It’s incredibly common for kids to have anxiety: in fact, anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions for kids! Anxiety presents in a lot of different ways: It can look like worrying, panic, trouble sleeping, and even anger. Anxiety can be quiet: you might only gradually start to realize that your child has anxiety because they’ve kept it to themselves. However, the good news is that anxiety has a variety of effective treatments available, in addition to things you can do at home to help. Always remember that you should go to a professional if you’re concerned about your child’s anxiety, but I’ve provided a few coping tips in the meantime.
1. Teach your child relaxation techniques.
When your body is feeling anxious, it’s hard to soothe your mind. With anxiety, it’s more difficult for the brain to process input and select among options – making it harder to think. So, one of the first steps to fighting anxiety is calming the body to help out the brain. For anyone who has experienced anxiety, this is more difficult than it sounds. Telling your body to magically relax doesn’t work – and can often make it worse. Your kid might ask themselves why they can’t relax and get stressed about not being able to relax – ironically, increasing their anxiety.
If your child is struggling with anxiety, consider teaching slow breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is a type of breathing that draws breath from the abdomen instead of the chest. When you’re breathing through your diaphragm, your stomach instead of your chest expands. Remember too that your kid should be breathing in through their nose and out through their mouth to get the most relaxation. Like everything in life, it’s something that improves with practice – don’t be discouraged if your child struggles at first. You could start by telling your child to imagine smelling their favorite thing, which naturally slows down breathing.
There are tips and tricks to help teach kids diaphragmatic breathing. Consider the “Take 5 Breathing Exercise for Kids.” The idea of this exercise is to teach kids the pattern of deep breathing. Kids stretch out their hands and breathe in and out as they slide a finger up and down their hand. Or try guided visualization - it still uses deep breathing but pairs it with visualizing a calming experience. There is no “wrong” way to try relaxation – feel free to experiment and see what works best for your kid.
2. Discuss thinking traps.
Many kids with anxiety have “thinking traps” that lead them to feel more anxious. Thinking traps are thought patterns that are overly negative/extreme and help fuel anxiety. For example, maybe Shauna thinks she can’t turn in a homework assignment unless it’s perfect. Now she’s too anxious to even start the assignment! Addressing thinking traps is a way to decrease anxiety; this is the whole theory behind cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a treatment of choice for many mental health conditions, especially anxiety disorders. It helps replace negative or extreme thoughts with more helpful ways of thinking.
As a play therapist, Rob brings cognitive-behavioral therapy into play therapy using the language of kids. To do this, he talks about thinking traps in terms of the metaphor of a “logical protector” and “worry bully.”
You can try something similar with your child. Explain that the worry bully is our emotions: it preys off of our biggest fears. It motivates our anxiety and leads to unhelpful thinking. It’s the voice in our head that says we aren’t good enough, that others don’t like us, and that things can’t change. The logical protector helps provide us with helpful thinking that shuts down the worry bully. It wants us to have fun, be safe, and find solutions to our problems. The logical protector tells us that we are enough, that people like us, and that change is possible.
The next time your child is worrying, try asking them: What would the logical protector say?
3. Emphasize an active lifestyle.
Physical activity is an antidote to anxiety because anxiety is often experienced in the body. Intense aerobic exercise tends to be the most effective type of exercise for anxiety, but any kind of exercise will help. Physical exercise reduces cortisol, a stress hormone that is linked to anxiety. It releases endorphins, which are chemicals that contribute to a sense of emotional well-being.
For kids, exercise can take the form of activities like play or sports. Does your kid hate gym class? Let them know that there’s a lot more to exercise than gym – including activities they don’t have to do in a group. For example, yoga is something kids can do alone or in a group. Jumping rope is another activity that doesn’t need other people, as well as playground activities like swinging and climbing on a jungle gym (though parental supervision is advised)!
However, don’t try to get your child to do a type of exercise that they consistently don’t want to do. Occasionally, your child might not feel like exercising – but if they don’t feel like doing gymnastics every time they’re supposed to go, maybe it’s not the right activity for them. To reap the full benefits of exercise, exercise should be fun – which is a natural motivator for kids to keep exercising. Explore the full range of exercise options out there, including classes, YouTube videos, and even video games where you earn points for exercising.
4. Utilize distractions as an anxiety-fighting tool.
Anxiety is often such a physical experience that your child can feel caught up in it. Giving the brain and body a distraction to focus on can help get your child through anxious feelings. It’s no magic bullet that will completely solve the issue, but it can take the edge off. The trick here is that the distracting activity has to be engaging, and it should require enough concentration that there is less space for anxious thoughts and sensations.
Activities that have this level of intensity/engagement can be different for each kid. For example, a video game that your kid loves could be a good distraction. Or maybe your child absolutely loves reading and finds it distracting. Even TV or the internet can be excellent distractions – if used in moderation. If your child has a favorite YouTuber or TikToker, try viewing their content during an anxiety episode and see if it helps distract your child.
Remember here that the idea of distraction is not to use avoidance. It’s to help make an already anxious situation feel a little less anxious. Distraction is not a long-term solution!
5. Help your child make an anti-anxiety kit.
Anxiety happens all the time. It’s important that kids know how to manage anxiety in any situation. Short sessions of deep breathing might be helpful, but it’s also good to have other tools in your child’s “anti-anxiety toolkit.”
So, how can you help your child make an anti-anxiety toolkit? First, go to the senses. Many times, scents are soothing. Consider a small container of an essential oil like lavender or vanilla that your child can put in a kit. Since anxiety tends to be visceral, items that use touch like fidget spinners or silly putty are commonly used in anti-anxiety kits. Stress balls are another option and can be made from home cheaply. Or, sometimes touching something soft and comforting can help with feelings of stress – consider including a small square of velvety fabric in the kit.
Relaxation prompt cards help your child navigate their self-talk. These cards can remind kids to think of a safe place, relax their bodies, or prompt the use of specific skills like deep breathing. You can even include a picture of your child’s loved ones if looking at the picture helps them feel calmer. Or, you could include a photo of a favorite vacation spot or another image that is calming – such as a still, smooth lake.
The most important thing is to personalize the kit based on what helps soothe your child. Talking with them about things that they find calming – even just a little bit – helps point the way. You might even be creative with your anti-anxiety kit and give it a theme - Rob teaches kids to use a treasure chest that is filled with forgotten positive self-coping skills.
Above all, remind your child that anxiety is a common experience that everyone goes through. It’s okay to feel anxious but it’s important to have strategies for dealing with anxiety. Always remember you can and should see a professional if you feel like you need more help. Stay safe and be well!
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