Anxiety in children is hard to detect because it presents itself as an ordinary fear and sometimes instead of growing timid, the child reacts harshly as a coping mechanism. To help young children manage anxiety, here are some of the tips adults can do and teach to kids:
1. Acknowledge what they are feeling
To help the child, acknowledge that their worries are valid. By acknowledging that the child is struggling, they will feel understood and that there’s nothing wrong with them. A common misstep is to brush off their anxiety by making statements such as “You’ll be fine” and “There’s nothing to worry about!”
2. Normalize anxiety
Help them realize that anxiety and worries are actually helpful and serve a purpose. The feeling is a protection mechanism.
Here’s what an adult can say to help explain to them that anxiety is normal and everyone goes through it,
‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Anxiety in kids is common, and lots of adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from.
It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. Its job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.
A full explanation for kids can be read here.
3. Give anxiety a name
Susan MacKenzie, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto recommends helping the child give anxiety a name. When the child recognizes how anxiety feels like, it is slightly easier for them to learn how to manage the feeling when it bubbles up.
“By giving it that name, you’re helping kids recognize that they’re not the only one experiencing it,” she added.
She also recommends a book series to help start the conversation with kids titled Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt. It follows a timid squirrel as it tackles different fears ranging from facing the darkness and making new friends.
4. The goal is to help a child manage anxiety not eliminate it
Parents can’t bear to see their child suffer but helping children avoid what makes them anxious will only make them feel better temporarily. Constantly helping them ‘escape’ will reinforce the fears in the long run. If parents are always whisking the kids away, it doesn’t help them manage the issue and the ‘escaping method’ becomes the child’s coping mechanism instead.
5. Help the kids create a mental checklist
The mental checklist or steps is to help children with anxiety recollect their racing thoughts.
Here’s what both parent and child should include in a mental checklist, a method called the 3Cs:
Catch your thoughts – Imagine clouds containing all the worries and catch one of it eg “No one wants me at the party.”
Collect evidence – Collect evidence to support or negate the worrying thought. Supporting evidence: “I have a hard time finding someone to play with in school yesterday.” Negating evidence: “Amy shared her food with me. We are best friends.”
Challenge your thoughts – For this, parents have to teach their kids to have a debate with themselves.
6. Teach them the 54321 method
This method helps to ground and calm an anxious child using their five senses and it goes like this:
LOOK – Look for 5 things you can see and say them out loud.
FEEL – Pay attention to the body and think of 4 things you can feel and say them out loud. For example, I feel the hair on the back of my neck, I feel the pillow I’m sitting on.
LISTEN – Listen for 3 sounds and say it aloud. For example, I can hear the car engine outside, I can hear my tummy rumbling.
SMELL – Say 2 things you can smell. If there’s nothing to smell, say your two favourite smells.
TASTE – Say 1 thing you can taste. If there’s nothing to taste, say your favourite thing to taste and imagine it.
7. Have realistic expectations
No one can promise a child that they will enjoy something they don’t like, even parents. Adults can’t promise a child that they won’t fail a test or that they won’t get laughed at while performing on stage.
What adults can do is to express confidence that they are going to be alright and that they will be able to manage their fears. It also important to let them know that as they face their fears step by step, their level of anxiety will drop over time. Expressing confidence that they can manage shows them you’re not putting unrealistic expectations on them.
To further understand your anxious child, read here.
Feature image from Happy You Happy Family