10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

 

Childhood anxiety is tricky business. There are a lot of misconceptions, and often times it either goes unchecked or becomes a blame game. Parents get blamed. Kids get blamed. Even teachers and schools get blamed.

Here’s the deal: Anxiety has a genetic component. Some kids are more anxious than others, but they don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder. Others do. “Bad parenting” doesn’t cause anxiety. Kids don’t create their own anxiety. Circumstances can trigger anxious feelings, but they don’t cause anxiety. Blaming holds little value when it comes to helping kids with anxiety.

Uncovering the worries and unpacking the feelings are different than blaming. In helping kids understand their triggers, we empower them to use adaptive coping strategies when they confront those triggers.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes kids (of all ages) have huge, anxiety-based meltdowns and it’s really difficult to know what to do in the moment. Sometimes they yell and scream and tell you to go away, even though they secretly want you to stay. This isn’t a test. Anxiety is overwhelming and kids have a tendency to say the opposite of what they mean when they’re overwhelmed with emotion.

So what can parents do when kids are in meltdown mode and talking doesn’t even feel like a possibility? The strategies below are some favorites as identified by many kids in my office over the years. Note: All kids are different and not every strategy will appeal to every kid. Try a few to figure out how to help calm your child when she needs you the most.

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Bear hug.

Sounds simple, right? The problem is that sometimes kids scream things like, “go away!” or “leave me alone!” or “I’m FINE!” when they’re overwhelmed by anxiety, and this causes parents to back away.

I’ve had many kids sit on my couch and say that what they really want (even when they say otherwise) is a big bear hug from mom or dad. The combination of pressure and loving embrace helps release some of the tension contributing to the anxious feelings and provides a safe space to release those emotions.

Read old favorites.

Think twice before you start donating old picture books. Just because your child can read chapter books doesn’t mean she’s ready to move away from the old favorites that brought her joy in her earlier days.

Reading old favorite stories helps kids tap into memories of early childhood – this feels calming and soothing for many. Reading to your child can help your child focus on breathing and listening and staying present in the moment – all good ways to reduce anxious feelings.

Whisper talk.

When kids experience overwhelming anxiety, all of their senses are heightened. Everything seems loud, bright and just too much. If they run away and slam the door or cover their ears and yell it’s because they want to block it all out.

Whispering, not necessarily about the triggers, can help soothe your child. Remember back when your whispered to your baby? Big kids also feel soothed by a calming voice. Whisper about the clouds in the sky or the butterfly out the window. Whisper about ice cream cones on a summer day. Whispering a favorites list can be a great calming strategy.

Blow bubbles!

Blowing bubbles isn’t just for little kids. The combination of getting outside into nature, fresh air and deep breathing (required for bubble blowing) are known antidotes to anxious feelings. Get outside an blow bubbles when you’re anxious – no matter your age!

Color together.

Kids tell me over and over again that what they really want when they’re feeling intense anxiety is for parents to stay with them while they calm down. Coloring together is a great way to soothe those intense emotions while spending time together. Those adult coloring books are popular for a reason – get some!

Bubble bath.

Pour your child a nice warm bath with plenty of bubbles, turn on some relaxing music in the background and let the stress and anxiety melt away.

Create a cozy spot.

I always encourage parents of anxious kids to have a designated stress free zone in the house. Stock it with favorite books, coloring books and other supplies, stress balls, soft pillows and blankets, journals and any other relaxing activities that appeal to your child.

Take a mindful walk.

Mindfulness + nature + exercise = decreased anxiety. It’s a simple equation. Don’t spend the time talking about anxiety and stress. Notice the green grass, the fluffy white clouds and the flowers just in bloom. Trust me.

Walk down memory lane.

Sometimes big kids need to be reminded that they’re still those little kids who always sat on your lap and asked for one more story…just taller and more knowledgable. Get out the family photos and walk down memory lane together. Talk about favorite days, favorite trips and favorite memories.

Check out.

I can’t say this enough: We need to work together to take back childhood. If kids are under more stress today, we all have to own our role in it. Skip the soccer practice (the team will survive). Take a season off (your kid will still be an athlete). Take a break from the community musical (he can go back to it next time). You get the point.

Childhood is in crisis because kids are expected to do too much every single day. Check out. Bring back free play and downtime and family time. Take back childhood.

For more on helping kids cope with stress and anxiety, get your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

 

Image: Pexels

10 Things Your Anxious Child Wants You to Know

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I work with a lot of kids with anxiety. Not all of them meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder (some do, some don’t), but they do have anxiety that is no longer manageable without help. To that end, I teach coping strategies to both children and their parents and listen to the worries that keep kids up at night.

While all children are different and have different sources of stress, I have found a common theme among my anxious kids: They worry about worrying others. Imagine worrying all day about a wide variety of things and then adding worrying about how you might make others worry to that very long list of worries? It happens. A lot.

As I tell the kids I work with, anxious kids often have a tendency to be highly empathic kids. Not only do they have their own emotions to to process, but they also take on the emotions of those around them. Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?

At some point in treatment I ask all of my worriers the following question: What is one thing you wish your parents understood about your anxiety? While the wording of their answers varies, there are some common themes that emerge in response to this question.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but below are ten of the responses I hear most often.

It’s really hard to stop worrying.

Your kids don’t want to feel anxious. In fact, when I follow up with, “If you could make one change right now, what would it be?”, they almost always respond, “I would stop worrying.” You can’t just hit a button (or take a magic pill) and make anxiety disappear. It takes time and work. There will be peaks and valleys. Your children need you to understand this.

My worries are real to me.

Adults have time and wisdom on their side, and sometimes this causes parents to minimize the worries of their anxious kids. That’s a mistake. Regardless of what you think, your child’s worries are real to her. Meet her where she is and listen.

I don’t want to make you sad or upset.

How you respond to your anxious child is important. When you get frustrated with your child’s anxiety, your child feels responsible. When you tell your child that his anxiety makes you sad or overwhelmed, your child feels responsible. Your child doesn’t want to upset you. He just wants to tell you how he feels.

I don’t mean to be annoying.

Anxious kids tend to ask a lot of questions. Often, they ask the same question repeatedly. This is because they feel a complete lack of control and knowing the plan helps. They aren’t trying to annoy you by peppering you with questions, they just want the information. Visuals help.

I really can’t fall asleep alone.

When the lights go down, the worry brain grows in size. Kids are active little beings and even the most anxious ones can push their worries down by day, but the worries will emerge at night. They aren’t trying to power struggle at night – they really do struggle. Mindfulness and guided imagery help. Push the bedtime up to allow for extra time to settle down.

Holding your hand helps.

Your kids know that you can’t fix it for them or make the anxiety go away. You can’t save them from it. When I ask what they want from their parents when they’re anxious, they often cite holding hands, snuggling, reading together, drawing together or taking a walk together as helpful strategies. In short, they want you.

You can’t fix it for me.

You might feel like you have the answers because you’ve been through something similar or you view the problem through a different lens. They don’t want your quick fix strategies, though. More often than not, your anxious kids simply want you to listen and empathize.

I need extra time with transitions.

Change is really hard for anxious kids. They can’t move from teacher to teacher or place to place as easily as their non-anxious peers. When their schedules are overhauled without warning, they panic. Take the time to help your anxious child adjust to change. Talk details and be honest.

Asking “How can I help?” is better than telling me what to do.

Anxious kids don’t always have the solutions or know exactly what they need, but barking out orders tends to cause a spike in anxious feelings. Ask; don’t tell.

When you tell me not to worry, I feel like a failure.

Telling an anxious kid not to worry isn’t fair. Learning to cope with worry takes time and patience. They can’t stop their anxiety overnight and they feel pressured when parents say things like, “Don’t worry so much!” Try something like, “What do you think is causing you the most worries today?”, instead.

For information and strategies to help your anxious child, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

How to Help Your Anxious Kid Avoid Avoidance Behaviors

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Avoid avoidance? I know, sounds like I missed something there, but stay with me. In the past few weeks, my inbox has been overflowing with questions about helping anxious kids who have a tendency to avoid all possible anxiety triggers. Should parents push kids to “face their fears”? Should they encourage the avoidance because the anxiety seems to “disappear” as long as the child avoids the triggers? What’s a parent to do?

Parenting an anxious child is hard work. Just when you think you have the problem solved (nine night lights to clear up the fear of the dark later), a new trigger emerges. That’s because anxiety isn’t just about the triggers. Irrational fears and intrusive thoughts have a way of snowballing, and kids confront a lot of new information on a daily basis. For a non-anxious child, new information is fun and exciting. For an anxious child, however, new information can lead to new fears.

Add the new fears to the old fears (you can install all the night lights you want, until kids learn to cope with anxiety those Band Aids can come off at any moment!) and you have a big mess of fears.

Avoidance is a common strategy used by anxious kids. Honestly, it’s easy for parents to fall into the trap (been there). When kids avoid their triggers, they tend to appear calm and happy again. The problem is that it won’t last.

What are avoidance behaviors?

Avoidance behaviors are things kids (and by kids I do mean all ages – even the tweens and teens!) do or don’t do to reduce their feelings of anxiety. There are different levels of avoidance. For example, true avoidance behaviors occur when a child goes to great lengths to completely stay away from a trigger. If a child is afraid of reading in front of his classmates, for example, he might either try to stay home “sick” when he has to give a book report or invent reasons to leave the classroom during book report time (I need to see the nurse).

Partial avoidance, sometimes referred to as safety behaviors, are things kids do to try to hide their anxiety. Ever notice a kid who always seems to drop his pencil and disappear from sight the moment the teacher starts calling on kids for answers? That’s avoidance. Safety behaviors help kids feel in control in the moment or help limit exposure to the trigger. Other examples include avoiding eye contact when talking to people, leaving the room frequently, daydreaming to check out and even drinking and drugs in older kids.

While avoidance behaviors might give kids some immediate symptom relief, they don’t help them learn to cope with their triggers. In fact, the fears actually have a tendency to snowball when kids engage in avoidance behaviors.

Take, for example, a child who refuses to go to school due to separation anxiety. It feels good and safe to stay home, so the child engages in negative behaviors to avoid going to school. Over time, as the days add up, the child starts to internalize the message that she can’t go to school. School is scary, overwhelming and just too hard. The more she stays home, the more she believes that she’s can’t possibly cope at school.

Avoidance can actually increase the risk of engaging in negative safety behaviors down the line. Drugs and alcohol are used to dull the feelings of anxiety, particularly for those facing social anxiety.

How can you teach kids to avoid avoidance?

Like all things anxiety related, avoiding avoidance requires time, practice and patience. There will be good days and not-so-good days along the way. Try not to view setbacks as failures when your kids are learning to cope with anxiety. Setbacks are simply a call to review what is and isn’t working so that your child can continue to practice adaptive coping strategies.

***If anxiety impacts your child’s ability to go to school or participate in normal daily activities, call your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional specializing in children and adolescents. 

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With that in mind, try these five steps to help your child learn to avoid avoidance:

Unpack the triggers.

More often than not, what begins as an intentional avoidance becomes a habit over time. The kid who hides every time a dog is near no longer has to think about avoiding the dog. she just does it. It’s how she copes.

It can take time to help kids unpack their anxiety triggers and identify their avoidance behaviors. When your child is calm, talk about what it means to feel anxious (your heart races, your brain warns you to avoid something, your palms sweat, etc) and what kids of things might cause those feelings. Share your observations of your child. Ask your child if she ever tries to avoid things that make her feel scared or worried.

I always recommend having the child make a “trigger tracker” list. This helps the child gain some control over the feelings of anxiety.

Challenge exaggerations.

Anxiety is fueled by irrational thinking. What might begin as a small worry (did I leave the stove on?) can quickly snowball when intrusive thoughts take over (my house is burning down!) Experiencing a complete lack of control over the trigger can increase those intrusive thoughts. This sends kids into fight or flight mode, and flight is often the easiest option.

Teach your child to challenge exaggerations by using self-talk. Help your child make a list of the intrusive thoughts that tend to snowball, then practice making logical statements instead. When kids learn to pick apart their worries and ground themselves in logical thinking, the intrusive thoughts shrink.

Start small.

It can be tempting to tell a kid to just get back in there and face his fears, but that kind of statement feels paralyzing to a child struggling with anxiety. Anxious kids often feel overwhelmed on a good day – they can’t just “shake it off”.  What they can do is start small and go from there.

If dogs are a huge source of anxiety, for example, start by reading books about dogs. Next, find a pet grooming place that will let your child watch a dog being groomed from behind the glass. After that, find a friend with a very calm and kid friendly dog and pay that dog a visit. You get the drill.

If social anxiety is the problem, start by attending a gathering for 15 minutes then work up to 25 and 35 and so on until larger gatherings no longer feel overwhelming.

Focus on manageable tasks.

One of the most difficult challenges for anxious kids is that once their anxiety is triggered, everything feels huge and overwhelming. Teach your child to break things down into manageable parts. If test anxiety is a problem, help your child learn to study in specific blocks of time with plenty of relaxation breaks and break down the test material to one focus area per study block. When he actually takes the test, have him use a plain piece of paper to block out the section he’s not working on in the moment.

Learning to break things down helps kids feel in control of their triggers.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

All kids are different and no one strategy works for all kids (except deep breathing to calm the feeling of panic – that always works when done correctly), but there are tons of ways to practice confronting triggers.

Mirror, mirror: Have your child role play anxiety producing situations while facing a mirror. The more kids practice confronting their triggers, the more mastery they gain. Join your child to help him work though difficult situations.

Put on a social play: Writing, directing and starring in a play about your own worries can be quite empowering! Encourage the whole family to get in on the action, as directed by the anxious child. Play truly does help children gain mastery over the fears, and this is a great way to get started.

Sing a silly song: As silly as it sounds, rewriting the lyrics to a favorite tune to reflect how you can face your fears really does help. I do this to show my kids that we all have worries and sources of stress, but casting them in a new light can make us feel better.

The Happy Kid Handbook is full of great strategies to help children and families learn to cope with stress and anxiety. Grab your copy today!

Image credit: Pexels

10 Things Parents of Anxious Kids Should Know

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As the parent of a mildly anxious child, I know firsthand how hard it can be to parent an anxious child. You want to fix it for them, but you can’t. You want to tell them not to worry, but those are empty words when the world feels overwhelming. You read everything you can get your hands on, but it never seems quite right. It might make sense, but how will it help your kid?

I get it.

I also know that it’s easier for me than it is for other parents. Helping kids with anxiety is what I do best. I know the signs and red flags and I know how and when to intervene. I also know the process of helping a worrier worry less, including the fact that often the best strategy out there is time.

I get a lot of calls and messages about helping anxious children. In general, parents want to know how to help at home and what they can do to speed up the worry-less process. Here’s the thing: If your child’s anxiety interferes with normal daily living – as in your child can’t get to school, refuses to participate in previously loved activities, isn’t eating or sleeping normally (per your child’s usual eat/sleep habits, that is) or is suddenly withdrawing from peers and family, your child needs treatment. Now. Don’t wait. Anxiety has a way of growing in size fairly quickly and it can impact the whole family.

If you’re not there yet – if you’re worried about your worrier but not sure that therapy is necessary, consider these ten things about kids with anxiety:

They can’t “just stop worrying”.

Anxious kids worry for a variety of reasons. For younger kids, separation is a big issue. For older kids, real world issues (like diseases, natural disasters or violence) can trigger anxiety. Whatever the cause of your child’s anxiety, telling your child not to worry about something isn’t useful. Your child is already worrying. Those words hold little to no value.

When we tell kids to just stop worrying, they feel like they’re doing something wrong. They’re not. It’s how their brains are wired.

It’s hard to sleep when you’re anxious.

Believe me, I get it. Sometimes when you finally reach the end of a long day, you just want everyone to go to sleep without an issue. The problem is that anxiety tends to spike at night. When kids finally slow down enough to rest their bodies, their brains tend to kick into overdrive. All those worries that they tried to stuff during the school day? Those feel huge!

They need help learning to calm their anxious thought cycles at night. Try a worry box. Consider practicing mindfulness together or using guided relaxation.

Little things feel very big.

You might think that your child’s worries are small in size. What’s a timed test when there are things like terrorism in this world? Your child’s triggers feel huge to your child. Resist the urge to minimize your child’s triggers and simply listen and empathize, instead.

Visuals help. A lot.

Children who struggle with anxiety tend to have anticipatory anxiety. They worry about what comes next. You might think that your child has the daily schedule down, but worriers tend to think outside the box when it comes to worrying – they experience intrusive thoughts (ones that alert them to terrible possibilities – like missing the bus, failing a test or car accidents).

Irrational thoughts play a significant role in anxiety. Visuals help kids boss back those intrusive, and often irrational, thoughts. Make posters for the morning routine, school and the evening routine. Keep a wall calendar up to date with upcoming events.

Breaking down tasks is essential.

Worriers tend to get easily overwhelmed by big tasks (like a long homework packet). Teach your anxious child to break down tasks into manageable pieces. Instead of tacking a list of four homework assignments at once, for example, pull out one assignment and then take a break. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to empowering an anxious child to take control of his anxiety.

They can worry themselves sick.

Sometimes anxious kids talk about their worries constantly. Sometimes they internalize their emotions. Always keep a close eye on the quiet ones – they might actually be worrying themselves into a cold.

Sleep disruption and changes in eating habits tend to go hand-in-hand with anxiety in children. When you’re not eating and sleeping properly and you’re under stress, you’re at risk of getting sick.

Every new behavior is a clue.

Life seems to be on fast forward these days. Kids and parents are highly busy and sometimes parents miss the clues that point to anxiety. Changes in behavior should always be noted when it comes to young children. If a very social child suddenly avoids play dates and going to the park, you know something is amiss. But what about smaller clues? Watch for nail biting, hair twirling, regressed behavior, frequent nightmares, school avoidance, negative statements (I can’t, I hate, I always…) and sticking closer to mom or dad than usual.

Anticipation is emotionally exhausting.

If your anxious child seems tired most of the time, it’s because she is. Anticipating bad things and worrying about when disaster might strike is emotionally exhausting. Anxious children have a tendency to worry on the inside without giving it away to the adults in the room. It’s very tiring to exist in a perpetual state of worry. Watch for fatigue and factor in downtime.

It’s hard to choose when you worry about outcomes.

Anxious children have a very difficult time making decisions. Parents often confide in me that it’s very frustrating when the child can’t even choose between ice cream flavors. What might seem like a simple choice to you might actually be very hard for your anxious child.

Practice patience and help your child consider pros and cons.

Anxious kids need comfort.

When you have an anxious child, handle with care. They don’t need toughening up. They don’t need to learn to shake it off. They definitely don’t need to just get through it.

Anxious kids need empathy, comfort and understanding. They need support at home, at school and out in the world. They will learn to cope with their anxiety, but it won’t happen overnight. They need you now so that they won’t need you so much later on.

3 Things you can do right now to help confront anxiety!

Name it and explain it.

Use the word “anxiety”. You don’t need to hide it or sugarcoat it. There’s nothing wrong with having anxiety. In fact, some anxiety is healthy. Without worry, you might run right in front of a car without even looking!

Tell your child that the worry center in her brain, the amygdala, has a heightened response. It’s job is to switch on when it senses danger – that’s what helps us make quick decisions to get out of a dangerous situation. In an anxious child, the worry center can overestimate danger and send alert signals when it doesn’t need to. In anxious kids, the worry brain crowds out the happy brain and that causes a build up of stress.

Try this worry brain activity at home to help your child understand it better.

Breathe.

Learning the art of relaxation breathing is the best first step for helping a worrier. Mindfulness programs and guided relaxation programs are great for teaching this important skill, but you can start with a little rainbow breathing.

Ask your child to sit comfortably and breathe in for a count of four, hold for three and breathe out for four. Count out loud to help your child slow his breathing. Now have your child close his eyes and breathe all of the colors of the rainbow while visualizing each color as it appears.

Boss back.

Teaching kids to talk back to their worry brains is huge. It helps them take control of their intrusive thoughts. It does take time and practice.

Ask your child to name the thoughts that trigger his worry center. Together, make a list of positive counter statements to boss back. If the worry is, “I’m terrible at math”, the counter statement might be, “I can ask for help when I need it.”

Practice regularly for best results.

For more great strategies to help your child work through childhood stress and anxiety, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook!