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Stressed or unhappy child? Here’s how to help

Have a kid that's struggling with their feelings? Take five and read these five nuggets of advice from author Poppy O'Neill before you tear your hair out.

Muddy asked the mental health expert for her level-headed guide to helping kids when it all gets too much (for them, and us!). Here’s what she said about helping kids with anxiety or low self-esteem struggles.

1/ KEEP IT LIGHT

Sitting down with your child to “have a chat” might not be the best strategy, as it could feel unnatural and intimidating to them. Try to get them talking while you’re doing a calm activity, just the two of you. Perhaps gardening, walking, cooking or colouring together. Having something else to focus on, and less eye contact, can make tricky conversations flow more easily. Take the pressure right off and don’t push if they don’t want to talk or can’t articulate what’s wrong.

2/ STAY CALM, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE PANICKING

When humans feel high anxiety, our rational brains shut down. Aggression, the urge to hide or run away, and difficulty co-operating are all signs of anxiety, and often get labelled as bad behaviour.

It helps to shift your perception and view it as an involuntary expression of panic rather than “acting out”. In order to find calm, a panicking, anxious child needs you to stay calm and be intuitive. One moment your child might need to be spoken to in a clear, firm voice; the next, they’re ready for a hug. Do not expect your child to make sense or be articulate. Resist the impulse to lecture, question or shame your child. You can discuss any problematic behaviour later, right now your focus is to help your child calm their emotions and feel safe again.

3/ GET CREATIVE

Studies have shown that creativity is a core part of healing emotional struggles, and a great way to build self-esteem. However your child likes to express themselves, don’t underestimate the power of creativity.

  • Pick out details from their creations and ask how they came up with the idea
  • Ask them to teach you or explain a part of their creation
  • Leave the idea of “good” and “bad” at the door, and focus on enjoyment

Make sure basic materials like pens, pencils and paper are always handy at home, so your child can turn to creativity whenever the mood takes them.

4/ REDUCE STRESS

Is there a particular time of day when your child’s anxiety is guaranteed to be heightened? It’s likely you dread this time, anticipating your child’s distress or difficult behaviour in the lead-up. We often can’t avoid these parts of the daily routine, but we can make adjustments that release a little of the pressure. If it’s leaving the house that’s challenging, try getting everyone’s shoes on five minutes earlier. Mealtimes can be a battlefield – could your child serve themselves, so they have a bit of control over what’s on their plate?

5/ SPEND TIME TOGETHER

Just 10 minutes of your undivided attention does wonders for your child’s self-esteem. It can be as simple as playing a game together on your mobile, teaching them how to make a cup of tea or asking for their help with the washing up. Each time you make your child feel special, valued and unique, it builds their confidence and boosts their emotional intelligence. Little and often is more effective than occasional big gestures, so try and get some one-to-one time with your child most days.

All about Poppy…

Poppy O’Neill has written several books on mental well-being for children and adults, including Amazon bestsellers Don’t Worry, Be Happy and You’re a Star. Her most recent books Positively Me and My Feelings and Me will be published 10 March by Vie, £10.99

More parenting 101s…

5 ways to be more zen
How to tackle a low mood
Post pandemic parenting

Find more ideas here

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