When children experience anxiety they can quickly start to avoid activities, not wanting to aggravate the uncomfortable feelings. This leads to a situation where their world becomes smaller and smaller, whilst their worries when they need to step out of it grow bigger and bigger.
Whilst allowing them to avoid things can feel the best option, as watching them navigate distressing or uncomfortable feelings is unpleasant, restricting the size of their comfort zone can have longer term consequences, particularly when they come across situations that they cannot avoid.
This concept can be referred to as a ‘window of tolerance‘ (coined by Dr Dan Siegel). A window of tolerance is a child’s comfortable state of being able to function. The wider the window of tolerance, the more a child can cope with and maintain normal functioning. The smaller the window of tolerance, the harder a child will find it to manage situations as they see the world as being more unpredictable and unsafe. A child with anxiety frequently has a smaller zone of tolerance. When a child experiences a situation which is not in their comfort zone the reaction takes them outside of their zone of tolerance and creates anxiety symptoms.
Therefore, supporting a child to increase their window of tolerance allows them to experience wider opportunities without become dis-regulated. Whilst this can take time, supporting children to stretch their window of tolerance means:
- reduced anxiety
- increased confidence
- increased problem solving skills
- increased resilience
- increased coping mechanisms
- increased self-esteem
- a knowledge that they know how to manage situations
You can support children by:
- Take time to observe children and identify which activities, routines, people and interactions are inside their window of tolerance and which are outside
- Discuss with children which activities they would like to be able to do that are outside their window of tolerance
- Break these activities into smaller parts and focus on achieving them in order until a child can complete them confidently then move on.
- At each stage support children to use regulation activities such as talking about the feelings, calming activities and breathing..
- Working at the child’s pace and ensuring that they feel able to approach activities confidently before moving on.
- Reflect and evaluate targets regularly.
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