Helping anxious children



Children with learning disorders often have trouble with anxiety, especially with tasks related to schoolwork. Being asked to read aloud, given tests, having to start a creative writing exercise can all trigger anxiety, which causes the child to freeze, show restlessness or even become agitated.  This is why it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and the behaviours associated with ADHD.  If a child has difficulty focusing, anxiety may follow attempts to try; on the other hand, anxiety makes it very difficult to focus. 

What is anxiety?  Briefly put, it is a concern or worry about something vague and not necessarily connected to anything specific. In a very simple sense, it is the feeling that one’s safety or well-being is threatened.  Most children experience anxiety.  In the younger years, they may be anxious about being separated from their parents, or fear the dark, barking dogs, or thunderstorms.  As they grow, concerns about their school performance may cause anxiety or social relationships.  As adults, we can laugh at our childhood fears and anxieties because we’ve developed the ability to view youthful worries in perspective. But most children don’t have the mental maturity and experience to shake off feelings accompanying concerns like “What if I’m not invited to the party?”, “What If I can’t answer the question when it’s my turn?”, “What if I’m not chosen for a team?”  None of this is abnormal.  Anxiety becomes a problem if it interferes with the child’s normal living. A child who refuses to go to school because of anxiety regarding her ability to cope needs help.

True anxiety can affect up to 10% of young children and it’s not always easy to know what the cause is of the anxiety, or when your child is feeling anxious.  This is why anxiety has been called the ‘silent affliction’ because even young people are able to hide their anxiety from others.

Anxious children tend to show specific problems. They[1]

  • Find it harder than most other children to calm themselves when faced with a stressful situation
  • They seem unable to make plans to cope with their anxiety
  • Even when they do come up with a plan, they become discouraged very quickly and give up
  • Even when they are succeeding in reducing their anxiety levels they tend to disregard their success 

When anxiety is triggered, we all show typical physical reactions: shallow breathing, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles, feeling faint or nauseous and so on. Being in the grip of such bodily responses to perceived threat means that the brain is unable to think clearly, making it impossible to reason with the child or comfort them with words.  Helping children who are in the grip of anxiety includes teaching them to calm themselves down again. Some children may react well to techniques such as deep breathing, using a punching bag or aerobic exercise.

Once they are calm, you might help them think of creative ways of handling the anxiety – even imagining a special, private, ‘safe’ place (real or imaginary) to which he can retreat to regain calmness. 

Failure to use the chosen way of coping shouldn’t be allowed to discourage progress.  Constantly boost the child by encouraging daily practice and perseverance, and point out to them any small steps they may have made in overcoming the effects of their anxiety.

Children will experience anxiety uniquely and also react in her own individual way.  Many children do find it calming to be able to describe their anxiety, what they think is causing it and its effect on them.  For this reason, adults should listen carefully and try not to make any judgements.  Telling a child that he ‘doesn’t have to feel anxious’ and that his fear is ‘not real’ is not helpful.  Being a good listener and showing the child that you understand her fears and feelings is called ‘reflective listening’ and is a powerful helping tool.

With anxiety being so rife amongst our younger population, it may not always be possible to help the child yourself. Parents and teachers should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and, if need be, look for help for the child.

Here is a list of 10 signs that your child is at risk of anxiety:

  • Perfectionism/rigid, inflexible behaviour
  • Constant meltdowns
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal (from activities and/or interactions)
  • Excessive or unusual procrastination
  • Sleep problems
  • Excessive defiance
  • Disturbance of eating habits
  • Irritability/tantrums
  • Over-clinginess

Don’t overlook the possibility of anxiety playing a role in your child’s school performance.  It could be one of the reasons for a child failing to thrive at school. 

 [1]From: Dacey, J.S. & Fiore, L.B. Your anxious child. Published by Jossey-Bass.

Magic movements

From virtually the moment of conception, human genes dictate that we will move.  The earliest movements we make are not deliberate but are automatic reflexes. These ‘primitive’ reflex movements are truly magic because they help develop the brain.

Each time you feel the baby moving inside your uterus, you can celebrate, knowing that those movements are laying down the patterns of neural pathways that serve to connect the different brain areas.  These are the pathways that are vital for learning, behaving appropriately, forming healthy relationships with the people in our lives and enjoying emotional well-being.

They also help develop ability to control the body, muscle tone, good integration of information coming in from the different senses and survive the early months of life.

At birth, our brains are far from completely developed so we depend on primitive reflexes to help us enter the world and then keep us alive.  For example, the Moro reflex is a reaction to being startled. This reflex produces cortisol and adrenaline to help activate the birth process. Then the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) comes into play, helping the foetus twist down the birth canal during a normal birth. After we are delivered, the Moro reflex triggers our first breath and permits us to straighten out after months spent in the foetal position in the uterus.

After birth, the sucking reflex allows the mouth to take in nourishment and swallow, while many others are present to help in other ways.  Slowly, these early reflexes are integrated as new ones take their place.  Each reflex appears in a crucial time, does its important job and is then replaced in order for higher development to happen. Ultimately, primitive reflexes are replaced by so-called postural reflexes which allow us to crawl and then finally to walk.

Problems can be experienced later on if these primitive reflexes are not absorbed or integrated.  Retained reflexes can cause emotional problems, timidity and fearfulness, attention problems and learning difficulties, depression, sensory disorders, lack of confidence, tantrums, bedwetting, fidgeting, thumb sucking and many of the challenges often seen in children.  Unfortunately, children with learning, behavioural and emotional issues often fail to be helped. This is because the symptoms they show are treated, rather than being helped to overcome the underlying causes of their problems. 

There are many reasons for reflexes to remain present and not be integrated.  Included in these are the diet and general health and emotional well-being of the mother during pregnancy. Traumatic birth events including Caesarean birth and the use of instruments can interfere with amongst others, the Moro reflex. This has the domino effect of interfering with the integration of all the reflexes that should follow, setting up glitches in brain development that can persist for years.

When several unintegrated reflexes persist, normal tasks that are taken for granted by most of us become difficult if not impossible.  When children experience sensory integration disorders, vision and listening challenges, extreme shyness and lack of confidence, ADHD, learning challenges and developmental delays, it is time to look for help.  Reading and writing difficulties, language and speech delays, disorganisation, fidgeting and lack of focus all may be signposts to the need for reflex integration.

The good news is that it is not difficult to integrate reflexes by helping the child with a movement programme.  Certain movements replicate the earlier movements that somehow failed to achieve reflex development or integration, so by showing a child different movements, we give the brain a second chance to reorganise those all-important networks needed for efficient functioning.

Movement is magic!  Even more magical are the improvements seen in children when they are given the chance to overcome early setbacks in their development.

If you suspect that a child may have unwarranted challenges in coping with home and school demands, you should seriously consider a neurodevelopmental assessment.


Discipline versus punishment


Here’s a quote from Carl Zuckmayer that might be worth passing on to your children. It carries a lot of truth:

One half of life is luck; the other half is discipline – and that’s the important half, for without discipline, you will not know what to do with your luck.

Sometimes people misunderstand the difference between discipline and punishment, believing them to have the same meaning. Not so.  Discipline refers to the training adults give to youngsters to bring about self-control.  Consistent, gentle discipline causes life-long changes in the mind and character of children.  Punishment is meant to cause pain or discomfort for breaking rules.  Typically children are verbally scolded, sent into time out, relieved of toys or special privileges (e.g. TV time) or even given physical hidings or smacks.

Punishment can, of course, form part of disciplining but it should never be the only way that parents use to correct wrongdoing.

Here are some ways of disciplining children

  • Ignore unacceptable behaviour.This can be useful and effective for many problem behaviours such as sulking, whining, interrupting, begging for treats, or insulting authority figures (parents/teachers).   There are situations where you cannot ignore the child, such as when they are physically hurt.  Don’t try to ignore behaviour if you are truly angry inside because children will pick up on your fury and know their behaviour has had the desired result.  When you ignore, you should try to avoid paying attention to behaviours that you have clearly explained as being unacceptable.
  • Setting boundaries. Children should have set limits that are strictly enforced with patience and firmness.
  • Give simple orders. Keep your instructions simple, clear and brief. Children are confused if too much detail is given.Also try to give instructions one at a time rather than a whole list of them. When you speak to your children, look at them and don’t call out orders from a distance.   If you have any doubt as to whether a child has understood your instructions, ask them to repeat them to you.
  • Spend time with your children.Emotional development depends on the love and attention of parents.  This means interacting with your children on their level. Reading the newspaper or watching TV doesn’t count as ‘quality time.’
  • Give choices within limits. Children want and need to feel some control.Having some positive control helps them be independent and confident.  Rather than always giving orders, set limits instead.  Parents can also involve children in determining the disciplinary process and setting consequences (punishments). This helps development of independence and cooperation. 
  • Help children understand consequences, which are the results of choices the children make.There are two kinds of consequences: natural and logical. Natural consequences just happen. For example, if children do not eat, they get hungry.  Logical consequences is created by parents, so a child who purposely hits his sister with his new toy will have to give it up.
  • Be consistent.Always treat the same behaviour the same way, no matter the place or time. The more consistent you are, the more effective disciplining will be. Parents need especially to stay consistent in public, which is usually the most difficult and unpleasant.  Don’t worry about what others are thinking but simply persist in maintaining the limits that are important to you.  For example, if a child misbehaves in a restaurant, the child should be taken outside for a while. She can return after a while but don’t keep food for her. Although unpleasant, missing her food treat helps to teach her the limits.
  • Notice good behaviour.Be sure to catch your child being good and obeying limits. Let them know you approve by positive words and actions.

The source of this information was based on the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr Cai Yiming & Dr Daniel Fung.


Are we teaching our children when they’re ready to learn?


“Education is the single most important job of the human race.” —George Lucas

Our education system demands that children have to start school in a certain window of time.  The law states that a South African child may start school at the age of five-and-a-half, provided she turns six by June 30 of her Grade One year.  A child must start school by the year in which she turns seven.   If children seem ready before the prescribed age, they may be denied entrance to school. Others may be forced to begin formal schooling because they meet the age requirements.

How wise is this approach?  Are all children exactly the same in terms of learning readiness or interest in learning?   Added to this is the fact that in many instances, children are being expected to begin formal learning before Grade 1.  Government schools are now teaching reading skills to pre-schoolers even though there is neurodevelopmental evidence to show that its more efficient to teach them to read at an older age.  It seems that any advantage from learning to read earlier is cancelled out in later years.

An overly crowded curriculum means that young children might struggle to keep up with work that once was designed for higher grade levels.  Failure to cope is seen to be the learner’s problem rather a deficiency of the curriculum. The result is that some children are feeling stressed, anxious and inadequate.  This is wrong because they don’t have a problem. The problem is that they are not ready to learn what they are being taught.

There are very fundamental skills that need to be in place for a child to meet the demands of Grade 1 and beyond. For example, a child needs to be able to see and reproduce the oblique line in a triangle to recognise and write letters like K and R.  They need to have an understanding of numbers to really understand adding and subtracting.

What pre-schoolers need is the freedom to play, albeit it in carefully designed environments.  This allows them to develop the basics for those key skills. They don’t need to become proficient in reading and writing.

Brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.  As adults, perhaps you have looked at your child’s schoolwork and wondered how you, at the same age, found such seemingly simple work as being challenging.   Rushing academic teaching may neglect ensuring that basic skills are well embedded in children’s neural networks.

In their book, Stixrud and Johnson (see reference below) relate that one of the ‘most obvious problems we see from rushed academic training is poor pencil grip. Holding a pencil properly is actually pretty difficult. You need to have the fine motor skills to hold the pencil lightly between the tips of the first two fingers and the thumb, to stabilize it, and to move it both horizontally and vertically using only your fingertips. In a preschool class of 20 we know of in which the kids were encouraged to write much too early, 17 needed occupational therapy to correct the workarounds they’d internalized in order to hold a pencil.’

There are always exceptions.  Some children are ready to learn and manage school-based tasks at a younger age than others.  Some of them go on to starting post-school studies in their early or middle teens. We are, however, concerned with all children and many, especially from our disadvantaged communities, are simply not equipped to deal with accelerated learning practices.  Replacing fundamentals with academics won’t help our failing education system.

Reference: The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson, published on February 13, 2018, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.


Stress in children – recognize the signs



It is very unusual for children to be able to verbalise feelings of stress.  Instead, they show unhappiness or stress in their behaviour.  Such behaviours aren’t always the expected ones, like illnesses and depression, but can range from throwing tantrums and telling lies to stealing. Here are some signs that may alert you to stress in a child:

 Stressed children may complain of physical discomfort, for example, headaches and tummy aches. If doctors find nothing wrong, do consider fear and anxiety being possibly part of the reasons for these complaints. For example, Jan began to refuse to eat breakfast and said that he didn’t want to go to school.All of this started when his father left to work overseas a month or so ago and the stress of the separation caused his symptoms.

  • Boys especially may show disturbed and disruptive behaviour.Adults may label his actions as being naughty or undisciplined but it is worth looking for other causes too.
  • Other children may react to stress by withdrawing and being quiet.Their stress is difficult to spot because even their parents may not notice they have problems.
  • Most children have difficulties talking about their mental stress. They don’t have the vocabulary or the ability to translate strong feelings into words.Conflicting emotions and thoughts make it even harder for them, for example, when they experience anger, jealousy, hostility and unhappiness with their parents, siblings or other people.
  • Sometimes the cause of stress in children may be the parents themselves.These days, children are aware of the high rates of divorce so parental conflict may make them scared of a parent leaving them.  While it may be healthy to argue superficially in front of your children (and so model conflict resolution), personal attacks on each other should be avoided and conflict over parenting styles or how to care for children should be private.  For example, Bettie’s parents often quarreled over her upbringing and schoolwork.  She resorted to stealing sweets from the local café in an attempt to distract her parents from their frequent arguments. Unfortunately, they misinterpreted her behaviour and punished her severely.

 It’s natural for children to show emotional disturbances or behaviour difficulties from time to time.  They suffer fears at certain ages that may be stressful for them; toddlers do throw temper tantrums that have nothing to do with real stress; teenagers commonly show defiance at some stage or another.  But do be on the lookout and seek professional help

 When your child is doing something that is not expected for her age and circumstances

  • If the child is causing or experiencing suffering or a period of distress in his or her life
  • Should you notice that the child’s ability to lead a healthy, normal life has been affected.

 Stress in childhood can create much distress for not only the children but also for those who care for them.  Severe stress left untreated can delay their physical, psychological, social and intellectual development.  This in turn affects their ability to function in their daily life and may lead to underachievement at school and beyond.


Content of this post was based on information in the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr C Yiming & Dr D Fung.

Raising readers




There’s no doubt that children who enjoy reading have an advantage at school.  Good reading skills simply make learning that much easier.  Enjoyment of reading, however, is difficult to achieve – especially in this day of high amounts of visual input from media devices.  Some children may resist reading instruction and consequently fall behind.

In addition, the Education Department is compelling schools to start the teaching of reading at Grade R level, which might be a little young for some children.

The result may be the development of reading anxiety, leading to less than competent reading skills. This in turn may lead to underachievement.

Dr Sylvia Rimm is an internationally respected psychologist who specialises in underachievement.  She shared tips to reduce reading anxiety in her book entitled ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it’.  The following summarises her work: 

  • Children shouldn’t be forced to read aloud to their parents at home. This is because some parents are anxious about their child’s reading and may pass this on to the child. When children read poorly, most parents feel tense.Obviously a child who enjoys reading aloud may do so if he or she choose to do so.
  • Parents should continue to read aloud to their children way past the age when they can read for themselves.Sharing the enjoyment of books is important, and there is no reason to stop reading together – even up to Grade 8.
  • Children should be allowed to stay up half an hour later at night if they’re in their beds reading to themselves.They won’t miss out on sleep because they’ll most likely fall asleep with the books on their chests.  Certainly the reading time allowed will be beneficial.
  • Encourage children to read whatever they like during that half hour before sleep.Don’t insist they read school prescribed or grade-level material. Comics, cartoons, sports magazines, easy material and books already read numerous times are all good for reading enjoyment.  The important thing is that they learn to love reading.  Interest in broadening their reading repertoire will happen as their reading improves.
  • Encourage children to read stories while listening to tapes of the stories. Don’t be too concerned if it seems they are not actually reading: they will eventually.
  • Model reading by having books on hand that children see you are enjoying. Newspapers and magazine count as well.
  • Encourage children to read to their younger siblings – as long as the younger children are not better readers than they are! Try to leave the children alone while they are reading/listening. Don’t hover around them.
  • Visit and browse through bookshops and libraries when out shopping.Make sure you have enough time for these visits rather than simply rushing in to exchange books or buy a book. Obviously it’s important that children belong to a library, where they can spend valuable time.


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