Calming an anxious child is a worry.  We all get worried from time to time but what can we do when our children just can’t calm down? We look at what causes excitability and anxiety in children and how to help them.

Feeling fearful: nature or nurture?

Everyone has felt fearful or anxious or just not ‘right’ at some point in their life. Fear, tension, anxiety are all normal and healthy emotions and, in the past, they were pretty useful ones too!

We might not have escaped attacks by sabre-toothed tigers had our inner instincts not kicked in to tell us to get out of harm’s way.

Nowadays, we have fewer physical threats to contend with but our minds are still on the lookout for danger and this natural instinct can quickly turn into anxiety, especially in children, who quickly become overwrought and overwhelmed.

The extent to which they are affected will depend on their own personality: some children are naturally more prone to worrying while others remain chilled-out no matter what’s going on. As adults we can do a lot to restore peace and equilibrium but it’s handy at first to know what can upset our little ones and how they may be affected.

Common culprits

People find a multitude of objects and situations to fear and children are no exception. The earliest and most common one for all humans is, of course, separation anxiety, which kicks in around seven to nine months of age. A child will become distressed at the prospect of being separated from their main carer, be it their mother, father or guardian. A little later on, as your child becomes a toddler, you will notice other things upsetting them such as:

  • animals, e.g. dogs
  • appointments, e.g. the doctor’s or dentist’s
  • loud noises, e.g. thunderstorms
  • insects, e.g. spiders
  • the water, e.g. bathtime
  • the dark, e.g. at night
  • social situations, e.g. birthday parties
  • ghosts and monsters, e.g. under their bed!

When to worry

The authors of Helping Your Anxious Child (New Harbinger Publications) are keen to point out – first and foremost – that ‘Fears are a normal and natural part of life’. If your child is anxious or scared it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them – they’re probably reacting to a very real perceived threat! ‘There is no such thing as an “abnormal fear”,’ they reassure, ‘All fears are normal – some are simply more intense and more extensive than others. Even fears that might at first appear strange, such as a fear of germs … most people worry a little about them…’

As the book explains, anxiety can be displayed in three typical ways.

  • 1 – In their thought processes: Typically anxious children will dwell on worries about someone getting hurt – themselves or others – or being laughed at.
  • 2 – In their physical sensations: Nervous and anxious people often experience sweating, a quicker heart rate and breathing, and feel sick. All of this can lead to tummy aches, headaches, vomiting and tiredness.
  • 3 – In their behaviour: Children who are anxious will become fidgety, clingy and tearful. They may insist on avoiding situations that make them fearful.

We can all feel like this when we’re nervous so these symptoms alone aren’t a reason to worry. However, if your child’s anxieties become so intense that daily life becomes a struggle some help might be needed.

The good news is you can do a lot at home to make their world less threatening and more relaxing. In more easily defined situations, such as the phobias listed above, you can gradually expose them to the situation they fear the most to show them that there is no real threat. However, if their anxiety is more generalised – ie you cannot find a specific cause or they just seem to be a ‘worrywart’- there are techniques that can work wonders at calming a tense or unhappy child.

Soothe with music

The soporific effects of lullabies are well documented – families have been singing them for centuries to calm fussing babies. However, music can also be incorporated into your daily routine to help create a calm atmosphere. Well-chosen classical music can immediately instil a peaceful atmosphere in your home or in the car so why not try ClassicFM to see what difference it makes? Classical music CDs are fairly cheap or you can buy special compilations designed to be soothing for children. Alternatively, visit an online music store and listen to some samples before making your own playlist.

Heavenly scents

Many aromatherapy oils are not suitable for children or pregnant women but – fortunately – lavender is not only safe but ideal for relaxing. Pop four drops in some water in an oil burner or mix well with a base oil and add to a warm bath for an immediate chill-out effect. Some chemists and health food shops sell special toys with wheat sacks that can be heated in the microwave for your little one to take to bed with them. You can add a drop or two of lavender to these for a noticeably calming scent. Finally you can buy aromatherapy bath products for both mums and babes that will be specially formulated to be safe and effective. A small investment in one of these could bring the relief your child needs.

Mind-calming massage

Massage is both a wonderful way to relax your child and a great opportunity to bond with them. Many postnatal groups offer baby massage classes to teach you the basics but you can successfully get started at home. It’s best not to use any oils on delicate baby or toddler skin; instead use an unscented baby cream or oil and gently stroke it over their arms, legs, feet and hands, using light pressure. Ask your health visitor for tips on how to do this or take a look at your local library for books to borrow.

Share a story

Looking at pictures or sharing a story can be a wonderful way in which to distract an anxious or excitable child. Depending on their mood, you could either look at a book with interesting pictures and ask them to describe them or you could read them a relaxing story, such as one with a good rhyme. The act of sitting quietly itself can soon calm down a child and a book offers good distraction. If the books aren’t going well, a quiet programme on the television that you share together could work better. Avoid loud programmes that move quickly between scenes as these can overstimulate an already overactive imagination.

Monitor your own mood

If you feel your child is becoming increasingly het-up, the first thing to do is a quick check on your own emotions. If you’ve been dashing around shopping, cleaning, running from one place to the next and are getting frazzled, chances are your child is too. Children soak up other people’s emotions quickly so if your patience is running short and your stress levels are rocketing, you could be inadvertently winding up your child. Take a moment to calm down – make a cup of tea, sit down with a magazine or newspaper or try one of the techniques below. Instead of talking quickly and in a high-pitched, strained voice, slow down and lower your pitch. This will help you feel calmer too. After all, you can’t help your child before you help yourself!

Watch out for warnings

It’s rare for a child to suddenly become anxious or unsettled unless an emergency or extreme situation has arisen. Normally there will be signs that your child is becoming fretful, either through too much excitement, growing tiredness or hunger. Classic signs in babies include refusing to look at you, irritability and – of course – crying, while toddlers may start showing symptoms of hyperactivity – cranking themselves up to the hilt to keep going through shouting, screaming, restlessness and being easily irritable.

If in doubt …

All children become anxious, overwrought and a little stressed at times. It’s a normal part of growing up. However, if you feel your child is always in an anxious state or doesn’t respond well to any techniques to calm her down, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or health visitor about your concerns and ask for advice. Anxiety can be quickly and effectively alleviated and with the right tools to hand you can help your child stay
cool, calm and relaxed.