The worst part of anxiety is having anxiety about the anxiety, itself. The metaphor of a snowball being rolled down a hill of is one I use to illustrate how unchecked anxiety rapidly grows. Children can learn to cope with anxiety by learning two crucial skills: Calming Down and Solving Problems. As I wrote in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, escalating anxiety in children can be espressed as defiant behavior. Knowing how to help your child manage his or her anxiety can go a long way in helping them behave better. As a follow up to one of my recent blogs, below are five more of the techniques that I use in my practice with children and their parents to help children manage anxiety:
Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, nationally recognized relationship expert, and executive coach. He has over 27 years experience providing child, adolescent, couples, and family counseling. Dr. Bernstein conducts seminars and public speaking events on child/teen development, ADHD, learning disabilities, discipline, difficult children, parenting issues, weight management, workplace challenges, and leadership development throughout the greater Philadelphia area.
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- Breathing with them. One way to help your child control anxiety is to encourage slow, deep breathing. You can help your child practice this by getting her to imagine the air going in through her nose, down the windpipe, and into the belly. There are wonderful apps and You Tube videos that you can search for that show how to do this diaphramatic breathing (I present it as “belly breathing” for kids). I also show kids a picture of a saber tooth tiger and explain how our fight or flight mechanism in current day works the same as if we were seeing a saber tooth a long time ago. Another way to relax is to alternately tense and relax muscles.
- Helping children get rid of ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts). I have children draw ants (the insect version) to make this exercise fun. Then I help them talk about, write, or draw ants with negative thoughts next to them. Typical ANTS may be: “Nothing ever goes my way,” “I’m a loser because everyone else thinks I am,” or “I’m a failure.” By changing the unhelpful thoughts to more helpful and positive thoughts, for example, saying or thinking, “If I keep practicing, I’ll get better,” or “Even if I make a mistake, I can learn and do better the next time,” the child’s anxiety levels will be reduced.
- Using exposure strategies. In my practice I use a strategy called Introceptive Exposure. For example, for a child who reports shortness of breath due to anxiety, I may have a child sit with his parent and hold his breath. The goal is for the child to learn that the physical symptoms can be experienced without the anxiety and panic. Following the spirit of exposure being far better for helping anxiety than avoidance, it is imperative that parents stay loving and firm in encouraging their children to confront and work through their fears.
- Guiding the child with calming visualizations. Help your child to imagine a relaxing place and to notice the calm feelings in his body. Or, have him imagine a container (such as a big box or a safe) to put his worries in so they are not running wild in his mind and bothering him when he needs or wants to be doing other things.
Encouraging the child to make a “things that went right today” list at the end of the school day. This helps children prone to anxiety to develop an optimistic cognitive style. This can be made into a Success Journal.
For more involved, persistent anxiety related concerns, please consult a qualified mental health professional.