Last month I talked about how to tell if your child is experiencing a form of anxiety beyond the average worries. You may have been wondering, what can I do about it? As a parent, to watch your child suffer can be incredibly challenging on many different levels. You are seeing your child in pain, which is uncomfortable. You might feel helpless, frustrated, angry at them, or scared for them. You might just be convincing yourself that they are fine! Whatever it is you are feeling, anxiety is stopping your kid from living and loving their life to the fullest. That hurts. And it gets old. So what can you do about it?
First, encourage them to face whatever it is that they are worried about. The sooner the better.
We have already spoken about how avoidance just doesn’t work (in case you missed that post, click here to read the signs and symptoms of child and teen anxiety.) Perhaps avoidance may seem to help in the short term, but ultimately it feeds into the problematic patterns and helps the anxiety gain more control. This is technically the definition of insanity.
Fortunately, you can help your child to fact check their reality and improve their outlook using some simple questions and techniques. You don’t need to wait until they are having a panic attack to use some of these, either. Like I said, avoidance doesn’t work! So get talking to your child about what is happening to them:
- Understand: First, encourage them to identify their feelings, fears, and emotions. “What are you really worrying about? Where and what are you feeling in your body? Let’s look at what this is. What can we do about this worry to help you feel better or safer?” Help them connect to their thoughts, emotions, and even their underlying beliefs behind trigger situations. If you help them to deconstruct why they are feeling a certain way it will help them gain their power back over the scary experience.
- Investigate: You can ask them to play detective with you– “Let’s find evidence that points to the worry being legitimate”, or “Be a MythBuster and bust the worry”. This can help them to feel more in control and more objective about the object of their anxiety.
- Let Go: It is important for your child or teen to understand that there are sometimes certain actions that can be taken to alleviate a specific worry. However, sometimes there are things that are out of our control, and that is perfectly okay. Doing so helps your child to understand that they can take empowering actions to a degree, but that there is a need to let go of things that they cannot control. Help them to identify these things.
- Re-frame: Also remind them that being scared or worried about something can be useful, even positive! “What could happen if you weren’t worried when you really should be? Perhaps about an upcoming test, or a bear in the woods?”
- Normalize: Sometimes we all feel worried! This will help to minimize the stress of the continued cycle of fear-based thinking.
- Breathe: It is always helpful, anxiety disorder or not, to teach your child the value of pausing for a deep breathing exercise. Try slowly breathing in 7 seconds, holding it at the top for 4, and breathing out for 8 seconds. This will automatically help the body shift into a more relaxed state.
- Express: Perhaps they have a certain piece of music, or activity that helps them to feel better (dancing, doodling, playing with clay, or writing about their feelings are all good examples– if only every child had an art journal!). Maybe it is simply the use of a stress ball, or worry stone that would help.
- Imagine: You can help your child to externalize (or separate from the worries by creating a funny character who represents it. Think: “WorryMan, the superhero! Who can’t come out of his phone booth because he’s too worried about what people will think of him!” Have your child use WorryMan (or the Worried Little Pony, or what-have-you), when they need to talk about their overwhelming feelings. This will lighten their load and distance them from the uncomfortable emotions or physical sensations. Then help them to come up with all sorts of hilarious adventures and creative solutions. Eventually WorryMan may surprise your child (and you) at how skilled he becomes at dealing with his worries. Perhaps he will even change his name to Super Star Man! Visualization and storytelling, no matter the age of the child (it works for us adults too!), is a powerful tool. When the panic hits, or beforehand, you can help them to envision themselves in a completely calm, safe space.
- Practice: Using key mindfulness exercises, ask your child to describe five things they see, hear, smell, and feel around them when anxiety hits. Ask them to do a body scan, or concentrate on wiggling their toes, starting with the pinky and working their way in. Ask them to tell you all about the chair they are sitting in, or the room around them, until they are able to connect back with themselves in the present. This is mindfulness and it can work! There are wonderful applications out there which help to structure a mindfulness practice for your child. You can even listen to them before bed, creating a ritual together!
- Plan: The key is to find out what really works for your child, then create a list of steps, or a “calm down plan”, to help them manage what they are feeling. This is a good way to address challenges with manageable, predictable, and repeatable steps, and it helps your child exercise their own sense of control.
Ultimately, one of the best courses of action to help your child deal with their anxiety is to visit a local professional who has been trained to specialize in treating children with anxiety.
Different forms of therapy have been found to be more effective at treating childhood anxiety. Getting the right treatment early on is important to reduce the risk of complications arising later in life. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has been proven effective at helping children examine and change the thought and feeling patterns which keep the worries coming. Art therapy has also been found to be helpful, particularly with a trained Art Therapist who can structure the interventions in a meaningful way. Play therapies such as sand tray therapy are also a useful way of helping a child to tell and re-orient their worries, helping them to form a new story. Your kids can learn to get a handle on some of their emotions with the help of a trained, knowledgeable professional.
Lastly, I want to emphasize this: Anxiety is not fun. Even for adults, it is very scary, and very challenging.
For a child dealing with panic or anxiety, it can feel like:
- They can’t breathe
- The world is coming to an end
- A strong sense of “doom” and unrest
- They are having a heart attack
- They will get sick and die
- They will never be socially accepted
- No one will ever understand them
- Their parents or loved ones will die
- They may also feel very strange and uncomfortable somatic sensations in their bodies or brains.
If you wish to learn more about what the experience of anxiety can feel like, many symptom lists are available online– just keep in mind that it will present differently for everyone.
A child may be feeling all of this and more, which can be hard to understand when they appear to be “fine”, or when nothing obvious is wrong. As a parent, it is normal to struggle with difficult feelings as a result, including disbelief or denial, annoyance, frustration, and even feeling like you’ve failed your child in some way.
If your child is struggling, always remember that help is available. This is not easy. Don’t hesitate to reach out to get them the support that they deserve today. The benefits far outweigh the risks of getting their anxiety issues treated as early as possible, and you never know what sort of difference it could make to them, in their lives, and in your family’s life.
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