Are you worried about your anxious child? You are not alone.
Anxiety is one of the most predominant mental health problems children and teens are facing today. The good news is, it is highly treatable. If you’re one of the millions of parents struggling to help your child with anxiety, here are 6 simple user-friendly tips:
1. Educate Yourself
What exactly is anxiety? If you’ve ever heard of the “fight or flight” response then you’re halfway there. Imagine you’re alone walking through the woods and suddenly come face to face with a bear. Your heart starts pounding fast, your muscles tense, and your senses become intensely alert. For a split second you're paralyzed with fear. You must make a decision: defend yourself or run.
This is the fight-or-flight response.
And it's a completely normal reaction (we humans wouldn't be here without it.) Hundreds of years ago, when we were faced with a physical danger on a daily basis, it was a very important and well-needed response (for instance, to keep ourselves from getting mauled by a bear). In today’s world, most of our dangers are not physical. They’re psychological. And they can’t always be addressed the moment they come up. The longer our fight-or-flight response remains active, the more physically and emotionally drained we become.
Long ago when there was an imminent physical threat, it usually passed quickly and our fight-or-flight response was deactivated. In our world, since there are so many potential psychological endangerments, sometimes the fight-or-flight response never really gets turned off. This is when a child may begin to see the world as a fearful place. They are stuck in “survival mode.” Not a fun place to be.
2. Talk About It
Many parents believe that talking about anxiety will make their child even more anxious. The reality is, providing your child with information about anxiety can help reduce his or her confusion or shame. Understanding what causes anxiety can help children to overcome it. Use "kid terms" to help explain the fight-or-flight response. Discuss why it was helpful back then, how it can be helpful now, and how it can be equally detrimental. Helping kids understand that feeling afraid isn't the same as actually being in a dangerous situation is empowering and can help them feel more in control.
3. Validate Feelings
Always validate and show acceptance of your child’s worried thoughts and anxious feelings. Make sure your child knows you truly believe what they are saying and that having those scared/worried/anxious feelings is okay. Share some things you were anxious about as a child, and then ask them what their biggest worries are. If they don’t want to talk right away, give them ample opportunities to open up with you through play or downtime during their favorite relaxing or fun activities.
4. Help Recognize Anxiety
Anxiety manifests physically. Ask your child to show you where in their body anxiety occurs, and where it feels the worst. It can be helpful to have your child name their anxiety. For instance, a child could call his anxiety “Mr. Worry Monster” and learn to talk to that anxiety as if it were a person and tell him to go away when not welcome: “Mr. Worry Monster is back this morning, Mom, but since it’s time for school I’m not listening to him. I told him to go away!” Once kids are less afraid, it becomes easier to approach events and situations that have been previously avoided.
5. Encourage Mindfulness
Many children have little time to just “be.” They are easily distracted and tired, juggling school, family, community activities, sports, etc. Sometimes it can just be too much. By practicing mindfulness, kids learn to hit the “pause” button and become aware of how they are thinking and feeling in the present. There are countless studies showing the benefits of mindfulness and it’s positive effects on our physical and emotional well-being, for both children and adults. One basic exercise I use with my clients is called “Balloon Breaths.” I ask the child to pretend there is a balloon in his belly. Ask him to place his hands on his belly and breathe in slowly in through his nose to fill his lungs all the way up. Meanwhile, blow up the balloon to demonstrate how the “balloon in the belly” gets fully expanded. Next, ask your child to open his mouth and slowly blow all of the air back out, letting his belly sink down flat, as you slowly let air out and deflate the balloon. Some of my clients even carry a little deflated balloon around with them, in their pocket or backpack, as a simple reminder to take “balloon breaths” when they feel anxious thoughts and feelings coming on. By learning a few techniques like this, your child can be well on his or her way to overcoming anxiety.
6. Be a Role Model
Your child constantly observes and emulates your behavior. Your actions lay the foundation from which your is child building his own beliefs and understanding about the world. If you shy away from discussing mental health, so will your child. If you are open and accepting of your own anxieties and how to deal with them, then so will be your child. If you take time to make sure your emotional and physical needs are met, your child will learn that self-care is an important part of life.
Overcoming anxiety can be a long road, but it can be done. With the consistent practice of mindfulness and other anxiety-reduction techniques, as well as practicing good self-care, keeping a positive attitude, your child can learn how to lower his or her anxiety level. Making an appointment with a local child therapist is often the most important first step. He or she can help facilitate this course with the family, and is often an invaluable teacher and guide in the process.
If you think your child is suffering from anxiety or experiencing a high level of stress, please contact me to set up an initial session where we can discuss your unique issues and develop an individual plan for your child that works.