Anxiety is not unusual – not for us grown-ups and not for our kids either. It’s part of life because we all find ourselves in moments or seasons when life is challenging and big or little things bother us. It doesn’t mean we’re crazy or broken. So what are some things we can do to help our kids when they find themselves face-to-face with the big anxious ‘I don’t know if I can handle this’ feeling?
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Stay close and available to your child
This lets them know they have your support and they don’t have to manage these uncomfortable feelings by themselves. “Honey, I’m just here – you let me know if you’d like to talk.”
Embark on some ‘detective work’ with your child
This works best after you’ve connected and really heard what’s bothering them. What triggers the anxiety or worry? What are the physical signs? What thoughts feed the anxiety? What shrinks it? Sometimes children cannot work out what is bothering them and they need some help locating what it is that is niggling away at them.
Get them to rate the worry from 1-10
Keep this light and playful. It gives them a distraction and a visual way to see their worry a bit outside themselves and they can see the rating go down. The higher the number, the more they need your calming presence.
Embrace the worry
There will always be moments in life where we need to do a little of what scares us. For example, your child may be feeling particularly anxious about tomorrow’s spelling test. Acknowledge the feeling but nudge into it, make a plan with them to practise their words before dinner. Once you’ve done that, settle them with, “Good practising. Just do what you can tomorrow.”
Interrupt the body sensation
‘Turn down the volume’ of anxious thoughts that so often are very loud and bossy, by doing something active. They could try a run around the house or a jump on the trampoline to get that nervous energy out.
Have a laugh
Simply doing something fun and frivolous together, like having a water balloon fight or smearing shaving foam around each others faces brings its own light relief and we call this a circuit-breaker. Perspective can be gained this way, by allowing oneself to have a good old laugh.
Be prepared to spend some time getting through new worries
Rehearse potentially tricky situations. For example, “When you get to kindy, what’s the first thing you do? What’s the second thing? And the third thing? That’s it – you have three things to do.”
Acknowledge when they act bravely
“We noticed how well you handled that spelling test. You just go on with it and gave it a go.” “I know how scared you were of your first ride on the flying fox but you did it and you were very brave.”
Courage is being scared but having a go anyway
Remind them of past successes. “Remember that time you hopped on the flying fox even when you were scared. What about that time you were scared of the clippers hurting your fingers, but you sat there so courageous and all your fingernails got a trim!”
Add a ‘next chapter’ to a scary nightmare or experience
“Can you make up a brave ending?” Repeat the story if necessary.
Keep day-to-day routines/rules normal
This is steadying for children. They love to know that there is a plan in place and some things will just tick over.
Talk about smoke alarms
You might like to talk with your child about smoke alarms. Alarms can’t tell the difference between smoke and fire. So assessment is needed – as quickly and accurately as possible, in case we need to run from fire or a dangerous animal. Of course this takes experience and practice over time. Help your child figure out when to sound the all clear and reset the alarm (idea from The Opposite of Worry by Lawrence J Cohen).
If they won’t talk about it, then model bravery. Tell stories – yours or others as examples and ideas. Read books to them. You might like to wonder aloud.
Teach them to stay in the present
Help them practice spontaneity, thinking on the spot and acting on solutions immediately, even if this means the solutions aren’t perfect. Alternatively, let them have 15 minutes ‘worry time’ only, and then ‘lock the door’ on the worry!
You might like to create a worry box with your child where they write or draw what they are anxious about and then post it in the worry box to revisit when they next schedule worry time. Get them to figure out when they do their best thinking and park the worry in the worry box till then.
Hey Warrior by Karen Young
Kids can do amazing things with the right information! Understanding why anxiety feels the way it does and where the physical symptoms come from is a powerful step in turning anxiety around. Anxiety explained, kids empowered. Purchase Karen’s book here.
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