With recent data from the NSPCC’s Childline service showing that children as young as four years old are displaying signs of panic attacks, anxiety and depression, Alicia Eaton believes it’s becoming crucial for today’s parents to equip themselves with the ‘first aid’ skills that will support their child’s emotional wellbeing.

The world can feel like a scary place for young children as they continue to encounter new experiences on a daily basis. A trip to the doctor, dentist or hairdresser, the taste of a strange new food, being left alone in a new childcare setting, or even an unexpected loud noise for the very young can all be very frightening events and cause stress and anxiety.

Here are some simple suggestions that every parent, grandparent and carer can try to keep their little loved ones happy and smiling:

PRETEND PLAY
From the age of two years, it’s best to forewarn your child of any upcoming tricky situations, otherwise they might feel they’ve been tricked and their trust of you will start to erode. You can use dolls, teddy bears and story-telling to help explain difficult situations. Take turns at playing ‘Doctors’ by giving a favourite teddy an injection or a dental examination. Older children might have a favourite TV character or superhero and you could ask your child to think about what this character would do if faced with the same challenging situation that they’re in at the moment.

WHAT TO SAY IN MOMENTS OF PANIC
Learning a few key phrases for moments when a child is anxious or has been startled by something such as a wasp, will help you to manage these situations more effectively. It can be hard to come up with the right words just at the moment when a child is in a state of panic. Here are some examples of useful phrases:

  • I’m going to help you get through this.
  • The worst is over and everything will start to get better from now on.
  • It feels like something is wrong, but these feelings are harmless – you are absolutely fine.
  • Breathe with me, let’s blow it out.
  • Notice how you’re starting to feel better now.
  • Walk with me over here and keep holding my hand, so you can start to feel better.
  • Just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you are in danger.

BREATHING EXERCISES
Anxiety can lead to a shortness of breath, a pale complexion, sweaty hands and face and even giddiness or fainting. “Take a nice deep breath” is a traditional response, but taking a deep inward breath is precisely what an anxious child doesn’t need to do. Anxious feelings can be caused by having too much air trapped in the lungs, which gives the sensation of not being able to breathe properly. The solution to feeling ‘short of breath’ is to blow some of that trapped air out.

Toys and games can help children to learn how to control their breathing in moments of panic and there are a few useful ways to introduce the concept of blowing out to them:

  • bubble mixture through a wand;
  • balloons;
  • blowing bubbles in a drink through a straw;
  • a hand-held windmill toy with sails;
  • blow football;
  • blowing a feather from one side of a table to the other.

You can also ask your child to scrunch up their hand and simply imagine that they’re blowing up a balloon or paper bag – long, slow breathing out is what’s required.

RELAXATION EXERCISES

Learning how to relax can be fun. At the end of a busy day, encourage your child to stretch and tense their muscles as this is a very effective way of working stress out of the body. This kind of routine is ideal for winding down before bedtime. Work through each of the following steps for 30 seconds.

  1. March straight and upright around the room.
  2. Run on the spot.
  3. Pretend your arms are the branches of a tree by waving them above your head.
  4. Screw up your face to look like a scary monster.
  5. Stretch up to the sky and be as tall as possible.
  6. Roll up tightly to become as small as possible.
  7. Tightly squeeze your hands into a fist – and then release them again. Repeat.

Now, let’s calm down and relax:

  1. Pretend to be a big, heavy animal lumbering around the room very slowly.
  2. Pretend you’re a mouse, moving as quietly and as slowly as possible.
  3. Become a ‘sleeping lion’ by lying on the floor and keeping still and quiet for a couple of minutes.

Incorporating some of these simple strategies into your parenting will help soothe anxiety and allow your children to feel calmer and more at ease, with themselves and the world around them.

Alicia Eaton is a children’s emotional wellbeing specialist based in Harley Street and author of First Aid for your Child’s Mind available on Amazon priced £12.99. To find out more go to aliciaeaton.co.uk

Nadia Duncan

Author: Nadia Duncan

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