How can we help kids with anxiety? Anxiety can be a difficult emotion for anyone to experience, including our children. Sometimes anxiety seems debilitating and we all can be at a loss at times about how to help. Without further ado, here are 5 of my favorite tips and skills when helping children learn how to navigate the choppy waters of anxiety.
To Help Kids with Anxiety, First Teach Them to Become Aware of It
Teach kids how to recognize and become aware of their emotions, especially anxiety. I have found that this is an important base to have for several reasons. First off, it can be difficult for children (and even adults sometimes) to label anxiety. Instead, children may have stomach aches, other aches or other physical symptoms in their body. Other times they just know that they don’t like something but cannot elaborate why. Still other kids think it is bad to feel fear or anxiety because big kids don’t cry, when in reality everyone has distressing emotions. When children are able to describe and label how and where they feel anxiety (or worries, nervousness, fears) in their body, then suddenly the enemy has a form to fight instead of trying to fight a shapeless thing and all we can hope for is for them to feel better!
Secondly, when children are able to recognize emotions, especially early in the game, it cues them to use their skills. One of my favorite books to teach this concept is called “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon” by Jack Kent. Spoiler alert: because the dragon is ignored it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it runs away with the house! It shrinks down to cute pet-size again once it is noticed. Our emotions are just like this. Once we are aware of our emotions then we are better able to keep them manageable instead of letting our emotions manage us. How often do we go through our day grumpy, irritated, or down without really paying attention to why or how we are acting? Or, how often do we not address all the little things that build up until all the sudden it’s big? Conversely, when we are mindful of what we are experiencing then we can choose how to respond. Instead of yelling or hiding in a dark corner, we might consciously choose to go for a walk, choose a favorite activity, or call a friend. So, by noticing our feelings we can do something to feel better before the house (or our actions and feelings) run away from us.
It is helpful for parents and caregivers to be aware of how specific children exhibit anxiety so that they can notice patterns and triggers for anxiety in their children. Sometimes children aren’t as aware of what is going on as caregivers are so parents and caregivers can be awesome detectives at what is prompting hardships for their kids. The more patterns that are noticed, the more we can build a toolbox of skills specifically tailored toward each child’s specific anxieties.
There are whole books and research studies devoted to the topic of being emotionally intelligent and raising emotional awareness in children. If you’re interested, scroll down to the bottom of this post for suggestions on 2 good books written on the topic by John Gottman and Daniel Goleman.
Teaching Relaxation Techniques Helps Kids With Feelings of Anxiety
Teaching children relaxation techniques is a simple yet powerful way to manage feelings of anxiety. Every child is different and will have different relaxation techniques. There is no one right way to relax; just find what works for each individual. Googling “Relaxation Techniques for Kids” can lead to some excellent ideas.
Some children love pure and simple deep breathing. Others love to pair deep breathing with their imagination. Breathe in the good and out the bad. Breathe in chocolate chip cookies and out the school test.
Others love to imagine a safe place. The secret to this is using all 5 senses. What does Disneyland smell like? Churros. What does it sound like? Disney music! You get the idea. You can also use this in real life. What sounds do I hear in the park? Birds and the creek. What do I see at the park? The light filtering through the leaves.
Other children love progressive muscle relaxation. This means that you systematically tense and relax various muscles in your body.
Of course other relaxation exercises work as well, such as going for a walk, remembering a funny Youtube video, or petting the dog. Just be careful so that relaxation techniques don’t turn into avoidance such as an excuse to play more video games and do less homework.
Creating and Using the Magic Sentence is a Great Way to Help Kids With Anxiety
One of my favorite tips to help kids manage feelings of anxiety is to create and use the Magic Sentence. Before I dive into what the magic sentence is, let me lay some foundational work in theory in order to better understand why the magic sentence is magic (wink, wink). The theory is this: our thoughts influence our emotions and we can feel better when we have helpful thoughts. (For all of you deep readers who are not satisfied by one paragraph, you can research Cognitive Theory.) If I think, “Nobody likes me and I hate my new school,” then I will feel depressed and/or anxious at school. If I think, “It was a really rough day at school, but kids at my last school liked me and that girl with pig-tails in the corner could be nice,” then I will feel less down and a bit more confident going to school the next day.
So the first step is to identify feelings, notice what thoughts are influencing the feelings, and then apply the magic sentence.
So what is the magic sentence? It is my name for an overly-simplified, kid-friendly way to apply Cognitive Theory. It is a quick motto that sums up what we want our brain to remember with practice. What words make up this magic sentence? Again, it varies from kid to kid. Some kids like thinking something like, “Even though__(1)___, it’s okay because__(2)___.” For example, “Even though that movie of monsters was scary and looked real, it’s okay because I know they’re not real.” Or, “Even though I am worried about going to gymnastics class today, it’s okay because I know that my best friend Emily will be there and she will help me with my moves.” Others like to take a broader approach and think something along the lines of, “Although I am anxious, I am super-hero brave like Captain America and I know I can get through the night!” Basically, the magic sentence helps kids identify and understand their emotions and thoughts (1), validate them, and then address the distressing thoughts through logic, principles to remember, or actions to take (2).
Another magic sentence can be “Even if _____, I can handle it by____.” For example, “Even if there was a fire, I could handle it because I know the fire drills and how to get safely out of the school.” Sometimes we allow anxiety to run 10 miles down the road before we realize that we could handle it and it wouldn’t be such a catastrophe after all. It can be a big relief to kids to recognize that they can indeed handle most situations with some forethought or intentional actions.
Help Kids Talk Back to Fear/Anxiety
Personifying fear and talking/fighting back to fear is perhaps my very favorite technique. It is so much fun to have kids engage in the skill and talk back to fear. Some children talk back to Fear with a capital F (think Disney Pixar’s Inside Out). Other kids personify fear as a bear, a thunderstorm, or a bully and name them anything from “Joe” to something only that child could imagine. It doesn’t matter what it is-simply let your child personify anxiety or fear. Have them draw a picture of it or find a stuffed animal to role play with.
Then, the sky is the limit as far as talking back to it. Some children like very rational approaches such as, “Fear, I know that we will be safe from robbers because we live in a safe neighborhood, the doors are locked, and we have a safety plan in this house.” Have a full dialog going with fear so we know that all the arguments are on the table and all the “but’s” and “what if’s” are addressed. Other kids like to take a different approach and argue back non-specifically. “Fear, you are being really mean right now. Get away, because I am stronger than you.” Other kids like to imagine literally fighting Fear. For example, they use their super-hero skills or ninja tactics and fight the bear in an epic battle until the bear is defeated. Then, the bear can no longer make them afraid of fires because he was defeated by your child who is well on their way to using their fighting skills at the next Olympics. Again, every child is different. Let them guide in how they would like to fight back with anxiety.
Break Goals Down to Help Kids Overcome Anxiety Step by Step
One last tip I will mention today is to help kids break goals down into smaller goals. Learning to swim in the deep end first may work sometimes, but often times it’ll just come with a lot of kicking and screaming. So, learn how to swim in the shallow end first and gradually work your way deeper. Kids may need flotation devices at first, but after a while they’ll need to be removed so they can truly swim.
Similarly, break goals up into small ones. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, your child might start by looking at a small dog through a fence instead of petting a massive mastiff who likes to jump and lick faces. If your child has social anxiety, work first on learning to how introduce himself/herself to someone who looks nice while mom or dad or older brother is present instead of going to a birthday party with 20 kids in attendance. If anxiety is causing them to sleep in your room at night, work on staying in their own room for a certain amount of minutes or 1 night instead of the whole week. Try to set as specific and measurable goals as you can.
Of course, always praise successes! Successes become a huge motivator for behavior and help build confidence. Not to mention, other motivators can be set in place, too, such as a special prize when a goal is reached. Who doesn’t like to work for ice cream?
Some More Thoughts on Helping Kids With Anxiety
Use Imagination for Good
In all of these skills, encourage children to use their imagination for good. Anxiety unfortunately latches onto imagination in that we imagine worst-case scenarios. But kids can use their imagination for happiness as well. Throughout all these skills, encourage children to utilize jokes, silliness, out-landish solutions, super-hero powers, favorite movie scenes, endearing memories etc. in order to manage their anxiety. I can’t tell you how many times I have learned from my clients additional ways to manage anxiety because they were using their creativity for good. I did not form my 5 favorite techniques from a black hole. Many thanks to my clients who daily taught me, other professionals and peers who shared with me, and many great theorists and authors of books.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Remember, all of these skills require lots of practice (sorry guys-the magic sentence is a misnomer). Additionally, remember that we don’t get completely rid of anxiety or depression or anger or any other distressing emotion; we learn how to cope with it. And that’s okay.
There are Many, Many Other Skills to Try and Other Great Resources Out There.
Of course, this is a short, incomplete and overly-simplified list. There are many more great skills that I did not include that can be helpful in coping with anxiety. Remember, every kid and every situation is different.
If you are looking for additional resources, I recommend “Sign up here to receive an email notification when my book is released in summer 2018; it’s a story about a surfing dog who learns important skills to cope with anxiety before his first surfing competition.
If your child is continuing to struggle with learning how to manage anxiety and feelings of anxiety is negatively impacting their well-being, seek help from a licensed therapist or professional. Therapists can help implement and fine-tune these skills and add additional resources, insights and expertise. And while I have found these Cognitive-Behavioral Theory techniques helpful when working with clients, everyone is different and there are many other effective, researched-based theories that could be helpful in learning how to manage anxiety. Lastly, if you decide to go the route of seeking a therapist, find one that is a good fit for you and your child. They vary, just like various school teachers are good fits for different children. Additionally, some clients have found medication to be helpful in coping with anxiety and a right fit for them.
Disclaimer: this post is not meant to provide therapeutic services. Seek help from a licensed professional if anxiety or another challenge is causing significant distress.
Other Resources and References
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.
Huebner, D. (2006). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety. Washington, DC: Magination Press.
Kent, J. (2001). There’s no such thing as a dragon. New York: Dragonfly Books.
Wilde, J., & Wilde, J. (2008). Hot stuff to help kids worry less: The anxiety management book. Richmond, IN: LGR Publishing, Inc.