All kids (and adults) experience anxiety. They might worry about their mom dying and leaving them or about what's under the bed in their dark bedroom. Many worry about strangers and about whether people like them.
The strategies and coping skills listed below will help normal kids with normal anxieties, but I really meant them to help parents of kids who are different, kids like mine for whom anxiety colors every single situation they face and often makes them paralyzed and unable to stop the worries.
As an adult, I have had a few anxiety attacks. Anyone who's ever had one knows the feeling of helpless and total despair that comes along with it. Imagine being a kid, especially a kid with limited awareness of her feelings, and experiencing the overwhelming panic. It is uncontrollable and irresistible and scary.
The strategies listed below are just suggestions. Some may work for your child, and some may not. Used in conjunction with therapy (a must in my opinion) and possibly medication (which made a world of difference for us), the coping skills below are very effective for my daughter. I hope you find some wisdom here as well.
35 Coping Skills for Parents to Help Their Kids with Anxiety
- Get her talking and really listen. Kids with anxieties often here things like, “There's nothing to be afraid of,” and “Come on! You're fine!” but to them, there really is something to be afraid of. They don't feel fine, and no amount of cajoling will make it so. If you really want to help, affirm her feelings (“It sounds like you're saying… It makes sense that you're so upset.”), and pay close attention to what she has to say. Look her in the eye when she's talking. Put your phone down. Listen the way you'd listen to your best friend.
- Lower your expectations. In the moment that your child is experiencing extreme anxiety, she may not be able to function at a normal level. Her hormones are raging, and she is most likely in full-on fight or flight mode. She's scared. Whether you think her fear is rational or not (usually it isn't rational to you but makes total sense to her), you should be prepared to let things slide, at least until she's back to normal. Note that I do not allow my daughter to lash out and harm others during this time, there are always consequences for that, but I do let other expectations go away.
- Appreciate small victories. Maybe your child is too scared to go to a sleepover, but she was willing to go to the friend's house for the evening. Celebrate this as a major milestone in the movement towards her conquering her anxiety, and praise her for the effort it took.
- Blow bubbles. Blowing bubbles is a very simple, low pressure way to get kids to slow their breathing, and that automatically slows their negative thoughts. Deep breathing has been linked to decreased anxiety in every study I've ever seen, and it is also great for resetting kids' brains away from a survival instinct and towards a higher level of cognitive functioning, allow them to begin to discuss what they're feeling and recover from the panic.
- Give her a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are like magic. Grace received a weighted blanket from Weighting Comforts, and she loves it. She calls it her anxiety blanket and uses it every night. She even took it to Girl Scout camp this summer. It's heavy – 15 pounds – but it brings her peace and comfort at night which is probably her worst time anxiety-wise. She tells me that she falls asleep quicker and sleeps better when she uses it than when she doesn't. A recent scientific study found that 63% of people who use weighted blankets report the same effect – better sleep and decreased anxiety overall.
I really like Weighting Comforts specifically because they offer a 30-day better sleep guarantee. If you buy a blanket from them and decide that you aren't getting better sleep after a couple of weeks, you can return it for a full refund. Guess what? 90% of their customers end up keeping their blankets because they work.
Each blanket comes with a note that it was handmade in Nashville, Tennessee by refugees who are working to create incomes for their families. Weighting Comforts partners with an organization called Sew for Hope that gives sewing machines and sewing classes to refugees living in Middle Tennessee so that they can help to support their families in their new country. Grace and I just love that.
Grace's blanket is this one, if you're interested. It's pretty, and the fabric is soft and nice. I highly recommend it.
- Start a worry jar. You could make a jar very similar to our gratitude jar and use it for worries. When your child has a big worry, she could write it on a slip of paper and stick it in the jar. The idea is that the worry is trapped in there, so she doesn't need to think about it anymore.
- Pray together. God can remove any feeling from us if only we ask Him. Model praying with your child. Teach her how to pray to a loving God who will free her from her worry.
- Read scripture with her. I have previously shared 10 Bible verses for worry and anxiety, and those will help her to feel safe and secure, knowing that God has this situation under control.
- Make a calm down box. A calm down box is a box of things that your child finds very comforting. We are still assembling Grace's, so I will write a separate post on how to create a calm down box for your child when we're finished with hers.
- Paint calming stones. Painted rocks are all the rage these days, but the act of painting – pouring out the paint, stroking the surface, making the design look just right – is very helpful for anxiety because it forces the child to slow down. If she needs help, do help her, but try to let her do the painting on her own.
- Make a meditation jar. We made these cool jars in my mom's group about seven years ago. They were very simple, just quart mason jars with warm water (2 cups), glitter glue (2 tablespoons), food coloring (a few drops to your liking), and glitter (as much as you want) inside. You mix everything together, heating in the microwave if necessary to dissolve the glitter glue. When the glue is all dissolved, use some hot glue to secure the lid, and the jar is finished.
We were originally using our jar for discipline times (you can come out of time out when the glitter all settles), but Grace discovered that watching the glitter settle was very soothing and helped her when she was overcome with worries. We still have that original jar, and Grace still uses it when she's upset.
- Make a relaxation video. Kids love to see themselves on video, don't they? Mine both do. Anyway, make a video of your child telling herself how to find her peace and calm when she's upset and anxious. You can do it interview-style or just let her talk. She could demonstrate some deep breathing exercises and offer tips for what has helped her in the past. Who knows best what she's going through? She does, of course!
When your child gets really panicked, encourage her to watch that video and help herself. It will also remind her that she can weather this storm no matter what, and that she has survived before and will also survive this time.
- Make it a game. Ask your child to help you catch all her worries and throw them into jail. Make a jail picture on a piece of paper, and write all the worries she's having in the jail cell, behind bars. Then, ask her several questions:
- Where did this worry come from?
- What made you think about this?
- Why are you worried about this?
- Where have you seen something like this before?
- What could happen if your worry comes true?
- What are the chances that your worry will come true?
She may not be able to answer all the questions, but together, you should be able to come up with some kind of story about the origin and consequences of the worry. The last step is to help her to see that the worry is irrational, but you can't just say that. Ask her questions like, “does it make sense to worry about this if ___ ?” Maybe she'll say it does make sense. In that case, move on to a different strategy, without trying to convince her that she's wrong.
- Teach her the SNACK method. SNACK stands for:
- Stop. Stop whatever you're doing as soon as you can safely do so. Interrupt the behavior or activity and remember that you can always start over later.
- Notice. Notice what is happening in your body, in your brain, and in the world around you.
- Accept. Accept the truth of your feelings. Whatever is happening in and around you, allow it to be without judging it or trying to shut it down.
- Curious. Get curious about yourself and your feelings. Ask questions such as, “What am I feeling right now?” and “What do I need to do to feel better right now?” and “What is going on around me to make me feel this way?” and use that information to decide what to do next.
- Kindness. Remember to be kind to yourself and others as you work your way out of the anxiety, even if someone else caused the situation.
- Switch gears. Whatever situation your child is in when anxiety overtakes her, change it. If you're inside, go outside. If you're outside, head in. This isn't always practical (bedtime, for example), but to whatever extent possible, make a big change to signal to her brain that the old situation is over and it's time to start fresh.
- Get some exercise. Exercise is so good on so many levels. It's good for your heart and brain and muscles – and your mental health. In many scientific studies, exercise has been show to be just as effective as anti-depressants in impacting feelings, outlook, and mood. Just as effective! Seriously, how much more convincing do you need? Take that anxious kiddo and go for a walk or bike ride, and make that a habit you do every day.
- Try yoga. Okay, so maybe yoga fits in to the exercise item above, but I think yoga is really more than just exercise. It's about stretching and strength and breathing. You can find lots of yoga videos on YouTube, so open one up and get started, even if you don't have a mat. Just do it on the floor.
- Punch a punching bag. I think this is a fun way to help an anxious kiddo to get her frustrations and feelings out in a positive way. She has lots of energy, probably lots of adrenaline, and she is amped up. The punching bag will help to work a lot of that out and help her to calm down.
- Jump on the trampoline. Same general idea as the punching bag, the trampoline gets out all the excess energy and hormones that are keeping your child from being able to calm down.
- Use positive affirmations. These only really help if you've been working on them before the actual anxiety attack, so don't try to introduce them in the midst of madness. But if you have been working on them ahead of time, remind your child of some of the things she has read, repeated, and meditated on.
The thing I love about positive affirmations is not that they can change your circumstances; they can't. What I love about them is that they can change you which changes how you see your circumstances. That's the key.
40 positive affirmations for Christian kids will publish next week.
- Find your pet. Pets are amazing. Their eternal love and devotion makes you feel good. Their sleek, soft fur and happy hearts make them the perfect cuddly companions. (Unless you have a nasty turtle like ours, and then forget about it. But nice, furry companions, those are the ones I'm talking about here.) Encourage your child to play with or cuddle your cat or dog or guinea pig and talk to it. Pets are very good listeners.
- Color or draw together. It can be hard for some kids to talk about their anxieties. They may have anxiety about their anxiety, like they think you'll laugh or belittle their feelings if they share them with you. They may not want to disappoint you or let you in to their crazy feelings. So for these kids, it can be helpful to have something to focus on, something that's mostly mindless but still occupies the hands, something like drawing or coloring. With her hands busy, you can ask her gentle questions about what she's worried about and how she's feeling, and she may be more willing to answer.
- Do a simple puzzle together. Same as coloring above. If her hands and eyes are busy with a puzzle, she may be distracted enough to open up about her feelings and especially her worries.
- Listen to music or white noise. Upbeat music makes everyone feel better. In the midst of a bout of anxiety, playing some happy music might distract her from whatever is bothering her. Note that you will have to deal with the source of the anxiety eventually. It's not going to go away even if you are successful in distracting her for the time being.
- Give her a fidget toy. Grace's new therapist highly recommends stress balls, squishies, tangles, and other fidget toys for anxious kids. She says the ability to squeeze and manipulate something helps kids to expend their nervous energy and focus on resolving their feelings. Grace has a million of these, some homemade and some from stores, so yay for us. (I could write a whole blog post about fidget toys… maybe I will!)
- Get her a chewy necklace. You may think this is dumb for a kid over 2, but one of my children is gaga over her chewy necklace. She takes it with her, around her neck or in her backpack, nearly everywhere she goes. It's a purple heart, and she likes it, and she chews on it constantly – and no one knows that it's not just a cute, chunky necklace. There are dog tags and Legos and crystals and all sorts of other shapes available. Our favorite brand is the one I linked, Chewigem.
- Eat a healthy snack. I am not advocating eating your feelings. Heaven knows, that's how I got to be 400 pounds. What I am instead suggesting is that the act of preparing a snack (especially your child preparing the snack, if she's able) will interrupt her thoughts, and the act of eating the snack will help her focus on something other than her strong feelings. Maybe after the snack, you can try talking about what upset her so much.
- Do a freewrite. What I love about free writing is that it leaves the child with a choice about what she wants to write about, but it doesn't leave the topic so open-ended that the child is left with total indecision. What I mean is that you offer a topic, such as the Friday Freewrite topics presented on the Brave Writer website, and then, your child can write on that topic or on any other topic she chooses. So if she's feeling especially big feelings, she may want the distraction of the given topic, but if she's ready to process what's bothering her, she may choose to ignore the topic suggested and go off on her own stuff. Either way is okay. You should write while she's writing. Then when you're both finished, you can choose whether to read aloud what you've written – or not. There should be no pressure if she chooses not to share her thoughts with you.
- Do something kind for someone else. There is a principle in Overeaters Anonymous that when you are feeling especially weak or tempted, you should do service for someone else. You are supposed to reach out to another OA member by phone and ask how they're doing. Just call and check in. It can be someone you know or someone you've never spoken to before. The idea is simply to get outside yourself and do something nice for another human being. This same idea is perfect for our kids with anxieties and other big feelings. A good starting point would be my 60 random acts of kindness for kids post.
- Play with Play-Doh or modeling clay. We love Play-Doh around here and we have for at least ten years. My kids have never really grown out of it because it's very sensory. It has a distinct odor (which I love) and it is stiff and firm but moldable in your hands. My kids play with it a lot, especially when they're stressed out which tells me that it is good for soothing their big feelings. I think this fits especially with the stress balls idea that was suggested by the therapist.
- Watch a movie together. When I'm stressed out, I like to watch sad movies that make me cry (reference the Hachi debacle from Mother's Day of this year). That's cathartic for me. For kids, generally the movie should be upbeat and distracting. They will need to return to their feelings eventually, but at the moment, the movie will envelop them in another world and help them to put some distance and peace between themselves and the anxiety.
- Count to 100 very slowly. This is a breathing exercise in disguise, and it also helps to calm the child and put some time between her and the thing that caused her anxiety. In between every number, take a big deep breath. So 1 – breath – 2 – breath, and so on. Do it out loud. You could even take turns, so you say 1 and she says 2. By the time you've reached 20 or so, her breathing should be back to normal. (You don't have to go the whole way to 100 if you don't want to.)
- Watch funny videos on YouTube. Our favorites are animal videos, but you might like babies or something all together different. Go for what you like, but serious, what is funnier than a cat knocking stuff over or a bawling baby koala who fell out of his tree? Nothing that's what.
- Use a relaxation or meditation app. I didn't link to a specific app here because I haven't used any of them to recommend one. I do know though that there are tons of apps in all the major app stores that offer you guided meditations and deep breathing exercises. My FitBit Blaze has deep breathing and relaxation exercises built into it, and I imagine the other high-end FitBits do too.
- Ask her, “what do you need right now?” and listen carefully to her response. She may say that she doesn't know, in which case you should be prepared to make suggestions from other items on the list. But she may surprise you and have amazing insight into what she needs to process and move past her anxiety.
You may have noticed a couple of themes through all of these suggestions. First, you need to get your anxious child distracted and away from the thing that's causing her big feelings. Second, once she has calmed down a bit, you need to get her back into those big feelings and processing them so that she can move past them. Through all of this, you must be a loving, kind, and empathetic listener who is very attentive to what she's saying.
Anxiety is super hard for kids and super hard for parents, but with a tool box like what's above, you'll be more prepared for the inevitable episode when it comes.
© 2018, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.