Children experience anxiety in a number of different ways. A child might explain it as a feeling of dread, panic, sadness or fear. They might talk about it in terms of physical symptoms like sweaty palms, trembling, butterflies in their tummy or a fast heartbeat.
Children’s anxiety can manifest as a limitation in their ability to concentrate, experiencing “clamming up” or “going blank.” Some children may get caught in worry, or say the same thing over and over. Other children may experience somatic complaints such as a headache or tummy ache.
Some children will have no language to described their symptoms, and their anxiety may show up through refusing to go to school or not wanting to play with their friends. They may follow the parent around like a shadow, watch too much television or use electronics to excess.
Here are some strategies to work with children who are facing anxiety.
1. Manage Your Own Anxiety First
Anxiety is almost contagious. If you are anxious, and supporting an anxious child, your lack of anxiety regulation can influence the child’s anxiety, making it worse. It is important to work on your own ability to calm down.
2. Create Emotional Safety with the Child
Emotional safety in a child’s brain is the foundation for emotional regulation. When a child feels safe with the person supporting them, they create a story in their brain that tells them they can feel good about themselves, they can connect with others, and their needs will be met.
To do this the supporter needs to make the child feel seen, safe, and soothed. Emotional safety needs to start with the supporter being predictable and consistent in the child’s life. It is critical that the child knows what to expect from the supporter, as this predictability make the world increasingly secure. Another thing the supporter can do is to engage the child in affectionate and nurturing play.
3. Give Anxiety a Language
When we recognize our feelings, we can develop the ability to accept them, learn about them and conquer them. When we do not understand a problem, we cannot solve it.
Therefore, we need to help the child understand the problem. We could say “When you are feeling your heart thud quickly in your chest and your hands are shaking, this is called anxiety,” or “Oh, you blanked out on your math test? Anxiety must have hijacked your memory.”
Often the act of giving anxiety a name can calm anxiety down.
4. Acknowledge the Struggle
Validate the difficulty the child is having. Do not pretend the problem does not exist. When we ignore the anxiety in hopes to make it go away, this usually fuels the anxiety and makes it stronger.
You could say things like “I know it’s overwhelming to go to dance today,” “You are trembling; come here, I’ll hug you,” or “Going to birthday parties with new kids can be really scary. You can do it, I believe in you.”
5. Practice Coping
Practice, practice, practice. The person supporting the child with anxiety is like the coach in anxiety regulation. It is the coach’s job to practice, practice, practice with the child. The more times you practice a coping technique with a child, the more you are reinforcing a new brain pathway. Be a broken record and practice over and over again.
Some practical strategies could involve deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, wrapping yourself in a blanket or hugging a loved one.
It is possible to help a child overcome their anxious patterns. With patience, practice, and persistence, change is possible.
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Siegel, D.J. (2013). Brainstorm. New York: Penguin.
Siegler, A.L. (1997). The essential guide to the new adolescence. New York: Penguin Group.