How to reduce anxiety in your children – Part 3 of 5 – What maintains anxiety?

Boys anxiety

This article is Part 3 of a 5-part series on How to reduce anxiety in your children. If you have missed the first two parts you can find them below:

So, in the last article we talked about understanding anxiety and its impact on the body, as well as what causes or contributes to anxiety. We learned about problem-solving our worries and using breathing and relaxation exercises to reconnect that processor part of our brain.

In this article, we’re going look more closely into the following:

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Generally, when we have a negative thought, we can end up magnifying it, and it has a snowball effect on our overall thinking. So it’s important to think about our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, as well as the differences between them and how we can start working through them to achieve to a more reasonable conclusion.

Thinking errors

Paul Stallard wrote a book called Think Good – Feel Good, and in Chapter Six, he talked about how some of our ‘hot’ automatic thoughts tend not to be helpful to us. These thoughts may stop us from doing the things we want to do, and if we don’t question or challenge these thoughts, they continue to swirl around in our heads. The more we hear these thoughts, the more we believe that they are accurate and the more we look for evidence to prove them right. Paul calls these thoughts Thinking Errors, and there are six common types of thinking errors that we make:

The downers

With these types of thinking errors, you tend to focus only on the negative things that can happen, and anything positive is overlooked, disbelieved or unimportant. There are two types of downers:

Negative glasses

Negative glasses just let you see the negative part, even if you have a good time or nice things happen to you. Paul provides an example:

“You may have a perfect day out with your friends, but at lunchtime your favourite café is full. When you are asked whether you had a good time, you reply, ‘No. We couldn’t get too into the café.”

Positive doesn’t count.

Anything positive is dismissed, unimportant or discredited. Paul provides us with further examples:

“The person who hears that a boy or girl wants to go out with them may think ‘they probably can’t find anyone else to go out with.’

“Doing well in a maths test may be discounted as you think ‘but it was easy – we learned all that last year'”

Blowing things up

The second type of thinking errors are when you blow things up, and they become more prominent than they really are, which happens in three main ways:

All-or-nothing thinking

It’s either all or nothing – black and white with no grey – freezing cold or boiling hot. Either full marks or you’re a failure.

Magnifying the negative

Everything is exaggerated, magnified and blown out of proportion. Everyone was looking and laughing at you when you said the wrong answer in class. You stumbled and everyone thought you were clumsy.

Snowballing

A single event upsets you, and then it quickly snowballs into a never-ending pattern of defeat. There’s a grey cloud in the sky which means there’s going to be a thunderstorm. Not being picked for the sports team means that you are not good at sports and you can’t do anything. You don’t understand a particular maths problem, which means you’re rubbish at maths.

Predicting failure

You generally expect bad things to happen. This can happen in two main ways:

The mind-reader

You think you know what everyone else is thinking. You don’t want to go meet a group of friends because you know they don’t like you. You bet that everyone is laughing at you.

The fortune-teller

You think you know what will happen if you do it. If you go out, you will end up sitting on your own. You know you’re not going to be able to do the work if you try, so why try in the first place, right?

Notice any of these thinking errors in yourself? If you notice yourself doing this or you see your child doing this, it’s time to take your thoughts to court!

Taking your thoughts to court

Taking your thoughts to court means you recognise that you have an unhelpful thought and you want to weigh the pros and cons to find out if those thoughts have any substance or not. Imagine that you’re in a courtroom in front of a judge and you have to find evidence to support the thought you’re having and what evidence you don’t have to support this belief.

Let’s use an example:

“If I get the answer wrong everyone will laugh at me.”

So, we’re in our courtroom, and we’re standing in front of a judge. We need to find the evidence to support why we think everyone will laugh at us if we get the answer wrong. Then we need to find proof as to why this won’t happen.

Facts to prove this thought is true

  • It has happened to you or your child before
  • Somebody in the class always laughs
  • You always get the answer wrong

Facts to prove this thought is untrue

  • Your answer could be right
  • It is highly unlikely that everyone will laugh
  • You thought your answer was wrong, but when you answered it, it turned out your answer was correct
  • If you answer wrong it doesn’t matter
  • What would someone I trust say? They would probably advise you to answer the question anyway so you learn from your mistakes if you get it wrong

Think about what would happen if you worried lots about saying the wrong answer and you never asked a question again. How will you determine what the right answer would be? If you don’t put your hands up in class, it will hinder your learning and impact on your life.

Now, think about your own worries and taking your thoughts to court. Find a way to balance your thoughts and disprove that belief. So, going back to our example, a way to balance that thought is that everyone may laugh, but you can be proud of the fact that you dared to put your hand up in class and answered the question. You didn’t have a fear of failure, and you gave it a go regardless of the outcome. That’s something to be proud of!

Explore with your children about how they can come up with their own worries and how they can balance the pros and cons of their thinking errors.

Below is a fact sheet for you to print out from Step2 CAMHS, so you can challenge your own worry thoughts.

Challenging your worry thoughts - Step2 CAMHS - Multi-Family Anxiety Group Session
Challenge your worry thoughts – Step2 CAMHS – MFAGS

Our behaviour when we’re anxious

Anxiety affects how we act and our behaviour is what keeps our anxiety going. We need to distinguish between what our unhelpful behaviours and what are our helpful behaviours. Here are some examples of unhelpful behaviours

Avoidance

If something is making you anxious, you want it to stop as quickly as possible, and the quickest way to do that is to avoid it, and then you feel safe. For example, if you are scared to get into a lift, you will avoid it, and then you will immediately feel safe. But, you don’t get to find out if you would be ok if you entered the lift because you didn’t even try. The longer you avoid the situation, the stronger your thoughts will get. You need to reverse that cycle and not prevent the situation.

Example of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours - Step2 CAMHS - Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust
Example of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours – Step2 CAMHS – Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust

In the image above from Herts Community NHS Trust Step2, this particular child has a worry about someone saying something horrible to them on the walk to school. They have all sorts of feelings like anxiety, fear, embarrassment, sweating, a headache and butterflies in their tummy. So they avoid the situation by getting mum to walk with them, which they think leads them to safety.

Safety behaviours - Step2 CAMHS - MFAGS
Safety behaviours – Step2 CAMHS – MFAGS

So what happens, in the image above, the child walked to school with mum, and nothing terrible happened. They believed that walking to school with mum was the reason why no one said anything horrible to them on the way to school. So they felt calm and safe walking with mum. The problem with this reassurance and safety behaviour is that they won’t get to find out what would happen if they didn’t walk to school with mum. This child needs to take their thoughts to court and weigh up the pros and cons of what would likely happen to them if they walked to school on their own. Otherwise, this avoidance behaviour will only feed their anxiety and not fix the problem head-on.

We will never learn that it’s going to be ok if we avoid a situation. And even if we cope well in that situation, we will think it was because of the safety behaviour rather than because we managed the anxiety. Therefore, it’s vital that we change our behaviour and challenge our thoughts. We need to change the way we behave so that we can think slightly more differently about things in the future.

Reassurance seeking

Children especially seek reassurance from their parents about their behaviour. And reassurance makes them feel better in the short term, but lots of talking about the worry can make the worry bigger.

Let’s use another example.

Think about a tomato plant and how much you need to look after it for it to grow. You need to seed it, water it little and often, plant it in the garden, prune the little flower bits, and then you have to take them out. The more you take care of them the more tomatoes you will have.

Worries are the same. The more you take care of them, the more you look after them, the more you will have. It stops you from moving on because you continuously go back to those worries all of the time.

And equally, what do we parents do when our child is worried about something? We reassure them!

“It’s ok, everything is going to be ok. Don’t worry about it.”

But, what did they learn from our reassurance? They didn’t learn that everything was ok because we told them it was ok. Their brain hasn’t determined what the evidence is to support it being ok. They didn’t problem solve the worry because you did it for them. Reassurance is probably one of the most significant things we do as adults to young people. And it may seem like the right thing to do at the time. But, if it worked it would work the first time. The worries tend to carry on, and the conversation about their worries continues, which means our reassurance is not doing its job.

A better way to deal with a child’s worry is to change the language slightly. Ask them why they feel that worry and place the onus back on them to come up with reasons why they have that worry. Tell them to not avoid the situation but avoid reassuring them that it will be ok. Also don’t talk about the worry too much. It is challenging as a parent to not rescue them, but if you don’t get them to learn now how to tackle their worries, they will struggle with anxiety later.

Next time you find yourself reassuring your child, stop. The aim of this change in language behaviour is to mould our kids into little relaxed adults.

For example, if they fall over and graze their knee, acknowledge they’ve hurt themselves, but make light of the situation.

Another example is if a child doesn’t want to go upstairs to bed because they’re scared of the dark. What’s the issue here? Acknowledge the concern and ask them what will happen if they go upstairs by themselves. Ask them to take their thoughts to court. It is also important to stress to the child that thoughts are not facts. They are just thoughts and they can choose to do what they want with them. Sometimes it’s about modelling your behaviour on them, playing little games and being creative about how you speak to them. Get into that conversation and talk about your thoughts and how you tackle them so your child can understand your thought processes too. Some children will understand easily and with some you will really have to teach it to them. But, don’t give up.

Emotional games can be great like conversation cubes which help them to open up about their concerns and take their thoughts to court. The bottom line is to teach them they will be ok if they challenge their thoughts.

Safety behaviours

We avoid situations that we are worried about, but there are ways that we can engage in certain safety behaviours to feel safer from our worries without avoiding them.

Herts Community NHS Trust Step 2 have come up with examples of safety behaviours below:

Safety behaviours - Step2 CAMHS
Safety behaviours – Step2 CAMHS

Safety behaviours are things we do to reduce our anxiety, and it gives us temporary relief. For example, you may be really worried about going to the supermarket because you think everyone is looking at you. So you may put your headphones on and avoid people by keeping your head down. You’re not avoiding the situation, but you are providing yourself with temporary relief to help you through the anxiety.

Some other examples are if you’re scared of flying, so you still enter a plane, but you don’t look out of the window. You’re still tackling the problem, but you’re softening the anxiety by adopting a safety behaviour.

Sometimes these safety behaviours can be really subtle, and you would need to observe your child to spot them. And then it’s a matter of slow steps to deal with the anxiety head on so that you’re not using safety behaviours to help with your anxiety. The aim is to remove safety behaviours completely, but in small steps. More about these strategies in Part 5 of 5.

In the next article, we will be talking about problem-solving our thoughts, postponing our worries until a designated worry period and mindfulness exercises for both adults and children to keep you in the present moment and not thinking about your thoughts. Click here for Part 4 of 5 – Learning how to manage our anxiety.

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Leyla Preston (590 Posts)

Leyla Preston is the owner and Editor of Motherhood Diaries global magazine for parents. Leyla is a busy mother of two even busier boys; Aron, 8, and Aidan, 7. When Leyla isn’t feeding, managing a gazillion tasks or cleaning the infinite mess at home, she is busy working on this magazine and a new cooking channel coming very soon – no rest for the wicked! You can follow Leyla on Twitter (@M_Diaries) or join the busy Motherhood Diaries Facebook group where all mums get together and share stories and solutions with one another: https://www.facebook.com//groups/motherhooddiaries/