Updated: Jul 18
There are many things parents can do to help their children with anxiety. You can make changes in the home environment, offer calming toys and activities, and teach your child skills to help when triggered. But first, it will help to understand anxiety and the various reasons your child may be experiencing it.
What causes anxiety?
The Fight / Flight / Freeze Response - When something scary happens your body responds by turning on your fight/flight/freeze response. This helps your body to protect itself in case of an emergency. However, it creates a neurobiological storm in your body. It is this response going berserk in the body that causes a panic attack. Almost all of your hormones and neurotransmitters are involved. This article explains the chemical aspect of anxiety well. The video above does a great job of explaining anxiety in a way that children can comprehend. I frequently show it to kids in my office.
Does anxiety run in your family? This could be the reason your child is experiencing it. There is ample research to indicate that there is a biological component to it. However, that does not mean that your child is doomed. There are many interventions, medications, and alternative treatments available.
A vitamin deficiency could be the cause of the problem. Our bodies can get out of balance when lacking the right nutrition. This might be an area to explore to make sure your child is getting all the right nutrients. There are also herbal remedies that may help combat symptoms. Seeking the guidance of a nutritionist is advised.
Trauma - There is no doubt that traumatic events can cause anxiety. We often think of abuse or a major catastrophe when we think of trauma, but it could be more subtle situations that had a traumatic effect on the child. It could be a move, the loss of a pet, or a divorce. There are many causes of trauma.
Thought Driven - Thoughts lead to an emotional reaction, which then leads to a behavior. Negative self-talk, ruminating on fears, and irrational thoughts can cause anxiety.
Related Article: The 5 Love Languages
Ways to Reduce Anxiety
Breathing exercises help to turn off the fight or flight response. It signals the body that everything is OK and there is no need to panic. There are many exercises such as star breathing, belly breathing, figure 8 breathing, hand breathing, and many more. The idea is to have a visual cue to help kids breathe slowly so that it is effective. You want them to breathe in for at least 5 seconds, hold it for at least 5 seconds, then slowly breathe out for at least 5 seconds. They will likely need to do it several times before the body starts to calm down.
Grounding Techniques: This is using the senses to calm down when triggered. You would have your child name 3 things they see, 2 things, they can touch, 1 thing they can smell, etc. The purpose is to take the mind off the trigger and onto something calming. These skills teach kids to gain control over their body responses.
Body Signals. When the body becomes anxious, there are body signals that alert you that something is going on. These signals are different for each person. It may be sweating palms, butterflies in the stomach, feeling faint, or the urge to run. Drawing out these body responses on an outline of a body can help cue your child that they need to start using their coping skills when the body signals arrive. These body signals are somatic symptoms.
A Coping Skill Box. These boxes are super handy. You just grab a box and put in coping items that your child can use to calm down when anxious. I like to include a sensory bottle, some markers or crayons and a notebook, a stress ball or stretchy toy, playdough, and coping skill flashcards. All the supplies can be purchased at the dollar store, making it affordable.
Create a Worry Doll or a Worry Monster. This is an activity to help children identify their worries and place them on the doll or monster rather than feeling like they must carry the worries themselves. There are other variations such as worry jars.
Creating a stable, calm environment in the home. If a child's parents are anxious, the child is likely to be anxious as well. Children read cues from their parents to gauge how to respond to situations. If a parent is not emotionally sound, the children will learn unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, communication skills, and behaviors from their parents. Simply put, they will do what you do.
Create a plan. Some children need to know what to expect and to have a plan in place to feel safe. What is our family's plan in case of severe weather? What would you do if there was a fire or an intruder? Like a fire drill at school, knowing how to be prepared for an emergency can reduce stress. It is important to tell your child it is very unlikely the safety plans would need to be used.
Understand your child's personality type. Some clashes between personality types can trigger anxiety. For instance, melancholy people tend to like structure, predictability, and a neat and orderly life. Sanguine people, on the other hand, tend to be spontaneous, unpredictable, and more likely to be unorganized. Choleric people are typically take-charge, dominant people. They are great leaders, but usually lack empathy for others. Phlegmatic people can be overwhelmed and steam-rolled by this personality type. Phlegmatic people are easy-going, passive people. They are typically sensitive as well. A resource to help understand personality types can be found here.
Play. Games can trigger a mild anxiety response in a safe, controlled environment. You may want to start with a cooperative game rather than a competitive game. Printable escape rooms, doing puzzles together, and building together can help children learn mastery over their anxiety. The goal is to stimulate mild anxiety and then have the child calm down and overcome the anxiety. Once they learn that they can control their body responses, they can use the skills in other situations. Here's a post about games to help kids with anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Counseling. CBT is highly effective in reducing anxiety. However, talk therapy does not work well for kids. I would highly recommend a play therapist who uses cognitive behavioral interventions. Play is the language of children and is a powerful tool in the counseling room. Using play to break down the CBT concepts makes it understandable to children and can help them process feelings in a meaningful way.
I could probably write an entire book on anxiety, as it is multifaceted and can be complicated. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you could utilize the skills above to settle the problems. If problems remain, seek out a licensed professional. There are TONS of interventions as well as many therapeutic approaches. A counselor will be able to identify the specific issues going on with your child and create a plan of action to help.
Photo by Meruyert Gonullu: https://www.pexels.com/photo/young-girl-in-despair-6034063/