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Kids get anxiety too... here's what you can do to reduce their stress

As new research shows, over half of parents report their children feel under pressure. Prudence Wade notes some practical steps that the whole family can take

Out and about: spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety
Out and about: spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety
Out and about: spending time in nature can help reduce anxiety

By Prudence Wade

A new survey has revealed just how stressed and anxious children are nowadays.

According to research published by BookTrust, 53% of parents said that in the past 12 months their child has shown signs of emotional stress or anxiety. More than two in five parents with children aged four to 11 said their son or daughter has angry outbursts at home, with over a third saying their child cries more than usual. The research was conducted by Censuswide, questioning 3,003 parents of children aged four to 11.

As parents, seeing your child anxious or stressed can make you feel powerless, but there are things you can do - both on your own and as a family - to help the situation.

First, it's important to understand why your children might be stressed. Parenting expert Suzie Hayman explains: "Kids pick up stress from four main areas: Parental anxiety and pressure is one. Demands from their school is another. Expectations from their friends is the third. And seeing what is happening in the wider world can add a further layer."

Not all of these areas are in your control, but there definitely are some practical steps you can start taking to mitigate their impact.

Examine your own behaviour

Kids pick up on your moods and behaviours like sponges, so it's key to have a look at your own stress levels.

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"Do you stress and show strain? Do you ever take time to rest and relax?" asks Hayman. "Model good behaviour by taking care of yourself and don't sweat the small things."

Mental health expert and director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health, Dr Margot Sunderland, agrees: "Self-care is crucial as a parent. Research evidence is overwhelming - it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a child not to have an anxiety problem if a parent has an anxiety problem."

Sunderland advises staying on top of your own stress levels and finding out what helps calm you down, whether it be yoga, massage or reading a book. "Even better, go into therapy or counselling yourself," she says. "Just talking to your partner won't work."

Have open conversations with your kids

Mental health is slowly becoming destigmatised, and a lot of this is down to having open conversations about it - something you can start doing early on with your kids.

"Help your children build resilience by talking through their worries," Hayman advises. "Are they reasonable? Can they do something to mitigate, or should they simply let go?"

It also makes sense to ask the school what they are doing to help, she adds.

Spend quality time together before bed

For Sunderland, spending quality time together is key. "Ideally spend an hour together at bedtime. Invest in really soothing bedroom lights so you can set the scene when they go upstairs, and make it a really calm, soothing place to be," she says. "Read a story to your children right up to age 12, or when they don't want you to any more."

A lot of experts agree on the benefits of reading to your child. Catherine Roche, chief executive of the Place2Be charity, says: "We know from our experience that reading with your child in a warm, non-judgmental manner can be an excellent way to open up conversations about emotions, feelings and behaviours and help children to feel less alone.

"As a parent it can sometimes be hard to have these conversations, but using characters in books, and the situations they experience, can help start a dialogue. Reading together can help you spot worries and anxieties before they are magnified."

Go out in nature together

Spending time as a family in nature can be fun, whether you're having a picnic in the garden or going for a walk. This can also have a positive impact on everyone's mental health and stress levels.

Sunderland references 'green space' studies, "which show that being outdoors in nature dramatically reduces stress". If you can't get out in nature, Sunderland says "even the sounds of nature can soothe. Consider birdsong or the sound of a water feature in the garden."

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