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Anxiety, Stress and Mental Health in Early Years

Children can feel anxious and worried at different times during their childhood, and many of these worries are completely normal and age-appropriate. However, in some cases, childhood anxiety and worry can grow to an extent where it takes over their daily lives. According to a mental health review report by the Food and Health Bureau (2018), children’s mental health in Hong Kong is a rising concern, with estimates as high as 16.4% for children and adolescents facing unsettling mental disorders.

Mulberry House is dedicated to employing all resources to ensure students do not become a part of this statistic. For this reason, the Principal of our Tai Po campus, Susan Ward, has given a remote seminar on anxiety, stress and mental health in early childhood on Thursday, March 3rd. With more than 20 years of educational experience both in Hong Kong and abroad, Ms Ward has a wealth of knowledge to share on combatting mental health issues in the early years.

Ms Ward framed the lecture by outlining the most important factors surrounding early age anxiety and stress;

  • Identifying stress and anxiety in young children.
  • Parents’ role in helping their children cope with stress and worry.
  • Tools needed to prevent and lessen stress and anxiety in children.
  • Importance of routines in daily life to provide safety and security.

In this blog post, we will summarise the most important points of the seminar. However, we do encourage parents to join future seminars to ensure that they get the full picture of the topics discussed.

Susan Ward, principal at the Mulberry House Tai Po campus, hosting the parent seminar.

Identifying stress and anxiety in young children.

Worry and anxiety in certain situations are natural – both among adults and children, which makes it so difficult to spot the difference between age-appropriate worries and serious signs of anxiety and stress. It is one of the most challenging hurdles parents face when it comes to keeping a check on their young children.

Nevertheless, it can be helpful to have some guidelines for what is ‘normal’ behaviour in young children and what is not. Ms Ward put it best in saying, “The marker for anxiety is the proportion. A child suffering from anxiety disorder might be overwhelmed with fear or worry which does not match the situation (…) and this anxiety is getting in the way of everyday activities”. If certain fears are limiting your child to an excessive degree, it could be cause for concern, she notes.

This could show itself in a multitude of ways;

  • Seeking continual reassurance through questions but not finding relief in the answers.
  • Normal, age-appropriate behaviour regresses (e.g. wetting the bed after being toilet trained).
  • Increased sense of danger and watchfulness.
  • Regularly having intense or prolonged temper tantrums.
  • Continual negative thoughts and a pattern of turning positives into negatives.
  • Ongoing physical symptoms like headache or stomachache.

However, Ms Ward highlights the fact that these symptoms can be completely normal in moderation, and it is only when they become a pattern or increase in frequency/intensity that it should be cause for concern among parents.

Parents’ role.

Parents play a crucial role in both the prevention as well as the identification and treatment of anxiety and stress. “As a parent, you strive to make (your child’s) early years a carefree and joyful time. However, even in a safe environment, anxiety can rise. “It is hard for us parents to navigate (…)”, Ms Ward says. Therefore, it is crucial that parents play an active role in the mental health of the family. Ms Ward means that this starts with the parents themselves; “Dealing with your own anxiety can be the most powerful thing to do.”, she states, as mental health can have a trickle-down effect on the children of the family. She mentions routines (for parents and their children) not focusing on uncertainties of the future but on the day-to-day, and having time for self-care can be important measures for parents to ensure their mental health.

When it comes to the direct role parents play in their children’s mental health, one of the best and most simple ways is to be present and in communication with your child. Checking up on how your child is doing is extremely important as children often show signs of stress or anxiety. Therefore, being observant of their behaviour and being available to talk to your child when they express their desire to, is key. When in dialogue with your child it is important to use open-ended questions, listen to non-verbal cues, and validate their feelings. “We have to remember that young children don’t have the same understanding of the world as we do. (…) It is not always rational.”, Ms Ward says. By not limiting them or dismissing their worries or fears, you’re able to open them up for further dialogue about their emotions.

Tools needed to prevent and lessen stress and anxiety in children.

Lastly, Ms Ward goes into detail on tools that can be employed to help children deal with stress and anxiety. “We can’t always be there to solve their problems or provide reassurance. We need to give children the skills to help themselves” she comments on the importance of developing tools for children.

One of the most impactful ways parents can prepare their children for feelings of stress and anxiety is by giving them the language to describe their emotions from an early age. Ms Ward cites feeling charts (charts with visualisations of different emotions) as a way to help children to identify and express their feelings. Especially younger children can benefit from feeling charts, as they still have a limited vocabulary. Instead, they are able to point to the emotion they are feeling. Furthermore, it is a good way for parents to start integrating communication about emotion into a daily routine and encourages further dialogue.

Ms Ward also points out that calming strategies, like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique (for older children), the rainbow grounding technique, and the star breathing exercise, can be helpful tools to use once a child starts feeling stressed or anxious. 

These techniques may not work for every child, Ms Ward notes. Feelings are very individual and so is the effectiveness of different techniques. However, by finding the one that fits your child, you could be giving them a lifelong coping mechanism for triggering situations. Moreover, when trained, children are able to develop their ability to self-regulate their emotions and stressors.  

Closing thoughts.

At Mulberry House, we’re happy to be able to provide parents and teachers with resources and knowledge to better understand and cope with their child’s mental health issues, and we hope to host many similar seminars in the future. However, if you are concerned about your child’s mental health, do not hesitate to contact Mulberry House to seek further action. Mulberry House is in contact with Hong Kong-based services that can work in partnership to support the best interest of your child.

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