Any parent or carer knows how difficult it can be to watch your child struggle with anxiety. While a certain amount of fear and worry is normal and will usually pass in time, anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with your foster child’s daily life.
It can be difficult to figure out how to deal with anxiety in children, but there is plenty of support and information available to help you get started. Let’s look at common fears in children and see how to recognise when your child might need help coping with their anxiety.
Common fears and anxieties
Normal concerns and worries include separation anxiety (distress brought about by leaving a caregiver or being left alone), as well as fears and phobias like being afraid of animals, insects, storms, heights, water, blood, and the dark.
Certain life changes can also bring up anxiety for children, including starting a new school, being away from home, tests and exams, and going through puberty. Shy children may also feel anxious in social situations (read more about how to help your shy child here).
Most foster children will have a degree of trauma in their past and may deal with occasional anxiety due to recurring instability in their lives – but these worries become a problem when they begin to impact on daily activities.
Signs of anxiety in children
Anxiety presents in different ways for different children, spanning both mood and physical changes.
Changes in a child’s behaviours and demeanour can indicate a growing problem. Irritability and clinginess, being tense and fidgety, and having frequent crying fits or emotional outbursts can all be signs of stress. Children can also lack confidence, experience negative thoughts, or attempt to avoid triggering situations, such as going to school or seeing friends.
Difficulty sleeping, such as waking in the night or having bad dreams, is a common sign of anxiety. Loss of appetite, wetting the bed, and frequent headaches or tummy upset are also symptoms to watch for.
Causes of anxiety in children
Childhood can be tough, particularly for foster children who experience more instability and change than most. Big life changes – such as being put into foster care or changing carers – can trigger anxiety, as can traumas like car accidents, house fires, or witnessing or experiencing abuse.
Family arguments or frequent fighting amongst caregivers can also be a source of stress for a child, as can changing social dynamics, such as those experienced by teenagers at school. In fact, teens are more likely to suffer from social anxiety than younger children.
How to help your anxious child
It’s difficult for any carer to watch their foster child suffer with anxiety when they could be learning and playing, but you can help.
- Talk to your child about their fears and worries. Avoid judgement; accept and empathise with your foster child’s feelings. For example, if they are afraid of the dark, show empathy by acknowledging that sounds scary.
- Work with your foster child to find solutions. Come up with ideas together – for a child afraid of the dark, you might suggest using a nightlight, leaving the bedroom door open, or giving them a torch for when they get scared.
- Try not to let your child’s anxiety stop them from doing things, rather search for ways to reduce the amount of fear or worry they experience. Positive thinking can help combat smaller worries. Talk through their ‘worst case’ scenario, and how they could handle it – help your child see that they will be okay even if their fear comes true.
- Talk to them about anxiety, if your child is old enough. Learn together about what happens in the brain, how anxiety builds up and eases off, and work with them on developing coping mechanisms to manage their feelings.
- Try simple relaxation techniques – these reduce anxiety in both adults and children. Use easy breathing techniques, like breathing in for three counts and out for three counts, or introduce more involved practices like mindfulness and yoga if your foster child is old enough.
- Make a ‘worry box’ and encourage your child to write down their worries and put them into the box. Once a week, sort through their worries together and discuss what was worth worrying about and what wasn’t. Help them come up with a plan to handle similar worries if they come up again. The goal is for them to feel in control of their worries and not the other way around.
- The GP is always a good first place to start, especially if you’re worried your foster child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder or other mental health issue.
- YoungMinds has tools for helping children cope with anxiety.
- Youth Access offers advice and counselling for young people.
- Reach out to the Compass Fostering team for more guidance on helping your foster child.
Are you ready to provide a safe and secure home for a child in need? Get in touch to find out more about becoming a foster carer with Compass Fostering.