When it comes to anxiety, the goal is not to eliminate it, but rather to help children manage their worries and be willing to face them. While it may come from a helpful and protective place, shielding your children from their worries (and the settings that trigger them), actually hurts them in the long-run. Children need the opportunity to find out that their worries are exaggerative and unlikely to come to be as well as to develop the skills and confidence in themselves necessary to handle the situation they’re nervous about (now and in the future).
Avoiding anxiety-provoking situations robs your children of powerful learning experiences, and instead teaches them that avoidance is the solution to the things that scare them. This message encourages future avoidance patterns that can be highly problematic for their development and growth. Rather than supporting avoidance, consider ways that you could inspire bravery, courage, and willingness to fail. It’s important that you keep your expectations realistic and approach your children’s anxiety from a place of compassion and encouragement. Goals should be phrased as positive (what they can do, rather than what they can’t) and should be at a level of difficulty for the child that is challenging, but not unrealistic or overwhelming.
As a parent, it can be scary and sad to watch your child struggle with anxiety, so it makes sense that you might want to help them escape from or avoid the things that upset them. What can you do instead? See below for 5 helpful strategies for addressing anxiety with your children. Who knows? You may find that it’s as helpful for you as it is for them!
1. Teach them about anxiety. First off, it’s helpful for children and adults alike to understand what’s going on in their body when they’re feeling nervous and worried. A simple and straightforward explanation of the stress response can reduce concerns about their anxiety, which can help children reduce the distress they experience in response to their anxious thoughts and feelings (see this article for ideas). Consider viewing the film “Inside Out” together as a family and have a discussion about the important role that anxiety/fear (the purple character) play in keeping Riley safe and making good decisions. Shifting their view of anxiety from scary and upsetting to helpful and important can have a powerful impact on how children respond to feeling worried.
2. Engage in expressive activities. Whether it’s through writing, reading, or acting, story-telling is a powerful way for children to express themselves and to better understand their worries. Creating an anxiety character can be an effective way to externalize the anxiety in a way that allows children to talk back to it and distance themselves from it. Give the character a name and visual description and teach your child how to stand up to their anxiety character by saying things like “I’ve got this” or “You’re not in charge of me!” Another powerful way of using story-telling is to write a social story with your child. This article provides a step-by-step guide for creating a social story aimed at addressing your child’s anxious thoughts and feelings. Other expressive outlets such as dancing, singing, drawing, and journaling can also help externalize feelings and reduce the distress associated with anxiety.
3. Develop their mindfulness tool-box. Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful way to learn about ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. Discovering that we can stay calm and at peace when we are experiencing anxious thoughts and feelings empowers children to handle their anxiety and to make healthy choices when they are feeling stressed, worried, and nervous (a difficult task for most people!). It also helps train them to focus on their present experience, rather than fixating about upsetting things that have happened in the past or scary things that may occur in the future. There are many ways people can learn how to relax their minds and bodies when they’re feeling overwhelmed, including deep breathing, grounding exercises, and other mindfulness practices. Much like self-defense training, the more frequently children practice these skills, the more likely they are to be useful and effective when they really need it.
4. Release physical tension. Anxiety is a common cause of muscular tension, which can lead to headaches, stomachaches, and other uncomfortable physical sensations. Progressive muscle relaxation can be particularly helpful for reducing the muscular tension associated with anxiety. Instruct children to tense a group of muscles for 5 seconds and then release them to see how it feels and teach them that they have physical control over their bodies. Begin with muscles in the face and head and move down the torso, arms, and legs to give them a full-body experience. Similar to the mindfulness skills discussed above, progressive muscle relaxation will be more effective for those who practice it often. Bedtime is a great opportunity to practice on a regular basis (bonus feature: it may help them fall asleep faster!).