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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.