Helping kids cope with anxiety and stress in Hong Kong
Mindquest counsellor Lucy Graham recently spoke to Hong Kong Moms about anxiety in children in Hong Kong and how we can help our children manage stress and lead healthy, happy lives. Following is an overview of her comments as they relate to anxiety and stress in our children and how you can help them cope.
What is anxiety in children, and how can we spot it?
There is no single set of behaviours, but there are trends to look out for. For example somatic indicators such as difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, and headaches; changes in normal behaviour patterns such as eating more or less, reduced communication, social withdrawal, increased tearfulness, school refusal, increased opposition, defiance and aggression; and emotional signs such as prolonged low mood, increased irritability and anger.
Of course these could all be indicators of issues besides anxiety, but either way they are indicators that something is going on. Don’t expect children and teens to want to talk about it, but do try to set up situations where you can encourage communication. Make it clear you are available and try to offer unconditional support. The aim is to stay out of judgement and try not to leap in and fix the problem. We need to do lots of listening and validating. Only when we have validated another person’s feelings can we help transition them into problem-solving thinking. Help children to brainstorm solutions but resist the urge to wade in and fix everything. Be there to support but empower them to learn and take action — with assistance as needed.
“Help children to brainstorm solutions but resist the urge to wade in and fix everything. Be there to support but empower them to learn and take action — with assistance as needed.”
What can we teach our kids about handling anxiety?
Arguably one of the most effective methods is acceptance of stress and stressful situations: To start noticing when stress arises, recognise its physical sensations and understand what is happening in the body. This is one example of using the skill of mindfulness (i.e. noticing, observing). The stress response feels uncomfortable and when we don’t know what is happening physiologically we start scaring ourselves with thoughts like “I’m going to have a heart attack!”, which compounds the fear. Knowledge about what is happening takes away this fear.
Other ways to help with anxiety include massage and the physical comfort of touch (not the creepy type but the supportive type that comes from hugs, massage and swaddling or being enveloped in a comfortable duvet), dietary management (pro-biotics, fermented foods and omega-3), as well as learning new skills to ‘unhook’ from the power of the anxious thoughts, such as breathing skills, mindfulness and self awareness and understanding thoughts and emotions.
Is living in Hong Kong the cause of anxiety and stress in children?
The transient nature of Hong Kong does challenge our children to adapt to change. This can be very upsetting in the short-term, but in another sense it’s a real-life exercise in resilience training and a valuable life-lesson — especially in today’s era of uncertainty. The landscape of our children’s future is likely to be very different than it was for us. So, in terms of preparing our children for this changeable future, learning how to adjust to friends leaving, moving schools and movie countries is significant training in itself.
Can we teach our children to be more resilient?
Yes. Resilience is a teachable skill. According to Dr Martin Seligman and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, approximately 50% of our potential for happiness is based on our biological set point (genetics). What about the other 50%? Seligman and Lyubomirsky estimate that a further 10% is based on our environmental circumstances and a sizeable 40% of our potential for happiness is based on our daily actions and choices.
Acknowledging that this formula is only applicable in environments free from suffering, poverty, war and disease, there is still a significant message behind the happiness formula when it comes to taking on the challenges in life. Rather than see our experience of life as purely anchored in our genetics and our circumstances, it is empowering to know that a theoretical 40% is down to choices we make.
The starting point when it comes to building resilience skills is emotional awareness. Talking about emotions with children, learning a broad emotional vocabulary, understanding that emotions are felt by degrees and that they have physical signals, is important stuff! It’s also important to recognise that the same situations generate different emotions for different people.
As parents, the most validating thing we can do for our children is to acknowledge, accept and appreciate our children’s personality strengths and values — just as they are. To be truly recognised, understood and appreciated for who we already are is the best foundation for growth and resilience.
“… the most validating thing we can do for our children is to acknowledge, accept and appreciate our children’s personality strengths and values — just as they are. To be truly recognised, understood and appreciated for who we already are is the best foundation for growth and resilience.”
What are other important qualities we should be encouraging in our children?
Nurturing an attitude of optimism is also important. When we view the future with hope and optimism we believe more good things will occur than bad and that we have power over what happens to us. When bad things do occur, they are manageable and we can do something about them. When we view the future with hope and optimism, it is easier to take on new challenges and try harder. Conversely, pessimism results in fatalism, giving up and helplessness
One of the best ways parents and adults can encourage optimism, growth mindset and resilience is to model the concepts first hand. When things go wrong for us and we try to replace personalising, globalising, catastrophising comments with specific observations about a particular unhelpful behaviour or turn of events, we provide a great example. It’s especially important for parents to model imperfection — it takes the pressure off our kids and shows that we too are constantly learning and changing. So rather than making fixed character trait comments about ourselves when talking about our deficits, we simply acknowledge we are still learning.
What should we do if our children react negatively to change?
Validate their feelings. Validate their sadness and worries and fears and concerns. Change is hard when we liked the way things were. Loss is difficult. Any kind of significant loss can feel like a form of bereavement and shouldn’t be dismissed. However nobody wants to get stuck in these feelings forever. We need to find ways to come to terms with the change, reduce the impact of the loss and work towards doing things to help create the best possible life, given the loss. Asking what they miss most about the thing that they have lost and trying to find new ways to replicate that experience is a good approach. Try not to go straight to the ‘at least’ statements. These are well-intentioned but rarely can they make a person feel immediately better when they are struggling with a loss of something that is important to them.
What are some basics that we can do as a foundation to help our children feel secure and handle everyday ups and downs?
Love your kids for who they are, take time to understand them and what makes their character unique and special. Encourage them to try out new things, to strive for mastery and learn from feedback. Accept failure as a learning opportunity; embrace difference over conformity, and above all give them (and you) permission to be human. Applaud bravery, both in obvious and subtle actions — showing empathy for others, trying something new or creating something original are all brave actions because they require vulnerability. They put our kids into an arena where they can be judged, which is scary but so necessary for progress. Validate all feelings, even if they are different from yours (their feelings are theirs, yours are yours and there is no right or wrong), but help them to develop skills to reduce the impact of the challenging feelings and thoughts. Encourage optimism — it has a wonderful ripple effect — but don’t impose it or try to ‘flip’ negativity immediately. There’s a lot of valuable information that we can learn from negative thoughts and emotions. Help your children to be secure in the knowledge that they are special and valuable AND also part of something bigger — a larger community and a wider world
To read the full article on Hong Kong Moms, click here.