NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald.  Click here for the original article…

“My 9 year old son seems to be suffering from anxiety. He gets worried about all sorts of things and it really is affecting him. What can I do to help ease my son’s anxiety?” Concerned parent.

As human beings we’re hardwired to feel what others feel. And when it comes to children, they’re emotional sponges. They soak up the emotional environment they live in, and some do so more than others.

It’s also developmentally normal for children to struggle to clearly express their emotions: they’re still learning how to do it. So while individuals vary in their sensitivity to emotions and anxiety, children can react to all sorts of problems in their emotional environment with worry and anxiety symptoms.

This can include symptoms such as resistance to separation from parents, not wanting to go to school, stomach aches and/or headaches. They can worry excessively about small things, suffer from nightmares, sleep problems, and worrying about others.

They may also display an unwillingness to try new things.

One of the criticisms of psychotherapy has been that it “blames” mothers, or parents, for ALL our problems. I can understand that people may think that but this isn’t about blame.

It is about challenging the idea that if a child is struggling with anxiety, that isn’t because the kid “has” a disease called anxiety. It does mean they’re sensitive to anxiety and probably emotions more generally. It also means things are going on in their world that need to be thought about and addressed.

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As parents this can be challenging: to really honestly assess what might be going on to help explain why they’re anxious: especially if it stems from family life. It may, of course, also be about things that are going on outside the family that they feel unable to tell you about. For example, they may be the victim of bullying at school, have problems with friends, trouble dealing with academic expectations or be struggling with their relationships with teachers.

So while anxiety always has a reason for existing, that doesn’t mean that you can’t address the anxiety as well as the problems behind it.

If there is one golden rule it is to not try to reassure your child by telling them “it will be OK”. As counter instinctive as it might seem, this just tells them they should just stop feeling it.

If the anxiety persists, then it may be worth seeking out a child therapist who can help them better understand what they’re feeling and why. And don’t be surprised if therapy, especially for young children, looks a lot like playing: because it is. Child therapists use play to help children understand and express what they feel and think when they don’t have the words.

Because what is true for children is also true for all of us. Once we can find the words, and better understand the bad feelings inside us, then those feelings feel less frightening.

At times we all need help with the monsters under the bed.


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