As most kids prepare to return to in-person school in the fall, and as we navigate a gradual return to “normal” life after COVID, parents can help by mastering some strategies to help calm anxiety in their children.
You may have seen anxiety in your child manifest as irrational fears or incessant worrying. Young children can suffer from anxiety in one form or another – whether an anxiety disorder or simply a phase in their life.
In fact, the last year or so in this pandemic has dramatically impacted children’s mental health as well as adults’.
Validate kids’ feelings and anxiety
First things first, don’t diminish or demean their feelings – even if they aren’t necessarily rational. As parents, we naturally want to comfort fears in our children. But sometimes, we inadvertently brush away their feelings as wrong or unimportant.
Instead, show that their feelings are valid: “I understand you’re feeling a little anxious. The first day of school is a big, new thing.” Then follow that with encouragement. Explain that they can still be brave through the anxiety – that courage is not the absence of fear but the determination to continue on, despite the fear.
Help kids sort out stressful thoughts
When stress overwhelms us (or our children), it can be challenging to think clearly. Help your child distinguish what’s real and what’s not. For example, recognize whether a fear of theirs is indeed a threat or not (ex: monsters under the bed vs. getting sick at school).
Illustrate the importance of sorting out the things you can control from the things you can’t. If they’re worried about a situation that’s out of their hands, help them acknowledge that they can only control how they respond to events that occur, not the events themselves. On the other hand, if their stress is due to something they can control, such as a test in school, they can do something about it – like put in extra study time.
Help your child catch their negative thoughts, and then challenge them. If the thought is, “I’m bad at sports,” guide your child to challenge that with what they know is true. “Have there been times I performed well in sports? I’m still learning, and I can continue to improve.” Support your child in learning to talk as kind to themselves as they would to a good friend.
Teach age-appropriate calming and coping strategies for anxiety
Share coping techniques for children. Here are a few examples:
- Deep breathing. They can imagine blowing bubbles, birthday candles, or smelling pizza and then blowing out to cool it off.
- A calm down area. Find a corner or quiet nook and make it cozy with blankets, stuffed animals, books, or whatever else calms your child. Then when their emotions start to rise, remind them to take some time in their calm down spot.
- Music. They can listen to music, sing, or play. Music has the ability not only to improve connections in our brains – it can also be quite effective at calming us.
- Imagine a favorite place.
- Write in a journal (or have them dictate for you to write in their journal), or color pictures.
Address specific anxiety triggers one step at a time
Also called the stepladder approach, this means helping your child face their fear in small increments at a time. For example, if they are afraid to go in the backyard because they got a bee sting the last time, help them take small steps to resume playing outside.
- Step outside the door for a minute, with you next to them.
- Sit on the patio with you for 5 minutes.
- Sit on the patio by themselves for 10 minutes.
- Play a game for a half-hour.
Depending on your child’s fear, the steps you take may need to be bigger or smaller than this.
Be aware of how your parenting affects kids’ anxiety
Your parenting style can affect your child’s anxiety levels. Too controlling (authoritarian) or too hands-off (permissive) are both styles that tend to raise anxiety in children. Strive for a healthy balance (authoritative) of keeping a positive relationship yet still enforcing rules.
Even if your parenting is spot on, the way you handle your own anxiety could be affecting your children. They sense your stress and notice the way you handle it. This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all stress from your life. It means learning to cope with it in a healthy way that demonstrates for your kids positive ways to manage anxieties.
If needed, seek help from a professional
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. If your child’s anxiety is ongoing, interferes with their ability to function, or if an anxiety disorder is suspected (rather than just a phase), talk with a pediatrician or mental health professional. They may recommend a type of therapy to fill your child’s needs.
Consider an emotional support animal
Animals can have a calming effect on adults and children alike. If it could be helpful, you might consider getting an emotional support animal (ESA). Or you could even make your current pet an official ESA. Doing so can allow your child access to more places with the company of their ESA, giving them a comforting presence to encourage them throughout the day.
Anxiety in children can feel daunting – especially if you’re dealing with your own anxiety as well. Use these strategies to support and empower your child as they learn to self-calm and manage big emotions.
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