What is anxiety?
The online definition from Merriam Webster’s states that anxiety is” an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it”. Often in states of anxiety, we are faced with worry about “what might be” or about “what might have been”. When in an anxious state, we often are not very confident in our ability to handle a situation and there may be feelings of dread. Along with our feelings anxiety can lead to a number of physical symptoms such as stomach issues, lumps in our throats, dry mouth, racing heart, sweating or difficulty concentrating. Anxiety does not only affect adults. It affects children too. While I was reading up on statistics about anxiety, I found that childhood anxiety is actually on the rise, with onset being at younger ages and more stressors for children and youth under 18 being reported. Children are faced with separation anxiety, the pressure to succeed, bullying, busy schedules, bullying and other issues related to family or self (self-esteem/lack of confidence) and/or they may face specific fears or phobias.
You may know a child is worried or anxious if they tell you how they feel. If they do not have the words or knowledge to explain how they are feeling you may notice the child complaining of headaches, belly pain or a sore throat. They may seem to want to avoid certain situations. They may insist on certain schedules or rituals that they develop to manage their anxiety. The child may seem on edge, unable to focus or may act out with aggression, whiny behavior or seem to be dependent on others.
There are a number of strategies to put into place if your child or children you are working with are showing signs of anxiety. Some of these strategies I have used in my own life and with children, I have worked with over the years. Please note: If your child is having such high anxiety that is affecting their daily functioning and/or causing great distress – it may be helpful to speak to your child’s doctor/pediatrician or a counselor.
The following are some strategies and tools to share with your children to help calm the mind, move past worry and work towards staying focused in the present moment.
Getting Rid of and Changing Negative Thoughts
Often anxiety creeps up when we let our mind run wild! We start doubting our abilities or think negative about situations. This also can happen with children. We can help children reduce worries by having them journal or draw their worries. Once the worries are “out” and on the paper, we can challenge negative thoughts. We can help children see the positive situation while also encouraging them to get rid of the negative thoughts by using mindfulness techniques and positive affirmations. Encourage your child to say to themselves, “I am strong”, “I can do this’, “If this does not work then I will try again”, “I am brave” or “I am safe”. You can help children see their positive attributes by having a loved one write a letter about their strengths – go through the letters together, pull out the themes and writing affirmations to say daily! As they begin to them on a regular basis, they will start to believe it, which will help reduce doubts, negative talk, thoughts, and lower anxiety!
Take time “just be”. This should become a routine and can happen before anxiety happens. Take deep breathes, stop what you are doing to notice what you hear, see, smell and feel. Just take time to be quiet. Sit in nature and focus on the breeze, the sounds or the sights. Share these moments with children. As they do these things on a regular basis, it will lower stress hormones and it will become a natural part of the day. Children can learn to pull out their present moment tools when they see the “What ifs” or stress is kicking in.
Watch Your Own Behavior!
If you are the anxious type then it will be good to pay attention to your own talk and anxious. If children see adults in anxious or fear mode, they will also notice these fears and anxieties! It becomes quite the cycle! A good read on this topic is the book “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Break the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children”.
Encourage Risky Play
We can encourage risky play to help our children overcome anxiety! That may not make sense but let me explain… as children are exposed to healthy doses of risk such as higher heights, walking on ice, rough and tumble play, safely using tools they are able to experience small doses of fear, work through it and overcome it as they successfully complete a task. In addition, it shows the children they are viewed as being capable of helping them to see themselves in the same way. Risky play builds resilience and grit!
Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
You can help children reached a relaxed state by getting rid of tension in their bodies through progressive muscle relaxation. Have your child lie on their back and start with the toes working up to the head –tightening and releasing various muscle areas. The children will be able to notice the difference between stressed and relaxed. This is a quiet activity and requires no tools except your own body so children can even practice at school or out with friends if they need to.
Do not avoid situations!
If your child is scared or anxious about specific situations, talk through it and if you can try them out. They will be able to face their fears and as they face the situation successfully, they become more confident. Sometimes you have to try things in steps- For example, if scared to go to a concert at school – you may first stand outside the concert area, then sit in the back and move closer each time or you may try it with a teacher by their side then alone. No matter how you get there, the first step to success is always the first step! This would be a good time to remember the affirmations too! Remind the child “YOU CAN DO IT”!
Have a relaxation station ready for stressful situations
A relaxation took kid can be made and be assessable to anxious situations. Have a small box filled with things that are relaxing to your child. Some ideas include stress balls, fidget toys, coloring books/crayons, playdough, yoga cards or meditation scripts.
Do some yoga, go for a walk, go to a playground or have your child do some sports. Movement is great for stress and anxiety reduction.
These are just a few ideas. I hope that you will be able to work with your child or children you are working with to help them overcome their anxieties and fears.
See the list below for some useful information to help childhood anxiety:
Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Break the Worry Cycle and Raise Courage and Independent Children
The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland
The Worry Workbook for Kids
Growing Up Brave
Worry Wise Kids
Child Mind Institute
Kids Life Studio (Try the free 7-week family Choice Challenge to increase healthy habits)