If you have been following our Anxiety Series, you have read about the many ways that anxiety presents itself in children, where in Part 1, I explored the more visible signs and less obvious signs to look for as signs of anxiety in kids. In Part 2, I provided 20 simple anxiety-reducing strategies that work to integrate a child’s left and right brain hemispheres, thereby helping to regulate anxious children’s intense emotions. In Part 3, we explored the common relationship between school anxiety and separation anxiety in younger children.
In addition to the strategies you can find in Part 2 of this series, there are a number of additional strategies that parents and caregivers can do to help their anxious child, regardless of the reason why the child might be anxious. In Part 4 we’ll explore over 40 of these additional strategies that parents can use to help their anxious child.
First, let’s start with some parent-specific tips to help your anxious child.
- Manage your own state. Often we, as parents, don’t realize just how much our own emotional state affects our children. In younger children especially, who are still learning how to self-differentiate themselves and their feelings from their caregivers, our maintaining calm versus being anxious can make or break a kid when it comes to their emotional state. For instance, if we are anxious about our child going to school, if we let this anxiety present itself in all its glory, our child will also be anxious about going to school. As difficult as it might be, it’s important for parents and caregivers to somehow manage their own emotional state. If you must break down once the child walks out the door, so be it, but it’s essential that we try to hold ourselves together in regards to our anxious feelings when the child is present.
- Validate their feelings. Please, please don’t assume that your child should have nothing to worry or stress about just because they’re a kid! When we see our child become anxious or worried, our instinct is to say things like “Don’t worry!” or “Calm down!” While we don’t mean any harm when we make these statements, few of us realize how unhelpful these phrases really are. Saying something like, “I know this is hard” or “I know how it feels to be worried sometimes too; it’s no fun” helps validate the child’s experience. Some really great phrases one can use to calm an anxious child can be found in this excellent article on The Mighty.
Read Books Together (Bibliotherapy)
There are a variety of helpful books out there that are specifically written to help anxious children by teaching them about what anxiety is, why they might be experiencing anxiety, and child-friendly strategies to try to help alleviate anxious feelings. Even if your child can read, I strongly encourage parents to read these books with your kids. Following is a short list of some of my favorite children’s books about anxiety:
- “Worry Says What?” by Allison Edwards
- “Please Explain ‘Anxiety’ to Me!” by Laurie Zelinger, PhD and Jordan Zelinger, MS Ed
- “Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster” by Michelle Nelson-Schmitt
- “Wilma Jean the Worry Machine” by Julia Cook
- “Help Your Dragon Deal with Anxiety” by Stee Henman
- “Scardedies Away! A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Worry and Anxiety (made simple)” by Stacy Florila
- “The Invisible String” by Patricia Karst
- “I Can Handle It” by Laurie Wright
- “What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” by Dawn Huebner
- “What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart” by Kristen Lavalee, PhD
Watch Child-Friendly Mindfulness Videos
There are numerous mindfulness and calming videos online that you can find doing a google or YouTube search Following are some of my favorites for children.
- Managing Worry and Anxiety for Kids
- Belly Breathe with Elmo – Sesame Street
- Melting – Flow – GoNoodle
- Take 5 Breathing
Calming Apps for Kids
You may have already discovered several calming apps out there marketed for adults, but you may or may not realize that there are also calming apps out there for kids. Here are my top three picks.
- Mind Yeti – This is available in the form of an app or you can also visit their website at mindyeti.com to find guided mindfulness sessions especially made with kids in mind to help children to calm down and focus their attention. Several sessions are available for free, though a paid subscription offer is also available for access to more sessions if you’d like. (I’ve found the free sessions to be more than adequate by themselves.)
- Stop, Breathe & Think Kids – This app prompts the child to seek out a “mission” based on what they might need at that moment, such as missions to quiet, to focus, for caring and connection, or for energizing, to name a few. There are also missions children can tap into during a meltdown that can help to de-escalate them back into a calmer state of mind.
- Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame Street – Especially designed for younger children, this app guides kids in participating in breathing exercises with the monsters of Sesame Street.
Self-regulation is a skill that allows kids (and grown-ups too) to manage their emotions, behavior, and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle. And it allows them to do it while staying focused and paying attention.
Being able to self-regulate means that the child knows how to figure out that they need to calm themselves down when they get upset, they’re able to be flexible when expectations change, and they can resist giving in to frustrated outbursts (www.understanding.org).
Here are some activities you can help your child practice to help him learn to self-regulate.
- Do Robot-Ragdoll. This exercise teaches kids how to scan their bodies for tension they might be holding in their muscles and learn how to release and relax it. Here are the instructions:
- Stand up straight and stiff like a robot, clench your fists, and tighten all the parts of your body from your head to your toes. Hold this tight pose for 3 seconds. (Tip: Make your muscles go tight but not so tight that they hurt.)
- Unclench your fists and make your body go floppy like a rag doll or wet spaghetti noodle. Feel how all your muscles are relaxed. Hold this relaxed pose for at least 3 seconds.
- Belly Breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). Put your hand on your tummy, where your belly button is. Slowly breathe in and out. When you breathe in, your tummy should move out. When you breathe out, your tummy should move in. Continue to breathe in and out like this for a minute or so, watching your tummy, not your chest, move in and out as you breathe slowly. When I first teach this skill to kids and adults alike, I often ask them to start by lying down and placing an object such as a rubber duck on their stomach (naval) area, then asking them to practice breathing as described above. This helps a lot of people better see the movement of their belly going up and down over and over again.
- Cookie Breathing. This is another kid-friendly way to teach diaphragmatic breathing. Click Cookie Breathing for a pdf of how to do it.
- Drink water. Have your child sip cold water slowly. Doing this has a calming effect on the nervous system.
- Blow bubbles. Blowing bubbles can help the child gain control of their breathing and thus, their mental state.
- Do the “Downward Facing Dog” pose. This particular yoga pose helps reset the autonomic nervous system and activate several muscles in the arms, legs, and core. This stretch also helps muscles begin to burn additional blood glucose that is made available by the body’s fight or flight response.
- Try an inversion. Bringing the head below the level of the heart (aka inversion) has a calming effect. Inverting the body has a restorative effect on the autonomic nervous system, which controls the body’s response to stress.
- Push against a wall. This allows the body to get rid of stress hormones without having to go outside or even leave the room. Have the child try to push the wall over for 10 seconds, three times. Doing this allows the muscles to contract in a futile attempt to bring the wall down, then relax, which releases feel-good hormones into the body.
- Go for a run. Running has been shown to reduce stress. Going for a 10 minute jog can not only affect your child’s mood immediately, its effects on their ability to cope with stress can last for several hours afterward.
- Rock in a rocking chair. The repetitive nature of rocking offers stress relief. You can rock with your child or allow them to rock by themselves as a way to self-soothe any frenzied emotions.
- Squish some putty. This is one of my favorite strategies. When you play with putty, your brain’s electrical impulses begin firing away from the areas associated with stress.
I found an excellent resource for various visualization exercises at KidsRelaxation.com. Here are four of my favorites. Click Visualization Tools for Anxiety for a pdf I created that summarizes the four listed here.
First, guide your child into a relaxed space. Find a comfortable position with few distractions. Take a few deep breaths together and explain that you’re both going to use your imagination to “say goodbye to worries.” Ask them to close their eyes and look inside their body for any place that a worry might be. (This is similar to doing what’s called a body scan. Hint: Look for areas you might be holding stress; these places are generally more tense.) See if they can find where the worry is, then ask them to describe what it looks like. Then use one (or more, if necessary) of the visualization tools.
- Rock – Transform the worry into a rock. Get a helicopter to drop the worry into an active volcano that will melt the worry and send it shooting far into the air as lava that runs slowly far away into the ocean. Repeat the process until all the worries have been transformed.
- Bubble – Put the worry into a bubble and set it off into space. When it has floated very far away, pop the bubble. Watch the worry vanish.
- Worry Soap – Place the worry on your hand. Get a giant bottle of neon, sparkly soap and squirt the soap all over your hand, making foamy expanding bubbles. Scrub, scrub, scrub those bubbles. Add a blast spray of water, washing the worry away down the drain.
- Rocket Ship – Put your worries in a rocket ship and blast it off to outer space. Send the worries up, up, up to be transported to another galaxy far, far away. Allow the rocket ship to have an infinite supply of fuel so that it can travel light years away.
After doing a visualization exercise with your child, have them do an internal body scan and see if there’s any worry left. If there’s still worry left, repeat the process.
Brain Integration Exercises
As I talked about in Part 2 of my Anxiety Series, it’s crucial that our right and left brain hemispheres and our upstairs and downstairs brain are integrated. This simply means that all parts of our brain are communicating and working together. If you (or your child) is struggling with intense anxiety or other intense emotions, your right brain and downstairs brain are in overdrive and leaving out the left and upstairs brain, which is problematic because we are unable to think logically and rationally and be able to effectively problem solve when we’re only using the right and downstairs brain. Instead, we stay dysregulated longer and more intensely.
So how do we (and our kids) integrate our brain so we’re not stuck in our emotions? There are several strategies we can use, but here are some Brain Integration Strategies to try. These strategies are simple and amazing game changers! I’ve had parents of clients tell me that these are literally like “reset buttons” for their kids when they are feeling extremely anxious or otherwise emotionally dysregulated. Because Part 2 addressed this more thoroughly, I won’t list these strategies again in this post, but please refer back to Part 2.
Other Coping Strategies
There are numerous other strategies we can teach our kids to help them better cope with their anxiety. Here are just a few more techniques to add to your toolbox.
- Sing out loud. The physical act of singing out loud has been shown to release endorphins, the “feel good” chemical in the brain.
- Count backwards from 100. Counting gives the child the chance to focus on something other than what’s bothering them; counting backwards offers an added concentration challenge without overwhelming their brain. What if your child isn’t able to count to 100 or count backwards from this high? Simply figure out a lower number, such as 50 or 60, that they are able to count backwards from based on their developmental and skill levels.
- Repeat a mantra. Create a mantra that you and your child can use to help them calm down. “I am calm” or “I am relaxed” work well, but feel free to get creative and making something personal to you and your child!
- Pop bubble wrap. Even most adults can tell you that this strategy is somehow pleasing and a good way to release stress.
- Help them name their emotion. Often when kids become overwhelmed, it’s because they have difficulty identifying the negative thoughts and feelings they’re having. Teach your kids some emotion vocabulary, and ask your child to give their feeling a name, then help them talk back to it.
- Teach your child how to rate the intensity of their feeling(s). You can google “feelings thermometer” or look on Pinterest to search for some kid-friendly versions. You can also teach them how to rate the intensity using their fingers. Click Feelings Intensity Rating Scale for a simple strategy that helps kids use their hand to demonstrate just how bad (or good) they’re feeling.
- Strings of worry. Another way to help your child rate the intensity of what they’re feeling, Strings of Worry is a technique where you use a ball of yarn and scissors to cut off the amount of string correlated with the amount of worry they’re feeling. The longer the string, the more worried they are.
- Puppet role-plays. If you have puppets at home, or can make some sock puppets, practice and role-play out anxiety-provoking situations with your child using the puppets. Not feeling particularly crafty? You can download a Sock Puppets app for iPhone or iPad (and maybe Android?) and role-play that way!
- Draw a face for the fear/worry.
- Create a comic using the worry monster and the child as characters.
- Play The Worry Brain and Happy Brain Game (aka Talk Back to Your Brain). To teach your child how to talk back to their brain. try out this game. First you will be the Happy Brain and your child will be the Worry Brain.
- Ask your child to say one thing that makes them worry. (Or play the game upon hearing your child state a worry.)
- You present a contradicting positive scenario related to that worry. The idea is to provide a positive, practical thought that your child can easily understand.
- Then try to switch roles. Let the child practice saying something positive this time.
- Worry Brain: “I don’t feel good about going to the new school.”
- Happy Brain: “I will meet new people and make new friends in the new school.”
- Soon your child will be able to carry this dialogue in their head and will be able to talk back to their own worry brain when it talks to them.
- Create a Calming Jar. You can check out Pinterest for ideas and instructions on how your child can create one of his own jars to help him relax and calm down.
- Read/write an inspiring superhero story.
- Make stress balls. Search Pinterest for how to make do-it-yourself (DIY) stress balls for ideas.
- Worry Jar. Each time your child thinks of a worry, have them write (or draw) it on a slip of paper. Then have them fold the slip and place it inside a mason jar and seal the top so that the worry can be contained in a safe place until they feel they can better address the worry at a later, future time.
- Worry Stones. I love making worry stones! They’re super easy. The idea is that the child can carry their worry stone in their pocket and rub the stone when they’re feeling anxious, releasing some of the extra energy that the worry is giving off and creating stress. Easy, excellent instructions for how to create worry stones can be found at http://creativeelementaryschoolcounselor.blogspot.com/2012/10/worry-stones.html.
- Colors of Feelings. For this activity, you’ll need paper and a box of colored pencils, crayons, or paint. The idea is to give your child the opportunity to separate themselves from their worries and concerns.
- Help your child identify which color they identify or associate with for each emotion they are feeling. (Example: Red = Angry; Orange = Worried; Blue = Sad; Yellow = Happy).
- Ask the child to draw or paint a picture with the colors that express their emotions.
- You can also be the one to draw the picture for them using a pencil, then let them fill in the colors according to how they’re feeling.
Hope these strategies are helpful for you and your children! Feel free to leave a comment if you have some more helpful suggestions for how to help anxious children!