A boy’s experience of anxiety is influenced profoundly by his parents and other caregivers. From small moments of help through to moving mountains, the support provided to a boy by the people who spend the most time with him affects his ability to recognise, cope with, and rise to all of life’s challenges; anxiety is just another among many.
With understanding and effective strategies, parents and other primary carers are beautifully placed to nurture and optimise a boy’s mental health and support them to thrive even when anxiety is part of the picture.
Health professionals are in a unique position to not only directly support boys in their care to understand and manage anxiety, but also to educate and upskill his parents and other caregivers so they can have a positive influence on a boy’s mental health each day.
There are many insights, skills and messages that health professionals can call upon during a consultation, when caring for boys with anxiety. Modelling behaviours during interactions with boys, for parents and carers who are present, can demonstrate their value.
Sharing these five insights with primary carers will help foster connections, responses and interactions that will help boys understand their anxiety, develop skills in self-regulation, and help them learn how to take the wheel when anxiety threatens to steer them away from what matters, and to dial anxiety down.
1. The power of co-regulation
One of the greatest gifts parents can share with their boys is calmness, but this is only possible when parents and caregivers are well placed to share it! Parenting is challenging, and the competing demands most adults are faced with each day can result in them reacting, rather than responding, to the upsets and hardships experienced by boys. The development of a boy’s ability to regulate his emotions will grow with each experience of being soothed and supported by a calm parent.
2. Understanding anxiety
A diagnosis of anxiety in a boy can be a great source of distress and anxiety for parents and caregivers. The ‘what if?’ questions and catastrophising can make it hard for parents to settle their own nervous system and to be present and helpful when anxiety bubbles up for their son. Understanding that anxiety is a normal human emotion, that it’s fundamentally protective and that some brains are more sensitive to ‘threats’ in the environment that trigger the brain’s ‘surveillance system’, is a helpful start. It’s equally helpful for parents to know that anxiety is well understood, is treatable, and that they’re perfectly placed to help.
3. Recognising anxiety
The experience of anxiety is different for each boy. Some experience the nausea that arises as blood from the gut is temporarily pushed to the limbs. Some feel irritated, even angry, which comes from the ‘fight’ side of the fight or flight response. Some feel teary, some feel exhausted, many worry terribly and most struggle to pay attention to much of what is happening around them when their anxiety is high. Of course, there are countless permutations of these signs and symptoms of anxiety.
It can be helpful to work with parents to help them understand how their son experiences anxiety, so it’s more easily recognisable by the boy himself and the adults who care for him, under these four areas:
- Physical sensations
4. Responding with empathy
When our children feel anxious, we feel it too. Emotional contagion of this nature moves parents and caregivers to want to help, but their own distress can get in the way of their ability to respond in helpful ways. What’s needed in those moments are recognition that anxiety is rising, and empathetic and soothing caregiver support. Empathy has a handful of components which boil down to parents imagining themselves in their son’s ‘shoes’, listening mindfully, and showing their boys that they understand. As much as a child’s distress is difficult to sit with, parents can be incredibly supportive and shape their son’s emotional regulation skills by sharing calmness, helping them label how they feel, and supporting them to experience their anxiety, without needing to ‘fix things’ for them.
5. Out of their heads
After noticing, labelling and experiencing anxiety when it rises, the time comes for getting boys ‘out of their head and into their body’. Some boys might want to shoot hoops or pick up a musical instrument; others might prefer to do a breathing exercise. Ideas abound when it comes to this next phase of living with anxiety and boys quickly work out their ‘go-to’ activity which acts as a bridge between their experience of anxiety and getting back into life.