It’s easy to roll our eyes at this one. It’s super simple and everyone suggests it. Anxiety is not intolerable, it is manageable. No matter how overwhelmed your child feels, anxiety will pass. Breathing allows you to take a beat and shift out of your emotional brain into your logical brain. From a “logical brain” perspective, you can respond, not react – which is exactly where you need to be as a parent if you want to help your child, not make their anxiety worse. If taking a deep breath (think: 4 seconds breathe in, hold, and 4 seconds to breathe out) is not working, you can achieve the same effect by drinking a cold glass of water, touching a cool surface, or taking some space into another room can also help achieve this goal.
First, investigate. This one is important, sometimes your child is anxious for a valid reason that cannot be ignored. Whether your child engages in anxious behaviors naturally or if your child’s anxiety is sudden and out of character, you want to investigate what might be going on at home or at school that could be feeding the behavior:
For example (and the most likely cause) did your child go through a change? Are they feeling uncertain about something new? These are situations that contribute to anxiety that are often overlooked because, to you, the change or new thing often will not seem like a “big deal” because you have a lot more life experience. In this scenario, take a moment to talk to your child about the change or new thing. What are they feeling? Do they need skills to feel more comfortable? Do they know you believe in them and their ability to navigate this situation? Asking these questions and having a conversation around their responses will help your child to know you are there to support them in this anxious time.
No parent wants to think about the possibility that their anxiety might be the result of something serious. You must investigate whether your child being hurt by someone. “Hurt” can range from bullying, verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Signs include avoidance of a person or situation (e.g. missing a lot of school all of a sudden), nightmares, a change in their ability to control emotions, stomach pains, headaches or other unusual body pain. If you find out your child is being hurt, move into a supportive and protective role. It is completely valid that you would feel upset. Remember you don’t want your child to shift from trying to manage their feelings to trying to manage your reaction. Talk to another adult, away from your child, to process your own emotions. Take action to make sure the child is not being hurt further. Let them know it is not their fault. Thank them for bringing it to you. Praise them for keeping themselves safe. Seek out help. This may be from your child’s school, from the police, from a professional, to help your family through this trauma. Asking for help can be difficult. Healing and growth can be found when you take control of the situation and get the support you need.
Also consider if something is physically wrong. Are the stomach aches or chest pains a sign of something happening in their body that needs to be checked out by a doctor? Making sure your child is up to date on physicals. Maintain communication with your child’s pediatrician. Doing so will help to provide reassurance to you and your child.
Second, manage the environment. The goal is progress not perfection. Do what you can to ensure your child’s environment meets their basic needs for having stable and predictable food, shelter, and clothing. Another aspect to safe environment is ensuring your child has a relationship with you that is safe. Ask yourself, does your child come to you when they are sad or hurt? When they do, do you empathize with them? Do you praise them more than correct them? Do you make time to listen to their day, thoughts, or dreams for the future? Are you their parent or their friend? Are you consistent? Answering these questions will help you determine if you’re on the right path toward having a supportive and safe relationship with your child.
Manage Your Own Stories
Remember, anxiety is something your child is struggling with, not a definition of who they are.
Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- Constant worrying or saying “what if [insert worse-case scenario].”
- Heart racing, tense muscles, rapid breathing, stomach aches, and flutters.
- Being tired or irritable.
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
- Restlessness and difficulty sleeping.
These symptoms are behaviors resulting from anxiety, they are not a reflection of your parenting. Re-defining anxiety as a problem that needs to be solved will help you to approach the situation with a calm mind.
Teach Your Child
Here are some exercises you can use to help teach your child to manage their anxious behaviors:
1. Build Awareness
Talk to your child about their behavior, ask how they feel, and give it all a name. You can call it “anxiety” or you can get creative. Some suggestions include “jumping on the worry train” or getting “the worries” are other ways to describe anxiety. Giving anxiety a name makes it an entity separate from your child, a problem you two can work together to solve, or a thing your child can overpower on their own.
Just like this exercise is helpful for you, teaching your child to take a deep breath will help them to bring their system back to neutral. You can encourage them to take a deep breath and blow out like they were blowing bubbles or a balloon. As before, you can achieve the same effect if you offer your child a drink of water, walk them into another space or room to change the environment, or find something cool to touch.
This works in a similar way to breathing. Grounding shifts your focus and energy away from the intense emotion to what is happening in the present. Focusing on the present activates the logical part of the brain. You can help your child to ground themselves into the present by inviting them to count all the blue/green/yellow (any color works) things in the room. Invite them to hold your hand and feel the smoothness of your arm. Have them count their fingers or drink a glass of cold water.
Grounding works best when you use all of the senses:
- Focusing on the things they see.
- Paying attention to sounds they hear.
- Notice smells in the air.
- Thinking about tastes in their mouth or creating saliva.
- Touching things with different temperatures (such as a cool wall) or textures.
4. Allow Space for Emotions
It is important for your child to learn that emotions are temporary and can even be useful in the appropriate time and space. Anxiety, while overwhelming at times, is also useful for keeping us safe. Having a space to talk about these big feelings does two things: it allows children to acknowledge the emotion and reduces the fear often attached to emotions.
5. Empathize & Reframe
Empathy is a powerful tool. Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit with your child, hug them if they’ll allow it, and let them know you understand things can be scary sometimes and they are not alone. Feel what they are feeling in the moment. Don’t try to fix it. Let them be and stay right by their side. Embrace the silence. If they’ll allow it, use this time to nurture your child like you did when they were a baby (such as a hug or rocking) because it will help provide comfort.
Reach Out for Help
I hope you have found this information validating and helpful. One blog or post will not provide the answer to every situation to every individual. It is important to remember that you are not in this life alone, even if it feels that way. There are other parents in your child’s school or social circles that experience the same struggles. Ask around and you could make a friend. If you need to talk to someone or would like support for your family, go to the Resources page to learn how to access help wherever you are.
When Anxiety Goes Away
There will be times throughout the day that anxiety goes away. Emotions are temporary. Try to be aware of these times and point them out to your child. Helping you both to build awareness of the calm, peaceful, or happy times will help you to have hope that anxiety does not have to control your lives.
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