everyone to put down their mobile phones could be a first step. Parents can also share their own vulnerabilities. For instance, times where they felt anxious or sad and how they dealt with it. It might be difficult, but if parents really want to connect with their child, they need to get in touch with themselves first.
One last thing! When should parents intervene and seek professional help for their child?
SJ: It’s always better to intervene early, because when the child’s been going through prolonged stressors, it might make things more difficult. Having said that, parents can first try the methods I've outlined, while bearing in mind that everything takes time to work. But if they’ve tried and there are still no signs that things are getting better, that’s when it's better to seek professional help.
The family’s pillar of strength, affectionately called Umommy by the kids because she makes the best umami soups! Soft-spoken, generous and giving, she’s the official peacemaker of the family, helping to hold things together when times are bad.