Anxiety in children is a topic very close to my heart.
You see, I struggled with pretty debilitating phobias when I was in elementary school, and while I mostly outgrew my fears by the time I reached high school, I’ve always experienced varying levels of anxiety throughout my life. Most of the time, it’s completely manageable and I’m able to shoo my distorted thoughts away the moment they enter my brain, but when life gets stressful, it’s not as easy for me to stay grounded.
The good news is that I’ve developed quite the collection of coping strategies over the span of my life. I recognize the signs of an impending anxiety attack, I know what I need to do to calm myself down, and if I can’t bring myself to a complete state of zen, I am cognizant enough to realize that the physical reactions I’m experiencing will eventually go away.
The bad news is that my daughter also suffers from anxiety, and while I always assumed I would be the PERFECT person to parent a child with big worries, I’ve learned that anxiety manifests itself very differently from person to person, and the things I wish someone had done for me when I was a child aren’t necessarily the things my own daughter needs.
As you can imagine, I’ve spent a lot of time researching anxiety in children and different coping strategies to help teach appropriate self-regulation over the last couple of years, and it’s been extremely eye-opening. Not only do I understand my daughter’s worries better, but I also have a much better understanding of the things I should – and should not – do to help bring her back to a place of calm.
If you have an anxious child, this post has tons of helpful information about anxiety in children: what it is, how it presents itself, my best tips for parents who have an anxious child, and some great coping skills for kids!
What is Anxiety?
There are many different ways to define anxiety, and if I was asked to give my own definition, I’d say it’s the natural reaction our bodies have to a stressful event or situation. We all experience anxiety to some degree throughout our lives – on the first day of school, when we start a new job, or when we do something outside of our comfort zone – but when the feelings are extreme, last longer than they should, and/or interfere with our ability to function each day, it can be a sign that we are suffering from an anxiety disorder.
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety in Children?
Anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. Some kids display a lot of symptoms and their anxiety is obvious, whereas others may internalize their feelings, making a diagnosis more difficult. As a general rule, children typically display one or more of the following:
- Headaches or stomachaches that have no medical cause
- Crying or getting extremely upset about something minor
- Worrying excessively about something for no apparent reason
- Acting out beyond what you might expect from a situation
If you suspect your child may suffer from anxiety, it’s important to speak to her doctor first to ensure something else isn’t going on.
How to Cope with an Anxious Child
Before we dive into anxiety coping skills for kids, here are some pointers for parents of anxious children. Because let’s face it: parenthood is hard enough without trying to figure out how to make your child’s fears and phobias go away. It can be heartbreaking to watch your little one worrying needlessly over things you don’t understand, and when it starts impacting your child’s sleep, willingness to go to school, and overall temperament, it can really test your patience.
If this sounds like you, here are 7 great tips to help you cope with an anxious child:
1. DO WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD
Some kids like to talk about the things that worry them ad nauseam, whereas others become more upset when they discuss their fears out loud. Some kids like lots of hugs and cuddles, other like to be left alone when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. Pay attention to the things that calm your child, and take note of the things that heighten her anxiety so you can better support her.
2. BE EMPATHETIC AND REASSURING
One of the worst parts about experiencing anxiety, particularly when you’re a young child, is feeling as though no one understands, and that there’s something wrong with you. No matter how far-fetched your child’s fears are, remember that they are very real to her. Get down on her level, take the time to listen to her, remind her that everyone has worries, and share examples of the things that make you anxious, and what you do to make yourself feel better.
3. DON’T AVOID STRESSFUL SITUATIONS
As tempting as it is to help our children avoid the things that cause them anxiety, this encourages ‘escape/avoidance’ behaviors, which actually maintain and intensify anxieties over time. Exposure Therapy (ET), in which a therapist (or a parent) works with a child to break down specific anxiety-provoking situations into several, smaller fears can help. The idea is to expose the child to each situation – starting with the one that causes the least amount of fear first – and have the child stay within the fear-inducing situation until her anxiety has come down. Reward charts are a great way to get kids motivated to participate in ET when used properly!
4. USE THE ‘ONE AND LATER’ APPROACH
I’ve often read articles in which therapists discuss the success of using a ‘one and done’ approach when trying to treat anxiety in children. The idea is simple enough: when a child wants to talk about something that’s causing her anxious thoughts, you engage in the discussion for a minute or so, and then you’re not ‘allowed’ to talk about it again. The assumption is that by not talking about her worries, the child will stop focusing on them. I like the premise behind this technique, but I prefer a ‘one and later’ approach as I feel taking away the ability to discuss a fear or worry for the rest of the day can be too overwhelming for some kids.
5. REDUCE ANTICIPATORY STRESS
If your child exhibits anxiety leading up to stressful events, like taking medicine or visiting the doctor, try to find ways to reduce anticipatory stress. Don’t allow them to see or know they have to take medicine until it’s mixed and ready to be swallowed, don’t tell them about doctor appointments until you arrive in the parking lot, etc.
6. KEEP CALMING TOOLS HANDY
If your child has a tendency to get nervous and agitated when you’re away from the comforts of home, make sure to have some calming tools handy. Squeeze balls, soothing music, kaleidoscopes, and playdoh are all great ways to offer a child an outlet to get their worries out when they feel overwhelmed.
7. INCORPORATE RELAXING ACTIVITIES INTO YOUR DAILY ROUTINE
If your child is plagued by big worries, setting aside time each day to relax, unwind, and connect with one another can make a world of difference. The more relaxed and supported your child feels, the more likely she’ll be to open up to you about her fears and worries. \
Calming Anxiety: 8 Coping Skills for Kids
Anxiety in children can be difficult to treat, particularly when we don’t understand the reasoning behind our child’s fears, but there are certain strategies you can teach your child to help her cope when her worries threaten to take over her body. Here are 8 ideas we love!
1. MINDFUL BREATHING
When a child is experiencing feelings of anxiety, her breathing pattern will change. She’ll start to take short, fast, and shallow breaths, which makes anxiety much worse. Mindful breathing – taking in a slow breath through the nose, holding the breath for a few seconds, then exhaling slowly through the mouth – will help your child focus on something other than her anxiety, and once her breathing has slowed, she will feel more calm.
2. ASSESS THE SIZE OF THE PROBLEM
Kids often lack the ability to assess which of the problems they encounter are big and which are small, and helping your child evaluate anxiety-provoking situations will teach her how to make this judgment on her own over time.
3. ASK AN ADULT FOR BIG SQUEEZES
Sometimes a big bear hug from mom can make a huge difference in making big worries feel more bearable.
4. DO A SENSORY CHECK IN
This is another coping skill to help children with anxiety that I love. When your child is feeling overwhelmed, ask her to sit in a quiet place and encourage her to use each of her 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) to identify with her surroundings. What does she see? What does she hear? What does she smell? It may seem a bit silly at first, and if your child feels that way, that’s totally okay! The point is to focus on the sensory input she’s receiving from the world around her instead of the invasive, anxious thoughts she’s feeling. And when those anxiety-provoking thoughts do threaten to take over, remind her to dismiss them and imagine them floating away from her.
5. COUNTING OR RECITING
This is an easy coping skill for kids as it can be used absolutely anywhere, and it continues to help me when I feel overwhelmed and anxious. When big worries start to brew, remind your child to count or recite something. You can make this as easy (count from 1 to 20) or complex (recite the alphabet backwards) as you need, and you can do it out loud or silently in your mind. Give it a try – it really does help!
6. REMEMBER: THEY’RE JUST THOUGHTS
Sometimes all our kids need when they feel overwhelmed is a reminder that the things they are worried about are just thoughts – that they aren’t real and can’t hurt them. Encouraging them to think of their thoughts as a tangible object they can shoo away can be really empowering. I always make a production of getting my daughter to ‘throw away’ the things she’s worrying about. It’s surprisingly fun and provides a greater feeling of control.
7. THING OF SOMETHING THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
We once watched an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood in which Daniel was feeling anxious about going to the doctor, and his mom broke into song (as she often does) and sang, ‘close your eyes, and think of something happy!’ I had no idea at the time, but those words have become important ones in our household as it reminds us to remember the good things when we are starting to feel overwhelmed by the bad.
About 10 years ago, I connected with my childhood babysitter on Facebook. Her photos and stories about her daughter always capture my heart, and shortly after my own daughter was born, I sent her a private message telling her how much she inspires me as a mother. She wrote back telling me that, since she only has one child, she figures she only has ONE chance to get it right, and uses that as motivation to be the best mom she can be each and everyday. She will never know how much those words have shaped my journey as an anxious mom raising an anxious child, and I hope my tips and tricks about childhood anxiety prove helpful to you.
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