What to Do When Kids Feel Anxious
After the events of the past year, it’s no shocker that children are feeling the anxiety in the air.
Kids of all ages have experienced major loss and disruption, from distance learning to the cancellation of beloved social activities. In order to manage anxiety on their own, children may start to behave differently than usual. For example, an outgoing child withdraws, a happy child becomes preoccupied with scary thoughts or a physically active child becomes sedentary.
These are all coping behaviors, and most of the time, anxiety is fear-based. As a parent, your job is not to eliminate the anxiety, but to help your child manage it. Thankfully, we’ve got a few practical strategies to help your kids cope with scary and difficult thoughts!
Tools To Help Your Child Conquer Anxiety
If your child is feeling nervous, afraid or overly worried, considering the following tools to help them cope.
In stressful times, try your best to remain calm. Kids are sponges, so they’ll pick up on your feelings; your panic will cause them to panic. Encouraging your child to take full, deep breaths is one of the best ways to teach them emotional regulation.
Wondering how to make breathing “exciting”? We’ve got two fun ideas. Note: It’s best to teach kids these techniques when they’re already in a good place, rather than they’re in the middle of a meltdown!
- Little ones will love starfish breathing! Have them put a hand up in the air to make a “starfish.” Then, instruct them to use their other hand to trace along the inside and outside of each of their fingers. Teach them to inhale when their finger moves up and exhale when their finger moves down.
- “One, two, three, four” is a catchy and easy-to-remember technique. An article on Leftbrainbuddha.com explains how to pull it off below…
- One — On the first breath, look up to the sun (or ceiling). This movement opens our body and chest, and our first deep breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the body’s relaxation response. Looking up also helps us orient ourselves to our environment
- Two — On the second breath, bring your breath to your shoe! Focusing on bringing the breath to another part of the body literally gets us out of our heads and silences the monkey mind that is probably adding to the stress of the moment.
- Three — On the third breath, breathe through your whole body (me). Can you bring your breath all the way from your feet to your head?
- Four — Do one more for good measure!
A moment by moment awareness helps us stay focused and grounded, so it’s helpful to encourage your child to stay in the “now.”
Even young children can benefit from simple meditations or yoga to reduce stress. For tips on introducing yoga to your kids, check out our recent article. Spending time in nature is another way to encourage greater mindfulness, since the outdoors has a naturally calming effect on the mind.
When a child is in panic mode, a walk or bicycle ride can work wonders to dissipate their stress.
Boys in particular are more likely to open up when they’re engaged in a side by side physical activity, since eye contact can be too intense and cause them to shrink away. A simple walk or bike ride can not only release tension, but also encourage your child to share their emotions.
Everyone deals with doubts, fears and worries. But as a kid, it’s hard to grasp that everyone struggles. Explain to your child that emotions are not actual events. They need to know that you can feed your fears or you can shrink them.
One great way to do is this is to be vulnerable about your own suffering. Tell them about times you’ve experienced (and conquered) anxiety, and it will go a long way toward bringing you closer and helping your child understand that everyone is human.
There’s something incredibly therapeutic about being listened to. Don’t dismiss your child, no matter how irrational their fears feel to you. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and explain how they can be overcome.
For example, maybe it’s a “monster” that will get them while they’re sleeping. Have them draw a picture of this monster and post it in the family room as a “Lost persons” ad. As the week goes by and the monster is nowhere in sight, have them triumphantly tear the paper to shreds. Look under their bed and in the closet to show them that nothing’s there. Offer to leave a nightlight on. All of these ideas are ways to acknowledge your child’s fears while also encouraging them to conquer them.
Creative outlets are a wonderful way to calm anxiety. Maybe it’s reading together, or bringing out the coloring books or watercolors. Sing your favorite songs and have a dance party in the kitchen.
Whatever it is, creativity helps kids to release bad feelings and feel more confident. If they’re old enough to write, journaling can also be therapeutic. Even watching a movie together can get their mind off those deep dark fears — and to show them that every character has their own deep dark fears, too.
Every Child is Unique
Ultimately, remember that every child is different. You know your child better than anyone. Work on giving them the tools to feel loved, safe and grounded.
Let them know how proud you are of them. It can be hard work to deal with the anxieties of life. But when you give them the tools to deal early on, it goes a long way toward handling the ups and downs that come with adulthood, too!
For more family-friendly tips, check out the CA Parents’ Corner blog.