Anxiety is a normal emotion that all people, including tamariki, feel at one time or another. The good news is there are lots of ways to help tamariki both manage and cope when it turns up.

Anxiety is the way our body responds to something scary or threatening.

Whānau might find it helpful to explain to tamariki that anxiety is an emotion that we need to survive dangerous situations, but sometimes our  (brains) and  (bodies) get a bit carried away. Back when we were being chased by wild animals, it was a way of preparing our tinana to either fight, freeze, or run. While we don’t have these worries anymore, things like meeting someone new, encountering a large dog, or visiting the dentist can evoke the same response.

It's important to acknowledge that when tamariki feel anxious, what they are feeling is okay! But these feelings don’t need to overtake everything else. Instead, there are lots of ways to manage anxiety.

Worry vs anxiety

Having fears and worries is a normal for tamariki – they have big imaginations! But excessive worrying can make tamariki feel overwhelmed and unable to face things.

Finding that point where worry spills over into anxiety can be tricky. But in general, whānau can look for the following:

  • Worry tends to be specific to a particular event or concern. When that concern is gone, the worry is gone too. Anxiety is more generalised and associated with lots of different things. It lingers when the event or thing has passed.
  • Worry tends to be realistic. Anxiety might seem over-the-top for the situation, and result in tamariki being unable to move past it.
  • Worry is generally confined to thoughts. Anxiety usually comes with physical symptoms – tummy aches, fast-beating heart, weak limbs.

If anxiety has become overwhelming and is preventing a child from participating in normal day-to-day activities, whānau should talk with their doctor to rule out any medical conditions and get advice and support.

Helping tamariki cope with worry and anxiety

We can think of anxious behaviour as a way of communicating. Tamariki are trying to tell us something, and we need to listen, even if we don’t understand why they are reacting the way they are. Young tamariki especially might not be able to talk about it or understand what’s bothering them.

It’s important that everyone stays calm so tamariki know they are safe and that someone has their back.

Things that can help in the moment

  • Breathing deeply and slowly.
  • Trying some yoga.
  • Doing something energetic like running around a field or jumping on a trampoline.
  • Doing something relaxing like reading a book or listening to music.
  • Hugs.
  • Focusing on the present by naming things you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.
  • Visualising fears as a cloud that will dissolve with positive thinking.

Once whānau know what works, they can use this to make a “what to do when I’m anxious” list with their child.

Building resilience and confidence

Anxiety doesn’t go away by itself. It takes time and effort. The reward is building resilience so tamariki can face new situations with confidence. Here are some ways whānau can do this with their tamariki.

  • Break down the situation together. Are their feelings based on facts or a guess? What is the evidence? Are these thoughts helpful or unhelpful right now? It may take time and repeat experiences for tamariki to see that the outcome they were worried about didn’t eventuate.
  • Kōrero about how adult whānau manage their worries. Let them know it’s something everyone has to learn to manage.
  • Encourage them to face their fears, gradually, instead of avoiding them. For example, if they find social situations difficult, whānau can build up their confidence by having them socialise in small groups with people they are comfortable with for just a short time, then introduce new people and places over time. What makes someone braver is doing small-scale scary things, despite their worries.
  • Give tamariki lots of praise when they do something, despite their fears.
  • Encourage tamariki to be kind to themselves, as they would be to a friend.
  • Let tamariki know in advance what’s happening to ease anxiety over changes in routine.

Conversation ideas

What are some things that help your child relax or feel safe?
How does your child like to express how they’re feeling?
What are some of their fears? What are some ways your child can face these fears in a safe, controlled way?
Have you noticed your child not wanting to participate in certain activities? How do you support them?

Awhi Ngā Mātua

Content adapted from our partner Awhi Ngā Mātua, an online community for parents and whānau of disabled and medically fragile tamariki.

Visit Awhi Ngā Mātua(external link)

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