Anxiety can take a huge toll on children and parents. While it is normal for everyone to have worries, or even anxieties that come and go, regular anxiety that gets in the way of functioning in day to day life is not. If your child is either demonstrating avoidance or extreme distress, then it is important to take action. In this article we will provide you with activities and strategies for supprting kids with anxiety.
What are the symptoms of anxiety in children?
- Extreme distress
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Not eating well.
- Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts.
- Needing reassurance.
- Clinginess, extreme separation anxiety.
- Tummy aches or feeling unwell.
- Avoiding situations that cause worry/fear/anxiety.
** Please note, this article will not cover anxiety disorders.
When children are flooded with anxiety they feel the fear in their bodies because their overactive brain releases stress hormones causing an increased heart rate, racing thoughts, big emotions, headaches, tummy aches. This reaction is often confusing to children – causing more fear and distorted thinking. This then turns into an anxiety loop.
The good news is that family members have a lot they can do to help kids with anxiety when they create a safe space to talk about anxiety and make a plan with their child to take action. While child therapists are a wonderful thing to help an anxious child, it is also important to arm parents and caregivers with tools they can use as well.
The first step is to help a child learn about their anxiety.
A great way to coin it is their ‘worry brain’ because if we name it anxiety that can sound bigger and more worrisome to them, and we don’t want to feed into their anxiety. If you struggle with anxiety yourself this is a great opportunity to let your child know that they are not alone and even talk about tools you use to help.
- Talk about how every body experiences worry and anxiety sometimes. Anxiety is not dangerous and can sometimes be helpful in certain situations – this is the way our body tells us that there is something we aren’t comfortable with and can activate our flight response when needed. Sometimes though our minds worry too much and it makes it difficult for us to feel as confident in day to day life as we’d like to be.
- Talk about how when you give worries or anxious thoughts an inch they take a mile. The more we think about the things that worry us the more we fear it. But when we say it is okay to feel fear and do it anyway then fear begins to melt away.
- Talk about the difference between real worries and silly worries. Real worries are ones that are likely to come true – like worrying about being hit by a car as you ignore the traffic lights. Silly ones are worrying about aliens or monsters. Though a child may often be overwhelmed by silly worries it doesn’t mean they are, they just need to learn different ways to change those thoughts.
Once a child has more understanding of worries and how they work we can start to teach them how to combat those worries.
Learning new skills around anxiety work best when kids aren’t in a state of anxiety. It is hard to learn a new skill when in a state of high anxiety . So, sit down with your child when they are calm and in control and make a list of things they can do when they are overwhelmed with worries (we can call it their ‘calm down list’). This will help them learn all important positive coping skills. What a child puts on their list may depend on what they are interested in, but could include things like deep breaths, mindfulness exercises, reading their favorite books, playing board games, squeeze a stress ball, think positive thoughts, physical activity and so on. If you write this on a piece of paper then your child could post it somewhere that they can go and look at it to remind them of their strategies whenever they need to. They won’t necessarily remember all these strategies the first day you talk about them, but the more practice they get the more easily they’ll remember their strategies and have their favorite, more effective ones.
We can also teach them strategies based on cognitive behavioral therapy – changing negative thought patterns. This means teaching kids to talk back to their worry:
- “Those thoughts are silly, not important at all. I want to think about other things.”
- “I’m safe, my mommy and daddy are here. I don’t need to pay attention to my worries.”
It is also important for parents to think about what they are doing when their child is feeling anxiety. Oftentimes parents are inadvertently feeding into the anxiety because they are accommodating them – changing what they do to lessen the chance of any negative feelings, over talking about the worries to try and help their child feel better. These accommodating behaviors actually do more harm than good as it feeds into their fears. Making a plan to stop getting into discussions with children and instead reminding them of their strategies can help. You could even suggest a worry box to them – a place they can store all their worries. This can be a wonderful strategy for older children because it is a tangible act of getting rid of their worries when they put it in a box and have the box hold their anxious thoughts for them. This can even work for younger children, they just might need help writing down those worries so that they can put them in their worry box.
As child behavior coaches and sleep consultants we also advocate for making sure that all children, whether they experience anxiety or not, get a good night’s sleep. When children are not getting the sleep their bodies need this can increase their feelings of anxiety. It is much harder for kids to control their emotions and have an overall positive outlook when they aren’t getting enough sleep. If your child experiences an increase in anxiety at bedtime causing them to have a hard time falling asleep you can teach them relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises like belly breathing to help calm their nervous system so that they can relax into sleep. You can find some great youtube videos for kids to practice these techniques during wake times.
If all our tips on anxiety haven’t help it might be time to seek professional help. Either talk to us so that we can provide you with more tools to help your child, or look at someone who can work with your child one on one.