If a child you care for is feeling anxious, Hannah French, Clinical Lead for the North-East Cumbria Mental Health Support Team, has three pieces of advice that may help you support them.
We know that the start of term isn’t always easy for everyone, and some children may be reluctant to go to school. The recent concerns about building safety may have even made it impossible for some to return, or may have increased children’s anxieties about going to school.
Recently the Government’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty said that children with mild anxiety are better off in school. Alongside other medical professionals, he said that being in school can often help alleviate the underlying issues and that a prolonged period of absence is likely to heighten a child’s anxiety about attending school in the future, rather than reduce it (Department for Education, 2024). But if your child is anxious, how can you best support them to cope with their anxiety and attend school?
Hannah French is part of a Mental Health Support Team (MHST) in North Cumbria which supports 8000 children in nearly 60 primary and secondary schools across the area. Earlier this year the team won the Pride of Cumbria 2023’s Charity of the Year award.
Working in partnership with schools they deliver a range of activities designed to support and improve children’s mental health. These include whole class workshops for year 6 children preparing for the transition to secondary school, training for teachers in how to spot the signs of anxiety in children, one-to-one sessions for children struggling with issues such as anxiety, low mood or difficulty regulating their emotions and webinars for parents on mental health.
Unfortunately, not every school has access to a MHST. Every child is unique and needs different types and levels of support but here Hannah shares three things you could do to support your child if they are experiencing anxiety.
Learn to recognise the signs of anxiety in your child and ask the right questions
Clinical Lead for the North-East Cumbria Mental Health Support Team, Barnardo's
One of the things the Cumbria MHST does is run sessions for parents and teachers on understanding mental health and wellbeing to help them understand what anxiety is and how they can spot the signs in the children they look after.
If you can spot signs of anxiety, you can ask questions that might help your child work through their concerns. Hannah suggests doing this, rather than defaulting to reassuring a child that everything will be OK.
“You could start by asking them things like “What's going through your mind? What's the thing that's making you anxious? What's the worst-case scenario?” she says.
Then you can help them unpick this further “OK, how true is that? Have you been in a situation like this before? What was the outcome last time you were in this situation? What does that tell you about this time?"
If a child reveals that they are feeling anxious it’s important to validate their feelings, for example by saying “I can see that if you thought that was going to happen, that would be a scary thought." This show that you are listening and you accept this is how they feel, rather than dismissing their concerns by brushing them off as silly or just telling them everything will be fine, however well intentioned.
Understanding what anxiety is and how you can support your child may help both of you.
We also have resources for young people on our online My Mental Health Hub.
Hannah also recommends reading Helping Your Child with Fears and Worries (second edition): A self-help guide for parents by Cathy Creswell and Lucy Willetts. Copies of this book are often available in libraries, so it's worth checking if you can access one there.
Remember though that you’re not on your own and more support may be available to you.
If you need support with your child’s mental health
If you need further support we offer mental health services across the UK to help children, young people and families who are dealing with anxiety, such as:
cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
one-to-one and group counselling
school-based programmes that teach young people about emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Some support you may be able to access yourself. This is called a self-referral. Other times, a GP, teacher, or social worker will need to request this support for you.
Encourage children to face their fears
Avoiding a situation that makes you anxious can make the fear worse, advises Hannah. If parents or carers encourage children to stay away from the situation that makes them anxious, or just continually reassure that it will be fine they can inadvertently make things worse. Where it is safe to do so, encourage your child to face the thing that makes them anxious head on.
As well as encouraging parents to ask their children questions to help them work through their anxiety, Hannah suggest setting small, gradual goals to help them progress towards facing their fears. For example, if a child is scared of putting their hand up or speaking in class you can create a hierarchy of feared situations, from least scary to most. This could be that they try raising their hand in a class they have friends in or feel more confident in the subject to start to face their fear. They could try answering a one-word question and then build up to volunteering to read out a passage in class. Each time they manage a step they can learn for themselves how they coped in the situation, how bad it was and how they managed it. Practicing makes things easier just like learning any skill like riding a bike or playing an instrument.