In today’s fast-paced world with children spending less time playing outdoors, facing more school tests and dealing with the constant noise of social media, anxiety is on the rise.
It is estimated that now as many as 1 in 6 children suffer from it at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately there is no magic wand that we, as parents, can wave to take away our child’s anxiety. But there are things we can do to help our children manage their feelings and learn to cope when anxiety hits.
The more they learn how to control their feelings and realise that they will pass, the less anxious they will be the next time.
5 ways to help anxious kids
Take some deep breaths
When your child is anxious or scared their brain and body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. As their body tries to take in more oxygen they start to breathe very rapidly and with shallow breaths.
Their heart also beats faster and their body tenses up, ready to take action. All these physical changes can make your child feel breathless and sweaty and panicky.
By teaching your child some simple breathing techniques you can help them immediately overcome their body’s response to feeling scared and start to feel calmer.
You could even ask them to imagine a calm scenery like a field full of flowers or a flowing river, while they are doing these exercises.
They could go a step further and imagine a tiny fairy or mermaid (or whatever animal or character they prefer) coming out to greet them from this scenery. That way they can create their own happy place they can go to when they need to.
Anxieties.com recommends these two very simple breathing techniques to help your child calm down.
- Ask your child to breathe in gently and slowly. Count to 3 while she breathes in.
- Ask her to breathe out slowly.
- Continue this gentle breathing pattern counting to keep the rhythm going.
- Ask your child to take a long, slow breath in through her nose. She should feel her tummy moving outwards (rather than upwards) as the air fills her lungs.
- Hold this breath to the count of 3.
- Now exhale slowly through pursed lips, while relaxing the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.
Practice moments of daily calm
It can really help your child to take a few moments each day to practice feeling calm and in the moment. There are some really great apps available with practical ways for your child to find their daily calm.
These include short daily meditations, mindfulness exercises, yoga and soothing music to listen to.
For younger children apps such as The DreamyKid are a great way to introduce these daily practices.
For older kids (and adults) the Calm app is brilliant. It also has some great sleep stories for children, which weave guided meditation into plotlines and help a worried child relax and drift off to sleep at bedtime.
The whole body relaxation technique
This powerful exercise helps children to relax and unwind, especially if they are having trouble settling to sleep. Ask your child to lie down and point her toes to the ceiling.
Tell her to hold that position for a few seconds and then relax. Now ask her to tense her feet and point her toes towards her head, hold the muscles tight and relax.
Continue all the way up the body, clenching the muscles of each part, holding for a few seconds and then relaxing. Ask your child to clench the muscles in their shins, then their thighs, their buttocks, their tummy and so on.
When they get to the top of their body they will be scrunching up their shoulders and screwing up their face before relaxing.
This exercise focuses the mind on physical feelings and by isolating each muscle group and concentrating on clenching it, you then feel the benefit of when it’s relaxed.
You can repeat this whole body relaxation technique until your child feels calm and the tension in their body has been released. Their body may begin to feel heavy as it sinks into the sheets.
Giving big emotions a name
Just by asking your child to put their emotions into words can help shift their focus from the emotion, onto the name and feel a little calmer.
It’s a technique known as ‘affect labelling’. It sounds too simple to be true but just by putting words to feelings, you can help shift your child’s brain activity from the emotional areas to the thinking parts.
This refocus in the brain can bring them some instant cooling of the big feelings that they were experiencing.
Ask your child to feel, notice and find a word for the emotion they are feeling.
Once they label it then ask them to just pause and notice the feeling. You can simply say something like: ‘So, you’re feeling very frightened right now’.
It can also help to visualise this feeling as a ‘thought cloud’ and imagine their feeling as a word on that cloud. They can then watch the cloud pass by as the wind blows it on and it fades.
You can then help your child think of one thing that they might do next. This can be something simple like going downstairs and having a snack or reading a book together.
This technique is all about naming feelings, accepting them and then trying to find a way to move your focus away from them even in a very small way.
Teach the reframing technique
It can help children who feel anxious to practice thinking about their fears and what they are telling them. They can then try and look at these fears in a completely different way.
The more they practice doing this, the more natural it becomes. So when anxiety hits they can have more control over the worrying thoughts that overcome them.
You could practice this simple activity with your child. The more you do it the more naturally it will come to them:
- Ask them to name one worry that they have in their mind at that moment.
- Ask them to think what that worry is telling them.
- Now ask them to think about if it’s 100% right and 100% going to happen.
- Then ask them to take that worry and turn it into a helpful thought instead.
For example your child might say they are worried about a spelling test in class tomorrow. Their worry is telling them they will get all the answers wrong and everyone will think they are stupid.
In fact your child has practised their spellings and got loads of them right with you the other day. They might forget a few tricky ones but that’s OK.
You could remind your child that a spelling test is just to practice so you know which words you can spell and which you need to look at again. And remember that they got 8/10 in the maths test the other day and felt really proud?
Your child might now feel a little better about their abilities and might want to play a fun spelling game to practice a little more and squash the worry. Or they might like to just relax, knowing that they will do their best and that’s all anyone can do.
Anxiety can be an overwhelming and frightening experience for your child. Teaching them these 5 techniques to better recognise and control their feelings can arm them with useful tools to manage their anxiety.
What should I do if my child’s anxiety persists?
If you feel that you need more help, then a first step might be to speak to your child’s teacher to explain how anxiety is affecting your child. You can make her aware of any triggers and come up with a plan together of how you might improve things.
A next step may be to speak to your G.P or health visitor to seek further help. Talking therapies and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are very effective ways of treating anxiety and could be very helpful for your child.
- Mental health disorders in children are on the rise, NHS figures show, The Guardian
- Anxiety, Young Minds
- Practice Your Breathing Skills, Anxieties.com
- DreamyKid meditation app, just for kids, iTunes
- Discover Calm: The #1 App for Meditation and Sleep, Calm.com
- Why Saying Just One Word Can Calm Runaway Emotions, Psychology Today
- Helping Kids with Anxiety: Strategies to Help Anxious Children, Psycom