Supporting children who struggle with anxiety is no easy feat, especially if the parent or guardian themself struggles with anxiety. Just like adults, children and young adults often feel worried or fear something, whether that be the first day of school, a drs appointment or just overwhelming emotions. What is the root cause of anxiety in children? While every child is different and unique, experiences like lots of change in a short time, exposure to anxious adults, traumatic events, and having many responsibilities at a young age due to unstable family conditions are just a few of the most common reasons for young children to be anxious or develop anxiety. One of the best things that a parent can do for their child in this situation is to instill in their kids that anxiety is normal, and model healthy ways of handling it. It is very common for anxiety to manifest in a young person’s body physically, such as panic attacks and/or fast heart rate, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or other related stomach issues such as nausea, and feeling very hot. If you believe your child may be struggling with anxiety, continue reading ahead for some tips on supporting children who struggle with anxiety.
Anxiety can be a common experience for kids, and there are several ways to support them:
Create a Calm and Safe Environment
Kids need to feel safe and secure, especially when they are feeling anxious. Ensure that the environment they are in is calm and peaceful through your own actions as well as putting other safe space techniques into place. Creating a physical space, whether it be a corner of a room or an entire room itself for the child to have as a “safe space” can be extremely beneficial for all involved. Have fun with it! Give your child the creativity to name the space and make it extra cozy to their liking, heavy blankets, an essential oil diffuser, pillows, fidget toys, music to play, this is very unique to your child. If you’re a teacher, consider making a safe, calm corner of your classroom and designate it for when children need a moment of pause, you may be surprised at a shift in their behavior! While creating a safe space for children is a wonderful way to ensure a calm place for them during anxious moments, these actions are essentially nothing without proper behavior from surrounding adults. Perhaps the most important part of making a child feel safe is reassurance from those who give them guidance. Speaking softly, not yelling but talking about issues, being kind, all of these things make a big difference in how children choose to react to their own emotions.
Talk to Them
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings and thoughts, listen to them without judgment or interruption. It’s important for children to know that their feelings are valid, so providing reassurance is huge. Reassure your child that their fears and worries are normal and that you are there to support them. Let your child know that the way that they are feeling is okay, and let them know that you believe them. Staying calm as the listener will help your child stay calm, too. No one likes to hear “don’t worry” or “relax!” When they are anxious or stressed out, keep this in mind while listening to a child speak about their anxiety. While you may not be able to understand why they are anxious or what about, acknowledging that their fears are real will give them the guidance and trust they need to come to you with their struggles in the future.
Talking with your child about anxiety can also be learning lessons for them. Most children will not be taught about anxiety until the pre-teen age, and at a young age may not be able to recognize that their feelings are unless talked about with an adult. Four important points about anxiety to communicate to your child include 1. Anxiety is normal, 2. Anxiety is not dangerous, 3. Anxiety is adaptive and lastly 4. Anxiety can become a problem. 1. Anxiety is normal, remind children that everyone feels it at times, whether it be before a big test or riding a rollercoaster, everyone knows that feeling. 2. Anxiety is not dangerous, it may be an uncomfortable feeling, but it will not last forever. 3. Anxiety is adaptive, meaning, it helps prepare us for true danger by teaching us and triggering our “fight-flight-freeze” response.
Help Them Develop Coping Skills
Teach your child ways to cope with anxiety, such as positive self-talk or visualizing a happy place. Like mentioned before, it is important that you are able to model these behaviors as well, especially positive self-talk. Anchoring phrases and mantras such as “I am strong” or “I am braver than I think” are a wonderful routine to add into a child’s everyday life. Try saying them with your child, not only will they start to believe them about themselves, but they will see you believing about yourself too. Make it fun for the kids! Turning relaxation techniques into games such as “I Spy” is a wonderful way to calm children’s nerves. 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and one thing they can taste in their sight- this allows the children to become more in tune with their current surroundings. Fidget toys are another wonderful thing to introduce to your child as a way of coping, whether it be a stress, ball, fidget spinner, putty, etc.. Teaching children breathing techniques is another awesome way to help them develop their own coping skills- show them how easy it is to take deep breaths in and out of the nose and mouth together, how they can feel their breath in their belly by holding it, and have them recognize how much calmer they feel afterwards.
Limit Exposure to Triggers
Limiting exposure to triggers that may cause anxiety, such as scary movies or news stories can help reduce anxiety. It’s important to know what your child’s triggers are, because everyone is individual and very different. There are many different causes of anxiety in children and because of this their triggers will also be different. Past traumas such as losing a loved one, being abused, or being in a serious accident leave lots of room for triggers to slip in. Try avoiding conversation about whatever the trauma may be in front of a young child, death, abuse, or any other story that may be related to an event they have gone through. While we say this, this does not mean completely avoid and shield children from their traumas, but rather just be mindful of how much they are exposed through the media and their surroundings. Some children may be triggered by large crowds or social gatherings, if this is the case, be mindful of where you are bringing your child and be sure to be transparent with them about where they are going. Through and through, it is impossible to avoid all anxiety triggers, but limiting them is our best bet to helping our children. If you are able to sit down with your child before the chance of a trigger exposure, take the time to let them know, ask them if they have any questions, and assure them that they have a safe space with you physically and emotionally.
Seek Professional Help
If your child's anxiety is interfering with their daily life, it may be time to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. What may be tough for you to understand or tackle as a parent of a struggling child, will be a great experience for your child with a therapist. At Pleasantville Wellness Group, we understand that anxiety may not only affect your child, but also their parents and whole family, that is why we offer many types of therapy that may be beneficial to your child or family, including children’s therapy, family therapy and group children’s equine therapy in partnership with Serenity Stables. Visit our website to book a consult call for your or your child today.