So, what can you do? Here are some easy steps you can take to reduce anxiety in your child. TODAY!
1. Home routines
An easy way to take down the stress levels is to establish and maintain proper routines. This allows the anxious child to predict what is going to happen, to be prepared and thus less stressed.
MEALS - have dinner at the same time every night, especially on a school night. In our house I start dinner while my daughter is in the shower. When she emerges, shrouded in steam, she is always happy to see me preparing her meal. This calms her and prevents questions like 'when's dinner?'
CHORES - Every child needs to contribute to the household by carrying out their chores, which will hopefully become a habit. You're not just teaching them to be neat, tidy and organised, you're teaching them to respectful of others, your home and themselves. Also, children need to feel like they have accomplished something and having chores makes them feel proud when you praise them for it. Our daughter feeds the chickens, collects the eggs and puts out the recycling. Twice a day. Keeping her own room tidy is not a chore, it's an expectation.
READING AT NIGHT - Many studies have shown the benefits of reading to your child at night. Children who are read to score higher on literacy tests, have a bigger vocabulary, read and write better and are more confident. But the greatest gift you get from reading to your child at night is that it calms him/her down, ready to sleep. Choose a good quality book, a little higher than their reading level, to improve their vocab. It doesn't have to be a story. It can be a non-fiction book that interests them, such as: bugs, dinosaurs, machines, how nature works, animals, space and other sciences, myths and legends etc. There's an excellent article on reading to older kids here: reading to older kids
HOMEWORK - Make sure you supervise homework and show an interest in what your child is doing. Homework can be distressing to the perfectionistic or under-achieving child. If you are there to guide and praise it makes homework more fun. If your child is really struggling with the work, you can write the teacher a note, keeping the lines of communication open between home and school.
PACKING OWN SCHOOL BAG - I make my daughter's lunch, but she has to organise her bag herself and get herself dressed for school. We used to have a list on the fridge of what she needed to do. That's no longer necessary.
2. Limit the number and type of questions
Sometimes questions are a cry for help, sometimes a sign of boredom and sometimes actual, genuine desire to know. I used to get pestered about what was for dinner. Sometimes I don't know until I see what's in the fridge. So now I say 'Food.' When she asks what kind, I say 'Delicious food' and no more. She knows not to persist and its become a sort of game. 'I know what you're going to say, Mum - delicious food!' If she asks unnecessary questions, when it's obvious what I'm doing, I say 'Is that a necessary question?' When she asks questions about stuff I don't know or am too tired to think about, such as 'Why does the sun always hurt my eyes?' I say 'Ask me a question I can answer!' If things are really bad and I need some peace I allow only one question every ten minutes.
3. Limit the after-school activities
I have noticed in the last ten years or so that many parents are involving their children in afternoon sports or activities almost every day of the week. In my teaching work I see exhausted children. They don't have time to complete their homework and have no relaxation time with their family doing simple, home-based things, like cleaning out the garage together, playing in the garden/park, craft activities at the kitchen table or cooking dinner together. Playing is huge part of childhood. Being in the backyard or down at the park is essential for good mental and physical growth. If you are there to join in, it's even better! We have a big backyard, with trampoline, trees to climb, swing, scooter, bike and nearby public swimming pool, so there's never a reason to be bored. If its a habit to play outside instead of turning to the TV/computer/x-box you will find your child is happier and calmer. Trust me! There's an interesting article on tree climbing here: www.wordconstructions.com.au
4. Down time/chat time
Make sure there are at least a couple of minutes in the day when you connect in a meaningful way with your child. You need to sit together, cuddle or make eye contact and really see what is going on in their life today. The standard question, 'So how was school?' will probably get you a monosyllabic response, so be more specific - 'What was the best thing about school today?' Stay in touch with how they feel about their friends, the teacher, their favourite subject, the books they're reading, their frustrations and fears. Be the sounding board they want you to be. No amount of judo lessons, swimming or Art classes can replace what they get from their own parent's undivided attention and love.
5. Formalise your routines in a chart
So that everyone is on the same page and to reduce anxiety and confusion, put your routines on a chart and display it where everyone can see, ie: the fridge. We did this when our daughter started school and it helped enormously. There were fewer arguments. All I had to do was point at the chart and raise my eyebrow! This also gives you the opportunity to reward effort, which is a hugely important part of this whole thing.
6. Be consistent!
In all your decisions and dealings, be as consistent as possible. Don't go back on your word, don't change your mind on a whim. Make your child's life as safely predictable as is possible. Even when you're dog-tired, don't let the child decide what happens in your household. You are the leader. You must lead. Failure to do so results in acute anxiety and a feeling of being unsafe, despite your child's efforts to take over. Say 'because I am the adult and it's my job to look after you and make decisions for you.' Don't be drawn into long discussions about it. You're the boss. Try to be fair and reasonable, but in the end remember, it's not a democracy! Your child doesn't have the knowledge and wisdom to determine their own life just yet. That's your job. Give them little bits of control by presenting a couple of options (pre-approved by you of course) but don't let them direct proceedings. It's a dangerous precedent and they will be watching you closely to see if there are cracks in your resolve.
When children have structure in their home lives, even if they buck against it, they feel safer and more secure. They feel part of the clan.
Children with Aspie traits often find the world a confusing place. Routines and structures help to anchor them and calm them. There needs to be time for play, time for homework, time for meals, time for chat and alone time. If necessary, plot these times on a chart, with the relevant time slots.
We can all benefit from routines. When tragedy strikes it is often our established routines which help us cope.
If your child is on the Autism spectrum you will find excellent resources here: http://www.thelittleredplayhouse.com/