Anxiety: friend or foe?
Anxiety disorders have become the second most common mental health condition in Australians aged 4 to 17 according to a recent government report. More than half of children with an anxiety disorder say it mildly or moderately affects their ability to function at school.
Being able to regulate emotions is key to managing anxiety and to forming and maintaining friendships.
“We all have a stress response,” Ms Osborne said. “For our ancestors it was about self-protection, but we can create that in our brain without actually being exposed to danger and that leads to anxiety.
“Where we feel excluded in the playground we can have just as strong a response in the brain as to a real physical danger. As we learn to hold our own emotional experience it enables us to turn that outward and to empathise with others.”
Deep breathing can help improve mindfulness and sleep, and can calm emotions.
“Bringing the breath down to the belly activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the ability to calm down,” Ms Osborne said. “It gets us out of the ‘fight or flight’ response, so it’s really a tool for life since we now know that social-emotional learning affects academic performance as well.
“When you practice something like belly breathing the thoughts are coming and going, so you’re learning not to react to thoughts. You’re also having your emotional experience and letting it be so you’re actually practicing something that is really helpful in terms of friendships – to think before you act.”
Role to play
Supervised play dates are another great way for parents to support their children’s social development and offer an opportunity to role model good behaviours including listening and sharing.
“Children in a sense bring what is at home to school,” Ms Osborne said. “Parents are very powerful role models. Inviting friends over and making time for every day interactions that are great practice like going shopping together, playing games as a family, and bringing play dates over encourage those skills of listening, taking turns, problem-solving and sharing.
“Team sports help children to learn that losing is okay.”
Conflict and bullying
Bullying that is systematic or severe should always be reported, but as Ms Osborne notes, children can be mean to each other within friendships too. Active listening can help.
“Often sensitive children are more affected, where another child might shrug some of that meanness off,” she said. “Children need to learn how to manage conflict. Part of that is helping them to problem solve what is helpful and what’s not. Being able to reach out for help is a really important thing for children to learn. This includes having an adult to talk to.
“Sometimes parents get upset on the child’s behalf and that can grow the problem. Active listening, where children are encouraged to find their own solutions, gives a sense that they can sort out their problems, obviously within an age-appropriate realm, and helps children to learn skills like assertiveness.
“Reflecting feelings is also important. The parent might say ‘I guess that made you feel sad. So what could you do, or what could you have done? What would have happened if you did that?’
“You might use different strategies, sometimes to talk to someone about it. Sometimes ignoring that person stops it because it’s a bit boring for them when you don’t react. Actual bullying should never be tolerated.”
Parentline: 1300 30 1300
Bullying. No Way! website: bullyingnoway.gov.au