Opinion: It’s Book Week but your child is too anxious to take part. 5 expert tips to save the day

The following opinion piece by Dr Frances Doyle from the School of Psychology; MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development; and Translational Health Research Institute, was first published with full links on The Conversation(opens in a new window).

Book Week is here again. Around Australia, parents of primary school-aged children are coming up with costumes, so their kids can take part in parades.

Some kids are going to love wearing costumes and showing them off to classmates and teachers.

But, what if after all that effort, your child doesn’t want to wear their costume? Or, they get to school and nerves take over.

3 things not to do

1. Plan an extravagant costume without your child’s input. It can be helpful to engage your a child in decision-making and problem solving when they are calm.

2. Keep your child home. Avoidance can make anxiety worse. And, avoidance sends the message that the Book Week parade is definitely something to fear.

3. Get angry and upset with your child. While you might feel annoyed or disappointed, kids learn from our reactions. And, we don’t want to teach them talking about feelings is a bad thing.

Why kids might not want to take part in the school parade

It could be they are feeling anxious about looking silly in their costume. Maybe they are worried no one will know their Book Week character. Perhaps, they are concerned other kids will make fun of them.

About 6.9% of Australian children and adolescents have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, with past surveys showing 2.3% experience social anxiety. Yet these figures only include those who qualify for a diagnosis. Many other children have difficulties with worries and fears that might not be interfering with their daily life.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion evoked when we think there is an imminent threat. But, it can be hard to know what to do to support kids who are feeling anxious.

5 ways to support your child

So, what can parents or carers do? Here are some helpful tips.

1. Get input from kids early and often

Follow your child’s lead for a costume idea or give options so they can feel they have a choice in what they will wear. Even if it’s a simple choice like “do you want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?” Choices help us to feel in control.

2. Play ‘thought detective’ with your child

Often, we can believe worried thoughts are true. But there are often more realistic ways to look at the situation. You can ask questions to help your child come up with alternative ways of thinking about the upcoming parade. Could the feelings be re-framed as excitement? Or freedom from uniforms or usual school clothes? You can also help your child understand what to expect. This might assist with worries they will be the only kid in a costume or that they won’t know what to do.

3. Encourage your child to take small steps

You want to encourage your child to be slightly out of their comfort zone, but not completely overwhelmed. Maybe it’s wearing their normal clothes and holding a picture of a character from a book. Perhaps it’s a hat or mask? Perhaps they feel brave enough to wear a costume, but not do the parade. Of course, if they get to school and feel ready to do the parade, then encourage them to do so. By facing fears, it gives children a chance to experience whether their worries come true or not. And, often, worries don’t come true.

4. Use rewards to help motivation

Rewards help motivate children to do things they might not otherwise want to do. Rewards could be stickers, food treats, a small toy, high fives or some special time together. Your child might be willing to do the parade if they know that they will get extra special time with you. This could be time playing a favourite game, going to the park with you, or time together reading a favourite book.

5. Practise calming strategies

When a child feels anxiety in their body, they will experience physical sensations. This may mean they feel like they want to run away from the situation, freeze or even have an emotional outburst. This might happen before going to school or at the time of the parade. Parents can help kids by using calming strategies, such as taking big breaths or counting.

Treatment for anxiety in kids

If anxiety keeps interfering with your child’s life, there are treatments that can help to reduce symptoms. It can be worth talking to a professional to get them early support.

You can get support from the school counsellor, your GP, a private psychologist or even an online treatment program.

Parents and carers are important people in children’s lives. How you react to your child’s anxiety can really help them as they grow and develop.

ENDS

21 August 2023

Media Unit.

The Conversation