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5 Easy Ways to Help Your Anxious Child (and Your Anxious Self)

Worry and anxiety can eat away at kids’ comfort and confidence, especially at stressful transition times like going back to school or to summer camp. Here are 5 helpful tips to ease the mind of an anxious child.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
September 8, 2017
Episode #168

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Childhood is full of little worries, like who you’ll sit next to at lunch, passing this week’s spelling test, or walking past that scary barking dog at the end of the block.

But sometimes kids’ worries grow bigger than your teen’s Instagram audience, faster than your tween in a growth spurt, or are more numerous than fidget spinners in the lunchroom.

An anxious child biting her nailsIt’s painful to see your kid suffering from anxiety and it’s heartbreaking to watch them do things that set them apart from their peers, like clinging to you at soccer practice, crying at birthday parties, or refusing to participate in school to the point that their grades suffer. It can also be exasperating to hear them worry about things that seem irrational or to worry about the same things over and over again. Luckily, you can help.

Lending Your Anxious Kid a Hand

Here are 5 simple tips to ease the mind of your anxious child.

  1. Help them make a game plan.

  2. Teach them to talk back to their anxiety.

  3. Remind them that what revs up must slow down.

  4. Wean them off unhelpful rituals.

  5. Hear them out.

Tip #1: Help them make a game plan.

Sometimes kids forget that they have the power to cope with challenges. Help them realize that they can solve most age-appropriate problems themselves or with a little help. If they express worries to you, say: “It sounds like you’re worried about X,” or “I hear that you’re nervous about Y.” This gives them a name for what they’re doing or feeling, and avoids the shutdown of “There’s nothing to be scared of,” or “Just relax.”

Then help them make a plan. If their fears came to pass, what could they do to cope with the situation? If they need a little help, who could they ask?

For instance, “What if Jenna stops being your friend? What could you do?” “What if you get lost in the mall--who would you ask for help?” “What if you feel like you’re going to throw up in class? What would you do?”

Helping them make a plan does two things: one, it helps them move beyond a problem to a solution, which can reduce uncertainty, the driver of worry. Two--and most importantly--it sends the message that you have confidence in them. You trust that they are capable and can handle age-appropriate challenges.

Tip #2: Teach them to talk back to their anxiety.

Sometimes kids don’t realize that their worries are just one side of a conversation. They can talk back to their worries in order to make themselves feel better and more confident.

In order to do this, suggest they choose a name for their anxiety--for example, Big Bad Worries, Worried Jessica, Worry Monkey--or they can picture a character sitting on their shoulder. This helps personify the anxiety and makes it separate from your child. Then encourage them to talk back to it. Work with them to come up with some helpful talking points for when anxiety strikes.

Kids old enough for phones can jot a ready-made pep talk into their notes section: “I can deal with whatever happens.” “It’s okay to make mistakes or do stupid things.” Younger kids who can read can carry a post-it note or index card in their backpack with the same helpful messages: “I am stronger than my worries.” “It’s okay if everything isn’t perfect.” If kids feel embarrassed about carrying around a note, they can carry a talisman that reminds them of their response. Maybe you and your child decide that owl stickers mean “I can handle challenging things.” Then she puts an owl sticker on her lunch bag, her homework folder, and her backpack.

Whether through stickers, index cards, phone notes, or imagination, encouraging your child to talk back to their anxiety empowers them and makes them active rather than passive.

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