Support for Parents
Tips on how Parents/Carers can help
Parents and carers play an essential role in helping their child to manage anxiety and there is research to suggest that the right parental support can have a big positive impact. Although every child is different, the following are some key ideas that might help when supporting your anxious child.
Empathise and encourage
It is important to let your child know that overcoming anxiety is hard, and that you are proud of their efforts. Verbally validate your child's emotions and show that you understand their experience and are listening to what they have to say, but don’t validate their fears. The message you want to send is, "I know you're scared, and that's okay, and I'm here, and I'm going to help you get through this."
Don’t avoid everything that causes anxiety
Avoiding things that make your child upset is a natural parent response, but in the long run this only serves to reinforce their anxiety. By taking a child out of a situation that makes them anxious they are learning this as a coping mechanism, and this can become a repeating cycle. An alternative method is to try an exposure ladder. This is a process where the child breaks down their anxiety into manageable steps, and gradually increases these steps to overcome their anxiety. For example if your child is anxious about dogs you could start with looking at pictures of dogs, move on to seeing them from a distance and eventually walking past one.
Be realistic with your expectations
Do not tell your child that their anxiety trigger will never happen, as this is unrealistic. Work instead by giving them the confidence that they can manage their anxiety if the trigger does happen, and you are there to support them to do this. Talk about times in the past when your child has felt anxious and made it through. By supporting your child to learn to tolerate their anxiety, only then will it begin to decrease. For example if your child is scared of the dentist, let them know that it may be uncomfortable for a little while but by going regularly they will have healthy teeth that won’t hurt in the future. Support this by reminding them of the last time they went to the dentist and they made it through fine!
Don’t ask leading questions
Whilst it is important to encourage your child to talk about their anxiety, asking leading questions should be avoided as this can reinforce their worry and validate their anxiety. For example try asking “How are you feeling about the school trip?” rather than “are you worried about the school trip?”
Calm parent, calm child
Children model their parent’s behaviours, and so it is important to also consider how your own anxiety might be affecting your child. If you are anxious, your child will pick up on it and experience an increase in their own anxiety. So when you want to reduce your child's anxiety, you must manage your own anxiety first. Parents can do this by modelling how they successfully manage anxiety; let your child know when you are using a coping skill (e.g. “I’m feeling a little bit nervous about that, I’m going to take a few deep breaths before I respond”). By modeling appropriate behaviour and positive thinking, when you look for the positive in situations, so will your child.
Try not to reinforce your child’s fears
The natural response to an anxious child can be to provide reassurance. Whilst this is appropriate, it is important to not excessively reassure your child. For example, if your child is worrying about not being safe at night, they may want lots of lights on or for there to be lots of locks on the doors. By acting in a way consistent with the fear (e.g. fitting extra locks), you may communicate to the child that the fear is real and they are not safe. Be aware that body language, tone of voice and behaviours can all reinforce anxiety. If your child is anxious about separation from you, they may become upset when going to school for example. Whilst it is appropriate to reassure the child, long emotional goodbyes may unintentionally communicate to the child that there is something to be worried about and this can reduce feelings of coping. Consider how your own behaviours and responses may be influencing your child's anxiety.
Reduce the amount of time the child has to anticipate the event
Often the hardest part for children who are anxious is the run up to the anxious event or act. Therefore parents should attempt to eliminate this anticipatory period, or keep it to a minimum. For example if your child is anxious about going to the doctors and you have to book an appointment in, it is best not to tell them until a few hours before the appointment, to reduce their anticipation.
Encourage your child to become a thought detective
You can do this by teaching them the 3Cs method below:
Catch your thoughts. Imagine every thought you have floats above your head in a bubble. Try and catch one of the worried thoughts and think about this (e.g. “I don’t have any friends in school”); it can help to write it down.
Collect evidence. Next, collect evidence to support or negate this thought. (Supporting evidence: “I had a hard time finding someone to sit with at lunch yesterday.” Negating evidence: “Sophie and I do homework together and she’s a friend of mine.”)
Challenge your thoughts. Think about the evidence you have collected and decide whether, based on the facts, the worry is true (e.g. “No, it’s not true, Sophie is my friend at school”).
Maintain a good relationship with your child’s school
Keep them in the loop, ensure that they are aware of the difficulties that you and your child are experiencing. Hopefully, the school will be supportive and between yourselves you will be able to manage the situation. Early intervention is key.
Discuss with your child their reluctance and anxiety about going to school
Try to explore their concerns (often easier said than done) and try to establish if there are specific worries about specific aspects of school. If successful in picking apart the reasons for avoidance, work with the child and the school to find ways of minimising the worries so that the anxiety can be better managed. Avoiding school and avoiding the triggers for the worries or anxieties will not make them go away, ensure that the child understands this.
Support your child in facing and confronting the fears (where possible)
It is through this that they will learn the coping skills that they will need throughout life. Ensure that you are consistent in encouraging your child to go to (and remain at) school. Avoiding worries and fears is less painful (in the short term) for the child than confronting them. Some children learn how to 'stay off' school and they can soon learn the ‘buttons’ to press with parents that will allow them to stay away from school (and avoid their anxieties). This can lead to the habit of avoidance that can be a very tricky habit to break later on. Confront rather than avoid.
Be consistent and remain steadfast
Allowing the child to avoid school 'just this once' or because it is easier than a battle could be the beginning of a slippery slope. What may seem like the easy way out for you now could prove damaging later when the habit of avoidance settles in.
Encourage your child to keep in touch with school friends outside of school clubs
This will strengthen friendship bonds and could improve their support network within school. This can help them in dealing with their worries.
Activity and exercise is also a great way for children to help to manage stress and anxiety
It is a distraction and physical exercise itself is effective in supporting emotional well being. Ensure that your child has good eating and sleeping routines too.
Have the child get everything prepared for school the night before so that there is no added rush (or opportunities for excuses and delays) in the morning.
School is not optional
Ensure that the child is clear that an education is not optional and that by law you are responsible for making sure they get an education and that means them attending their school every day. Ensure that they are clear on the potential legal implications upon parents/carers of children who do not regularly go to school (without good reason).
Work with your child and learn strategies for coping
As discussed learn and practice (regularly) relaxation, breathing and distraction techniques. For more information, look at the Support for Students page.
Establish and maintain good routines (eating, sleep and exercise). Sleep patterns are particularly important, sleeping and catching up on sleep during the day must be vigilantly managed. Poor sleep patterns feed anxiety and sleeping during the day will just make it a harder to break a cycle of avoidance.
Help the child to understand that worry, fear and anxiety are all normal emotions and that they can learn to manage and cope with these normal responses to difficult or scary situations. Every time a fear is confronted is a success, and the more successes the child accrues in dealing with their worries the greater their confidence and eventually their resilience will be. Make sure you recognise and celebrate their achievements in facing their fears. Reinforce these achievements and encourage them to build on these wins. This confidence in their ability to face their worries will help them to develop the awareness that they can overcome and manage their fears and worries. This is much healthier and effective than allowing your child to avoid their worries and school. Remind them of the importance of facing their fears and the importance of a good education.
Purpose and direction
Focus on something positive that they want from life. Try to link this with education. Make the 'battle' purposeful. We are all motivated more by working towards something we want or away from something we really do not want. Reinforce the reasons why this 'blip' needs to be managed and overcome.
Try to establish possible reasons behind their anxiety and school avoidance
What are the reasons behind the anxiety or refusal? (perhaps easier said than done).
The reasons behind school avoidance are often complex and it is not always to easy to pinpoint reasons. However, research suggests there are a number of contributing factors that lead to ABSA are outlined below:
- How and what does the child benefit from not going to school? (what are they doing at home? xbox, tv, laptop etc - is the home environment too enticing?)
- Have there been any recent stressful or traumatic events?
- Is there a history of worry, anxiety or stress within the family?
- Is there anything in particular that the child is trying to avoid at school?
- If the child presents genuine reasons for the anxiety or refusal to attend school, then set about discussing these with the school and look at ways that these anxieties can be managed or mitigated. Ensure that the child knows that you are doing this.
Has the child experienced any of the following recently?
- Bereavement or loss in family and/or friends
- Long Term Illness in family or friends
- Any traumatic events or loss
- Could the child be reluctant to leave the parent for fear of something happening to the parent whilst they are at school?
- Are there any friendship issues?
- Could there be any Social Media related issues or bullying?
- Are they under any extra stress at school? (examples, transition from Primary, Exams or GCSE's etc.)
- Could there be any other school related issues? (subject or teacher issues)
- Is your child struggling emotionally in other ways?
Does your child:
- Experience any other anxieties (other than school) or display other mental health concerns?
- Regularly suffer from low moods?
- Socialise with peers well?
- Withdraw from activities outside of school?
- Get clingy and reluctant to leave you?
- Spend more time alone in their room than in the past?
Are there any recent or unusual significant mood changes, such as:
- Low Moods?
It is important to remember that ABSA is best supported when student's, parents/carers, school staff and other professionals work together. Involvement of health services is often appropriate, particularly when anxiety is having a negative impact on the child/young person's day to day life (e.g. school avoidance). In this situation, it would be appropriate to discuss concerns with a GP and consider whether a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) would be appropriate.
Reduce anxiety by putting in place and managing routines for:
- Getting ready for school, have equipment and clothes ready the night before. This is one less thing to deal with in the morning
- Bedtime (maintain regular times and ensure that the mind has an opportunity to relax before trying to sleep. Manage the use of electrical items right before bedtime laptop, phone, console games etc.
- Getting up (ensure plenty of time to get ready)
- Leaving the house and getting to school (what time? How? Who with?)
The child should take ownership of managing these routines (under the supervision of parents)
If your child is experiencing symptoms of illness (possible anxiety related)
- Initially the child may deny that anything is wrong and complain that they are 'just ill' and therefore can't be expected to go to school. The child may complain of bodily pains, feeling dizzy, headache, stomach ache, diarrhoea or feeling sick in the morning. Often the symptoms are vague and general. These complaints usually stop pretty quickly if the child is allowed to stay at home, they may reappear once again when they feel pressured to go to school.
- Sometimes these symptoms are the physiological result of anxiety. However, this vagueness of symptoms means that it is often difficult for parents (or even medical professionals) and the students themselves to distinguish between being ill and the physical effects of anxiety. If symptoms are regularly occurring and impacting on day to day living, then it will be appropriate to discuss this with the GP. If physical symptoms persist without medical reasons, anxiety as a cause should be explored as it is important to address anxiety as early as possible.
- In some circumstances, children may hide their real anxieties behind these general and sometimes vague symptoms of anxiety, and this allows the child to avoid school (and often the real issues that generates the anxiety). At its most extreme, some students may be so anxious that they fabricate symptoms to avoid school, which is causing the anxiety. When this happens, it is important to unpick what is happening for the individual so support can be put in place.
If your child tells you they are too ill to go to school (and you are not convinced)
- Reassure them and acknowledge any concerns, but remain firm and reinforce the need for the child to go to school (every day).
- Remind them that school is not optional and that as parents, legally you have to get them to school every day. Reinforce why it is important to go every day. If a specific issue or problem is mentioned, then agree to look into it ASAP, but in the meantime insist they go to school. Make sure that you do look into it, otherwise the trust your child will have in you could diminish.
- Remind them that even if they are late they must still go to school. It may be that the child has been successful in delaying routines or purposefully disrupting their routines to reinforce why they cannot reasonably be expected to go (example, I couldn't sleep, I am feeling poorly, I have a headache etc).
- It is never too late in the day to go to school. Allowing them to stay off could add to the worry. Now they have the original worry and the added concern about missing a day of school and the possible repercussions.
- Persevere in insisting that they go to school, if you allow them to stay off you risk reinforcing the anxiety and developing a refusal habit.
- Escort the child to school if necessary. Say goodbye and leave. Do not hang around even if they cry or plead, staying can make things worse emotionally for both the child and you.
If you fully believe that the child is genuinely too ill to go to school on this occasion
- Contact and advise the School ASAP. Try not to let the school chase you through their first day calling procedures, you need the school working with you.
- Contact the GP. Make sure that the GP is aware of attendance issues. If you visit the GP, get an appointment slip and present to the school as evidence that you have taken the child to the GP. This may allow the school to consider authorising the absence (only the school can decide whether to authorise an absence).
- Do not allow your child to learn how to ‘press your buttons’ and manipulate you into letting them stay away from school. If the child claims in the morning that they are too ill to go to school and then later in the day (or evening) they make a remarkable recovery, remember and learn from this. Do not let this become a learned habit for the child.
- Do not stop encouraging or expecting your child to go to school (if you give up, they will give up). If, later in the day they look better or feel better then contact the school and get them in. It is better to be late, rather than not at all.
- The child must not develop a cosy routine at home and remember, any absence could make the return to school more difficult.