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Helping Your Child Self-Regulate

The new school year has commenced and for many parents they are celebrating in the delight that their children are back at school. The nerves have quietened down now that they have settled into their new classes, seen their friends and they are aware of the classroom expectations

However this isn't the case for everyone.

In fact, I've had a number of parents contact me this week, booking in telephone consultations to discuss how to support their child's overwhelming anxiety.

So I thought I would put together some useful tips on how you can help your child develop coping skills so they can self-regulate. Before I outline some techniques you can use, it's important to understand what self-regulation is and how anxiety can manifest as if children are unable to self-regulate.

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage our emotions and behaviour in response to things happening around us. It helps to control our impulses so that we can make better decisions, to not over-react when we get upset or excited, and you be able to calm ourselves down when an incident occurs that does not go our way.

As an adult, this might look like, “I am about to lose it so I’m going to walk away, run a bath/go for a run and calm down!” These actions help your primitive brain to know that the 'danger' is over and your rational, intellectual brain can begin to function again.

However, children are not always able to handle their big emotions and this can lead to difficulties in behaviour, anxiety or anger.

A child’s capacity to self-regulate affects their family, social interactions, academic performance, long-term mental health, and their ability to thrive in the world.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Anxiety can present itself in many ways for different people. Some children may internalise their feelings, which makes it difficult to know that they need support. But generally children display one or more of the following symptoms of anxiety:

  • Complaining of a headache or stomach pains.

  • Appearing restless and fidgeting

  • Acting out beyond what you would normally expect

  • Obsessive, repetitive behaviours and being upset when these are not completed or carried out in the 'correct' way.

  • Changes in eating patterns

  • Being more attached than usual

  • Expressing negative thoughts or worries

  • Crying and feeling angry or upset for what appears to be no apparent reason

  • Trouble sleeping (e.g. difficulties falling to sleep, nightmares or bedwetting)

  • Struggling with new routines or transitioning between tasks

6 Coping Tools You can Teach Your Child

It can be difficult to be supportive especially when you do not understand the reasoning behind their anger, worries or fears. But there are tools that you can teach your child to help them cope when they feel overwhelmed.

As with all strategies, it's a good idea to implement these before they feel overhelmed and practise them so that they are tools they can reach for when their emotions threaten to take over.

  1. Counting or reciting

When your child starts to worry remind them they can count of recite something. This can be done anywhere - they can do this out loud or in their head - and it is a great tool to use regardless of age. It could be something as simple as counting from 1-30 slowly, reciting the alphabet backwards or even get creative and make up a funny song together.

2. Sensory check in

Encourage your child to use their 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) to identify things in their surroundings. e.g. What do they see? Hear? Smell? You can even make it into a game and see how many of each category you can identify. This redirects their focus onto the sensory input they are receiving from the world around them rather than those invasive, anxious thoughts they are experiencing.

3. Do a 'brain dump'

Remind your child that their worries are just thoughts; they aren’t real and they can’t hurt them. We can’t always control what thoughts pop into our head but we can control how much attention we pay them. Let your child ‘dump’ their thoughts onto paper - they can do this by writing, drawing or just scribbling. Reassure them that now their thoughts are elsewhere they do not need to hold them in their head.

Another fun idea that I love is to write worries on bits of paper, screw them up into balls and throw them into the bin. Slam dunk those worries!

You can also create a worry box with younger children, where they can write down and put in their worries. Agree a place to put their worry box - I would always encourage this to be away from their bedroom so it creates some space between themselves and their worries.

4. Do things that make them happy

When we do activities that we enjoy, it releases feel good neurotransmitters and chemicals like serotonin and endorphins which help us to cope and feel happy. 

Come up with a list of activities that your child likes to do and place this list in a place that they can refer to. They don’t have to be costly activities either - you'll be surprised how many children I work with mention that they’d just like to spend a bit more time with their parents, doing activities like helping with cooking, going for walks or reading together.

5. Use relaxation/calming toys

Stress balls, soothing music, colouring in books, fidget toys and plasticine are all good

tactile things that your child can use when they begin to worry or feel overwhelmed.

When we feel anxious it triggers a rise in stress hormones and this can lead to excess, pent-up energy. If your child has nowhere to channel that energy, then they are more likely to fidget, pull their hair, pick their skin or bite their nails. Fidget toys also come in handy when they are away from home comforts.

6. Include relaxation activities as part of their daily routine

Without the ability to relax and decompress, children have no outlet for relieving stress, anxiety or pent-up emotions. Finding some time each day to relax and unwind is vital for maintaining good mental health. This could be colouring, reading, mindful breathing.

Having down time away from phones and the TV will also help them sleep better, which plays a vital role in 'emptying their stress bucket' and supporting their mental health.

Be empathetic and reassuring

The thought that no one understands can cause anxiety to feel even worse, particularly for young children.

No matter how illogical their fears are, remember that they appear very real to your child.

Take the time to listen, remind them that everyone has worries. Perhaps even share examples of the things that make you anxious when you were little, and what you do to make yourself feel better.

Don't avoid stressful situations

It can be tempting to help them avoid the things that cause them anxiety. This can actually intensify their anxiety in the long run as it actively encourages avoidance behaviours.

If your child is terrified about going to the doctors, you don’t want to dismiss their fears, but you also don’t want to magnify them. Listen and be empathetic, help them understand what they’re anxious about, and empower them to feel that they can face their fears. The key message you want to send is, “It's ok to be scared, I am here and together we're going to help you get through this.'

If it's an action they have to repeat then consider using a reward chart. This works well particularly with younger children and is a great way to motivate them to participate.

Remember these techniques are not intended to eliminate stress, if we think of it in this way it can ultimately create more stress. Rather, they are there to help your child reach a calm state of mind so that they can address the source of their stress to solve the problem. It's best to teach our children that stress is a natural part of life (we all experience it!) and that it can be managed effectively.

Further help

Sometimes the stress and anxiety that children experience seems too difficult to manage on their own and this can cause parents to feel extremely overwhelmed as well. If you need further support or information, you may find the following websites helpful:

You can also contact me here if you are interested in how Hypnotherapy can help your child or yourself.


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