The following suggestions can help children with all forms of anxiety better cope with their condition.
How to respond to a child’s anxiety
It’s important for parents to show empathy without acting in ways that reward or reinforce anxious behaviors. In treatment sessions for kids with anxiety disorders, therapists typically give parents the following advice:
1. Respond empathetically to a child’s initial complaints about a stressful or anxiety-provoking situation. This can be done by restating the fear that a child expressed to you and then refuting it with a more logical idea. For example, if your child says “I can’t go outside to play because there could be killer bees out there and they’ll get me,” say something like, “I imagine it’s pretty scary to think you might be attacked by bees. But bee attacks are almost unheard of, and I would not send you out there if I wasn’t convinced that you’ll be safe while enjoying some time in the sun.”
2. If the complaints continue, parents should encourage children to practice the relaxation and coping techniques that have been taught to them.
3. If the complaining continues, withdraw attention until it subsides.
4. Reward courageous behavior by praising children when they confront their fears or attempt to manage their anxiety appropriately. (Curtis, Kimball & Stroup, 2004)
Teach children breathing exercises to manage their anxiety
Anxiety is a stress response, and stress is tightly connected to a person’s physiology. Stress and anxiety alter a person’s heart rate, breathing, and other biological systems as their brain puts their body on high alert. But this connection also works in reverse: Changing one’s breathing patterns can disrupt this response, reducing stress and anxiety. For this reason, teaching children relaxed breathing techniques is a common method for helping kids cope with anxiety of all types.
Have a child lie on her back, close her eyes, place her hands on her tummy, and complete the following exercise: As she inhales, tell her to imagine her lungs are a balloon filling up with air. Once it’s full, hold it in there for several seconds before letting it out like a deflating balloon. Practice this technique with them at bedtime every night for a week or two. Once kids have grown accustomed to breathing like this while lying down, you should be able to convert this technique to everyday life. Remind them to “breathe like a balloon” whenever they feel anxious, and you’ll have a coping technique that can be used to address fear, relieve anxiety, or diffuse a child who is angry or in the midst of a meltdown. (More information on assorted focused breathing techniques can be found in our Life Recovery Handbook.)
Talk through their emotions
When children express a concern or worry, ask them to rate this anxiety on a scale of 1 to 5 according to the other anxieties they feel. Then ask them to explain why they assigned this worry this particular number, and what could be done to bring it down some on the scale. The way our brains work, the natural counterbalance that keeps fear and emotion in check is rational thought. So often times, simply asking children questions like these is enough to take their anxiety down a notch.
Go over se1f-statments they can repeat to themselves
Another common trick for helping kids cope with anxiety is to teach them reassuring statements that they can repeat (either audibly or in their head) whenever they find themselves in a situation that induces panic. Such statements can include things like…
- Not everything will go as planned, but that’s ok if it doesn’t
- I have the ability to cope with whatever life throws my way
- Knowledge empowers me
- Pleasant surprises often come from new situations
If a child has a particular phobia, write down comforting phrases she can recite to herself that deal with this specific anxiety. You also might search for comforting quotes or sayings that will give them a little boost of strength.