It is now a common condition that is increasingly affecting our special children. I’m hearing more and more stories where our little people are feeling super stressed about school, social situations and day-to-day activities.
What is going on?
Well for a start. We have to take it seriously. We can use a variety of terms to describe this behaviour.
Anxious. Stressed. Worried. Fearful.
They are all terms to describe a reaction to a situation that a little person cannot comprehend, make sense of or understand.
This may result in unwanted behaviour such as running away, having a tantrum, a meltdown, getting angry, defiant and rude. Your child might complain of a tummy ache or be particularly clingy and tearful. It is not spoilt or brattish behaviour and should never be punished without fully researching and understanding the causes.
So we really need to be mindful of some real problems for our special children that are causing a huge amount of upset for them as well as for their peers, siblings and the whole family.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT….
1. Be a detective
First off – find out what is actually causing the anxiety. Get to the route of the problem. The easiest way to do this is to ask your child. Do this with the magic ‘sideways talking’ technique. Gently probe whilst your doing something else so there is no eye contact. So when you’re driving, walking together or during play. Let your child talk and you do the listening. It could be something that is easy to put right. Or it may need a huge amount of input from a lot of people. Either way, once you know what is causing the anxiety you are well on the way to helping.
Keep a diary so you can notice patterns. Does anxiety always happen when it’s time for food or going to a particular activity? Be vigilant and look out for anything that could be disturbing or upsetting your child. Unfortunately abuse and bullying exist in all walks of life and we must protect our vulnerable children.
2. Could the anxiety be caused by sensory difficulties?
We now know that some of our children have sensory processing difficulties. They can either be that your child is over sensitive to sensory experiences or they can be under sensitive.
Hyper or over sensitive means that a little sensory stimuli may feel overwhelming. Whilst hypo or under sensitive means that a lot of sensory stimuli may make little impact.
In other words a hyper or over sensitive child may have difficulty filtering out stimuli. Some common behaviours of a child who is hyper sensitive:
- Pushing someone who is standing too close
- Avoidance such as running out of the classroom, hiding in a corner of the playground
- Easily upset
- Distracted easily
- Sensory overload leading to shut down and blocking out all input
- Disruptive behaviours in order to get removed from the situation which is causing sensory overload and distress
- Avoids close physical proximity to others
Similarly a child who is hypo or under sensitive will seem disengaged and have slow processing. They will need to perform certain behaviours in order to engage with the senses:
- Biting or chewing
- Jumping or stamping
- Loves tight hugs from others
- Writes with force on page
- Likes to wear tighter clothing
- Frequently stands or moves around the classroom instead of sitting
- Swings in a chair
- Fidgets a lot
- Frequently touching objects and people
- Sniffs objects and people
- Makes noises in quiet environments
- Enjoys rough play
If your child is not given the opportunities to experience these behaviours it will cause a huge amount of anxiety.
I have worked with a little girl who just did not cope in school assemblies. The noise, the close proximity of people and the general chaos caused her stress. So she now stays in a little area just outside with ear defenders and a book. Sorted. Happy and calm.
Another boy fidgets non-stop and is constantly in trouble, doesn’t complete his work and has to miss playtime to finish his work. After my intervention, he now has fidget cubes, a chewy pen top, a wobble cushion, works in a quiet area with fewer distractions. and alongside some differentiated tasks, he is able to complete his work. He has gone from an angry and stressed little person to being happier and more focused.
We must be vigilant to the causes of a child’s anxieties and if possible change the environment to accommodate their needs.
3. Take all worries seriously
Everyone experiences some degree of stress or anxiety every day. But most cope with it and some even thrive on that extra buzz of adrenaline. However it is a problem if it seriously affecting your child’s day to day life and their own mental well-being. Although feeling anxious is a natural reaction to a stressful or dangerous situation, a child may need help if his anxiety is out of proportion, if it persists, or if it interferes with his life and healthy development.
Our special children have a lot going on in their little world. And some of our children notice every nuance. And then will worry because perhaps they haven’t got the full picture.
One mum who I coach, told me that her daughter was playing up and seemed more anxious than usual and was crying a lot. There was a new baby in the family and after some ‘sideways talking’ mum discovered that she’d overheard an aunty say something like “I bet he’ll keep you up all night”. Of course this was taken literally and caused a lot of worry and fear. After a careful explanation things were put right.
So we must take all fears and concerns seriously. Because in a little person’s life these are mammoth problems. If you can easily eliminate the problem (in this case explaining the misunderstanding) then fabulous. But sometimes we cannot eradicate the fear and you will need to seek the advice of a specialist.
4. What to say to your child who is anxious
So the anxiety is real. Whatever the cause. Take it seriously and do not dismiss it as a phase or a nonsense.
- When your child is experiencing stress encourage him to remain calm as once he’s gone to anger mode there is no chance of reasoning with him
- Never say ‘Don’t worry’ because that won’t help
- Take deep breaths together
- Acknowledge the anxiety and show empathy
- Teach your child that worrying is natural and useful – prehistoric man had to worry about survival and remained vigilant against the saber-toothed tiger. If he had been complacent then we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale
- Imagine what the worst case scenario would be and work out how that would make him feel and how he would then cope if it happened
- Verbalise a worry and then work through what evidence he has to make that true. Negate the worry with a positive experience
- Have a Worry Box and write on a piece of paper a worry, put the worry inside and close the lid to shut off the thought
- Practice Mindfulness. Focus on breathing and appreciating the things that are happening now and show gratitude
- Don’t avoid the things that cause anxiety. Instead try approaching them step-by-step a little at a time until he feels comfortable
- Write out a checklist of how to cope with an anxiety. Read it together so that he’ll know what to do when he’s faced with a fear
I supported a family where the little girl refused to go to school for 10 weeks. I addressed her worries. Mum had been unwell and had a spell in hospital. The little girl was anxious that if she went to school, mum might not be there when she got home. As a starter, for her to express these fears was a huge relief and they were taken seriously. We came up with a plan for mum to organise lovely things after school to do together so she’d have something to look forward to. She practiced some positive thinking techniques and used a Worry Box so she could communicate her thoughts more clearly. Quite often it is just simple techniques and understanding that can make a massive difference to family life.
So in conclusion
Anxiety is normal.
However it is a problem for our special children if it is interfering in their daily lives and stops them from taking part in day-to-day activities. If simple techniques as described above do not help, then talk to your GP for more specialist support. And of course I am always here to help too. [CLICK]
We must take anxiety seriously, as to dismiss it or ignore it will seriously damage the emotional well-being of a little person. We have the super power to help a child by changing our reaction to a behaviour, by understanding the worry and, most importantly, by showing empathy.
If you’d like any more advice, contact firstname.lastname@example.org