Calming Your Anxious Child

Child Therapy Sterling VA

The first day of school for many children is filled with excitement and hope, but for many others, the start of school brings with it anxious thoughts and feelings. For some children this may appear obvious with voiced worries, anxious habits, and loads of tears. For others, anxiety may manifest itself in less obvious ways with irritability, defiance, and anger. Either way, as a parent, this can be heartbreaking and frustrating. If that wasn’t enough, your own anxiety may tell you that it is your fault and that you are incapable of helping them through it. If your child is often overwhelmed with worries, how can you help them find a way through it?

I want to give you 3 important tips for helping your child when they are flooded with anxious thoughts and 2 additional resources that will teach you and your child how to start changing those thought patterns.

  1. Breathe: Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling anxious or stressed your breathing becomes shallow and you may even involuntarily hold your breath? This is actually part of our body’s natural protective response. When your body senses danger, real or perceived, it goes into the fight, flight, or freeze mode and your whole body can get in on the action. Deep, focused breathing can interrupt the nervous system’s response and have an immediate impact on the level of stress. When your child is feeling anxious, be the calm that they need. Focus on your breathing and talk them through breathing slowly and deeply. Avoid talking about the anxiety until their breathing has returned to normal. Speak softly, slowly, confidently, and compassionately. Speaking softly and slowly can have a soothing effect similar to how a lullaby can soothe your baby to sleep. Speaking confidently and compassionately sends your child the message that you will get through this together.
  2. Empathize: Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we have as parents. It communicates to our children that someone cares and that they are not alone. Through the use of empathy we can have an immediate effect on the anxiety. Empathy isn’t saying that the anxious fears are valid. It is simply voicing that the feelings are real. It is an observation. “You are afraid.” “I wonder if you are feeling like if this happens you will fall apart.” Avoid the urge to tell your child that there’s nothing to worry about or that they will be just fine. True as this may be, saying so in the midst of an anxious moment may only leave your child wondering what is wrong with them that they are worried about nothing. Instead, let them know that every person (you included) has moments where they are overwhelmed with worry but that it is never so big that we can’t handle it together.
  3. Play: It can be difficult at times for us as adults to identify what is causing our anxiety and then to try to talk ourselves down from it. For children this is even more difficult. Lucky for us, our children will naturally try to work out their fears through play. One of my favorite ways to do this with my children is through the use of stories. Have your child describe what their worry would look like if it were a character in a story. Is it a monster, an animal, a mischevious imp? Have your child draw a picture or have them tell you how to draw it. What is its name? All of this helps to distance them from the worry. Ask your child what that worry character is telling them to worry about. Start talking about and even to the worry as if it were a character that sometimes keeps them from danger but sometimes gets a little out of control. Be overdramatic and silly. The laughter will steal some of the anxiety’s power. If your child is a little older you can have them help you write a story about themselves and how they could imagine finding a solution. Help them brainstorm solutions by writing down any and all suggestions (even the ridiculously funny ones) on a piece of paper. With younger children you might find they voice their anxieties while playing with dolls or lego characters. If make believe isn’t their thing you may find their anxieties come out while drawing. Use these as opportunities to observe their inner world and model solutions.

Looking for more resources? There are numerous programs and tools available for parents. Check out the books Playing with Anxiety and Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson or GoZen Anxiety Relief Online program for children. These programs will teach you and your child time tested techniques to break through the anxiety.