Reducing Your Children’s Anxiety
Recently, we have noticed a rising trend of anxiety in young children. This is particularly troubling as anxiety onset at a young age can lead to behavioural problems in the future. Thankfully, there are many tools and approaches designed to help your child cope with his/her anxiety.
Anxiety in young children come from their incapability of processing anxiety that fits under the norm of effective emotional regulation. Children don’t learn to effectively process multiple emotions until they are approximately 8 to 12 years old. Kids who are under the age of 8, are incapable of identifying or seeking relief from complex emotional experiences. This inability to process emotions in a healthy way will often lead to anxiety in children and prompt them to act out in different ways.
Often parents will come to therapy to seek answers for these tough questions: how can I help my child reduce anxiety, or (more commonly), how can I stop my anxious child from acting out? Clearly, this is a problem that carries much weight. Thus much attention has been devoted in the therapeutic world to teaching parents effective tools for helping their child to cope with complex emotions. It is our hope these tools will help prevent an anxiety that can easily overwhelm children.
Non-Directive Play Reduces Anxiety
One tool proven to be effective in reducing anxiety in young children is Non-Directive Play, also known as Child-Centred Play. Non-Directive Play is a soothing approach of play where the child is given ultimate freedom of expression to play however they want to. Basically, the child is free to choose the items they want to play with, without getting judged or evaluated by the parent or caregiver. Children are given this freedom in a pre-determined play structure and pre-established timeline. The theory is a child’s anxiety will decrease when they are allowed freedom to play as they wish without any evaluation or scrutiny by a parent.
During a Non-Directive Play session, a parent will sit with their child and give the child plenty of space to engage in that world freely. There are instructions given beyond the predetermined parameters. The parent will engage by simply learning to notice and describe what their child is doing during the play. These statements are free of judgement or evaluation. This means parents should refrain from giving any signs of approval or disapproval while the child is playing. The parent is present only to observe and reflect a genuine interest in the child’s exploration and activities. This can be expressed in a warm manner, gentle voice, and other clear indications of positive regard. Non-Directive Play allows the child to bask in the attention of his or her parent without having to give any explanations of justifications. In this framework, the parent gets to be the opportunity to be a warm and acknowledging presence for the child.
Improving Coping Skills for Those With Anxiety
Research has shown that engaging in this type of play semi-regularly can improve a child’s ability to cope with anxiety as well as increase their self-confidence and independence. In the study of effects of teaching parents to engage in Non-Directive Play with their children, Wilson & Ryan (2001) found that children showed improvement in terms of becoming “more manageable and accept(ing) adult control more readily”. In addition, Wilson & Ryan (2001) found the self-esteem and social skills of children may increase through continued use of non-directive play, making them more amenable to discipline. In a 2008 study, Ray also spoke of the positive impacts of Non-Directive Play, noting improvements in children who were exposed to this technique. You see improvements in their anxiety symptoms, markedly better social skills, and a decrease in any clinical behavioural problems.
Lin, Y. & Bratton, S. C. (2015). A meta‐analytic review of child‐centered play therapy approaches. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 45-58.
Ray, D. C. (2008). Impact of play therapy on parent-child relationship stress at a mental health training setting. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 36(2), 165-187.
Wilson, K. & Ryan, V. (2001). Helping parents by working with their children in individual child therapy. Child & Family Social Work, 6(3), 209-217.