10 Ways to Manage Your Child’s Anxiety

“One morning, my normally energetic and cheerful 3-year-old son curled up in a ball on our kitchen floor when I told him it was time for school,” licensed child therapist Erin Eising tells me. After checking to see if he was sick, she tried some gentle coaxing and conversation with her son to find out what was wrong. “It turned out, my mom had been watching him earlier in the week, driving around town, when she pointed out where he would eventually go to school. He thought ‘going to school’ meant he was going to have to live there … permanently.”

Eising shared this adorably heartbreaking story with me as we discussed how to spot and manage anxiety in children. Anxiety in children can look different because kids don’t have the same level of emotional intelligence and communication skills to identify how they’re feeling. In addition to rolling up in a ball on the floor, children might say their tummy hurts, they feel like they have butterflies in their stomach, seem fidgety, or angry. Additionally, they may give you vague responses or suddenly change their feelings about something they used to enjoy.

Some anxiety is perfectly normal in children. They are still learning and absorbing the world around them. If you see anxiety impeding your child’s daily function, it may be a good time to seek further input. Of course, we always recommend starting with your child’s health care provider if you have any concerns about your child.

 

Some anxiety is perfectly normal in children. They are still learning and absorbing the world around them. But if you see anxiety impeding your child’s daily function, it may be a good time to seek further input.

 

Since anxiety happens in everyday life for adults too, working on managing anxiety together can be beneficial to both you and your children. Before we dive into some ways to help our kids cope, let me confess one of my own anxieties: remembering every piece of parenting advice and applying it correctly in the moment so I don’t mess up my kid forever. To combat my own personal anxiety about this, Eising suggested trying one item at a time for a week to see what helps and what sticks.

 

 

1. Acknowledge Their Emotion

Reassure them it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling and help them name the emotion associated with their feelings. Additionally, you can over-communicate how you’re feeling so they begin to understand emotions are something we all deal with.

 

2. Label the Actions You See

Clenched fists, stomping feet, exasperated sighs — these are all clues to emotions your child is feeling. Help them understand their emotions by labeling the actions. “Emotions are learned,” says Eising. She suggests saying something like, “I see your fists are clenched; are you feeling mad or sad? What is making you feel this way?” Additionally, for young children, she often uses visuals to help them associate actions with emotions.

3. Create a Calm Down Space (Not a Time Out)

This idea was so intriguing to me. A calm down space is not a time out chair in the corner of the room or a punishment; rather, it is a space where the child can choose to go or you can suggest when you see their emotions getting the best of them. Eising suggests equipping your child’s calm down space with things that soothe them, like stuffed animals, stress balls, a comfy pillow, or a stuffed chair. Additionally, a good guideline for the time spent in the calm down chair is one minute for every year of age.

In my daughter’s pre-K class, they had a blue bean bag chair dubbed “the comfy chair.” I know about the comfy chair because she told me she spent some time there when she was feeling sad, upset, or overwhelmed. It was a calm down space anyone in the class could use. Having a safe space to go to when they’re feeling upset or worried, one that is not regarded as punishment, reinforces the idea that overwhelming emotions are a normal part of life. It also offers the mental and physical space that is often needed to accept these emotions and work through them in a safe way.

4. Externalize Their Worry

In the moment, emotions can be overwhelming. When they’re swirling around inside your mind, it can be difficult to move past them. As my daughter says, “I can’t get this out of my brain.” One way to help is to externalize the worry. Write or draw the worry on a piece of paper and put it in a “Worry Box” you create together. You can take time (15 minutes or less) each day to set aside for the worries. It’s important to acknowledge they exist, but externalizing them can help give your child more control over them.

5. Try Mindfulness Exercises

I’m a big believer in mindfulness practices after experiencing the benefits firsthand. To help your children learn the practices early, belly breathing is a good place to start as it gives them an awareness of themselves. Eising suggests using blowing out birthday candles as a metaphor for breathing kids can understand, “OK take a big, deep breath and blow out those birthday candles.”

Another suggestion is to play “I Spy,” It helps ground them in the moment and notice the world around them.

 

6. Recognize a Change in Routine Can Be a Trigger

Routines help children feel safe and secure because they know what to expect. Even a positive change, like a vacation or a special outing, can sometimes set off anxious feelings in children. By recognizing and setting expectations, you can hedge off anxiety and help your child cope with the change.

 

7. Try Art Therapy

If your child enjoys drawing or coloring, creating art can be calming for kids and enlightening for parents. For example, my 4-year-old has been having some friend troubles at school, and she drew an interaction between her and her friend on the playground. It helped me to have the visual to start a conversation to better understand the dynamics of 4-year-old friend drama.

 

 

8. Limit Screen Time

I think one of the questions that will define our parenting generation is “How much screen time is too much?” Eising doesn’t judge screen time use, but she does recommend knowing what your child is watching and recognizing screens can be an easy escape from reality. So if your child is anxious, screens will work as only a distraction rather than a way to deal with difficult feelings.

But Eising does recommend shows like PBS’s Daniel Tiger and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to help young kids recognize and identify emotions. For older children, Disney-Pixar’s movie Inside Out also does a good job of explaining how our emotions affect our actions.

 

Routines help children feel safe and secure because they know what to expect. Even a positive change, like a vacation or a special outing, can sometimes set off anxious feelings in children. By recognizing and setting expectations, you can hedge off anxiety and help your child cope with the change.

 

9. Approach Your Child’s Educator

“Don’t be afraid to ask for a meeting with your child’s teacher,” says Eising. If you suspect your child has more anxious feelings than other children, their teacher can be a great resource and support to ensure they’re getting what they need at school and at home.

 

10. Utilize Free Resources

The website Sesame Street in Communities offers a wealth of free resources to support parents in helping their children through anxiety and a multitude of other challenges — from helping kids transition between divorced parents to dealing with parental addiction — and YouTube Kids offers mindfulness videos and other video resources.

We still have a long way to go with de-stigmatizing mental health care. Perhaps in our children’s future, mental health checks will be part of overall wellbeing checks, just like seeing the pediatrician or the dentist. In the meantime, one final thought Eising wanted to stress is that it’s never too late to start managing mental health — in our kids and ourselves.

 

Read More: Is Your Child Anxious? Here’s How to Help

 

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