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Stressed and Anxious Children

by Beverley Paine, June 2013

Over the past year I’ve listened to the stories of parents whose children are showing signs of stress and anxiety. At school children’s anxiety is often called by a number of different names which may mask the problem: learning difficulties, learning differences, tiredness, stubbornness, shyness, sensitive, unwell, irritable, highly strung, etc. Most report that once their children settled into homeschooling or unschooling life their children’s anxiety symptoms lessened or disappeared. This has been my experience too. Every person is different and what triggers anxiety for one will be different for another. And it may take one child longer to overcome anxiety issues and triggers than another child.

It isn’t easy to feel calm when our children show signs of extreme anxiety. It’s very worrying! It’s easy to feel powerless. Dealing with crisis can be stressful but dealing with ongoing continuous anxiety is absolutely exhausting. Some strategies that help are modelling ways of building resilience that show sensitivity to our children’s needs. Make time to talk, even if it means interrupting an activity if necessary, or being late for an appointment. Become a bridge between the child and other people if that helps; explain to others the child’s needs. Chances are people haven’t considered a situation from that perspective before. There isn’t any need to tell them too much or be too specific, just say enough to evoke sympathy and empathy. And for them to realise that the child has someone on his or her side. We need to be strong, assertive advocates for our children.

Cognitive behaviour therapy combined with daily exercise are anxiety busting activities. We can help children identify the early signs of stress: ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, tight chest, confusion, unusual or excessive tiredness or irritability, crying for ‘no reason’, avoidance or withdrawal, or sudden ‘clinging’ behaviour. Some of these symptoms can be very frightening and lead children and adults to think something is wrong with their bodies, increasing the levels of stress of anxiety experienced in a dreadful feedback loop. Knowing that these are symptoms of anxiety and that anxiety can be managed may help children feel less vulnerable.
We can help our children identify the things and situations that make them feel edgy, uncomfortable and stressed. That will make it easier for them (and us) to work out ways to avoid or manage those things. Together we can develop some independent self-help ‘scripts’ and activities they can use when they begin to anxious.

Lots of things trigger anxiety. Even diet can have an effect. For example, I get eventually grumpy if I eat hard cheese day after day. Caffeine turns me into a rampant chatterbox, and I need to be careful about how much chocolate I eat in the evening! Lemon balm and verbena tea will calm me down. I’m sure others have other examples of how food can affect mood. Look beyond sugar, food colourings or additives.

Colours and patterns can be distressing for some people. As can brightness, sharp contrasts and bright lights. These could simply be adding to the overall stress experienced by the individual, which when added to emotional situations can prompt heightened feelings of insecurity and anxiety. That happens to me frequently. I get incredibly tired travelling through the suburbs in the car, simply because of the huge amount of signage on the main roads, especially at night. It wears me down.

Sensitive people also react to sudden or loud sounds. Continuous low noises make me very edgy: I can become bad-tempered, for no ‘reason’ at all, very quickly. And walk up behind me quietly and say something and I jump, and then feel edgy for ages afterward. I always have. Music can affect my mood too, take me up, bring me down, or make me edgy. As a result I am particular about what I listen to and when; usually my house is quiet, a music-free zone.

Getting to know myself and my idiosyncratic ways helped me to recognise and balance my often erratic moods and energy levels. It also demonstrated to me how important it was to get to know my children, not the people I thought they should be, but who they actually are, their individual and unique characteristics and needs. Understanding that I wasn’t ‘unwell’, just different (a little bit more sensitive than others), helped me feel confident that it was okay to modify my environment and situation to suit my needs, rather than try to fit in with what is considered ‘normal’. And that helped me let go of the notion that I had to modify my children. My job was to help them understand their needs and how they can feel empowered to make changes that made them feel safe, nurtured, healthy and energetic.

I also have psychological reasons for feeling anxious too. But they are only a problem when I’m not looking after myself, am run down, taking on too much or not giving myself enough time to recover from busy or exciting times. I find the best way to handle my anxiety issues is to avoid the many triggers, be kind to myself, and remember to apply the strategies I know that help me. Some of those strategies include distraction, practicing rephrasing negative phrases into positive ones, forgiving myself, breathing, saying affirmations, focusing on my senses (‘grounding’ myself: anxiety feeds off imagination, sensorial information gets us in touch quickly with reality).

We need to let our children know that, if it’s possible, they can move to an area where they feel safe, or to ask for help in modifying the situation that is causing the stress. Let them know that it is normal and okay to feel anxious sometimes, and that it is an important early warning system humans have developed to help keep them safe. It’s important to not suppress how we feel, blame ourselves or others for things we can’t control, but to accept that we’re okay just as we are, faults and sensitivities and all. Life happens and sometimes we need help, that’s what friends are for. This nurturing attitude builds resilience.

It is important to keep a dialogue, conversation, discussion going with our children, about anything and everything, so long as we keep talking with our children (with - not at them!) I’ve been a home educator for long enough to realise that it doesn’t really matter what approach we take to education, school-at-home or unschooling and all the permutations in between. What makes the difference is that we spend more time each day talking with our children. This builds vocabulary, communication skills, knowledge, understanding, empathy, relationships, and it is the way that humanity slowly but surely built community, societies and civilisation.

Conversation is probably the most effective educational tool we have in our homeschooling and unschooling toolboxes. I have long been convinced that the most effective ways of learning are those we naturally and instinctively use with young children: once we’re older we tend to override this practice with what we think ought to work, often trying the same thing over again, forcing success. School can have that effect on us: if we don’t get it ‘right’ first time we’re made to do it again, often in the same way, using the same method until the teacher, our parents and ourselves give up on our ability to learn. Even though we’re not achieving the success we seek as adults when dealing with problems, we usually don’t look for or apply novel or innovative approaches, convinced that if we only try harder doing what were doing everything will finally work. Our children deserve more and we have the opportunity to meet their needs.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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