Coping With an Anxious Child
We're still in the middle of massive change occurring in the world everywhere. During times of massive change, routines and schedules often start to fluctuate, as we are all well aware of right now. This can create anxiety, stress, and overwhelm.
We often don't often realize how much stress kids can experience. They’re very masterful at hiding their stress, and may not even know what 'stress' is. They're not going to describe it as stress. Childhood anxiety can develop into a much greater concern if children don't know how to cope.
This is when we may start seeing acting out in like upset, intrigue or so-called “bad” behavior. If your child is acting out, What are they anxious about? What are they stressed out about?
This blog aims to share a few questions and techniques you can ask and do with your kids to help them deal with anxiety and recognize it when it shows up. First let's look at the different types of anxiety that can manifest in children.
This can be what I would call “invisible overwhelm,” where kids go into overwhelm. They don't really know why... They may be experiencing emotions or having physical sensations, like stomach aches or headaches but they don't know why. That can be a form of anxiety or stress.
Types of Anxiety:
Generalized anxiety, which is really the most common dis-order and that's where children worry about things like school, their family, the future. Physical symptoms may manifest like headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, and tiredness. That's your generalized anxiety.
Then there's OCD, which is obsessive compulsive disorder and this is where kids express anxiety through obsessions and compulsions.
There's also phobias which are really intense fear about certain situations or things (like clowns, bugs or being in small spaces).
And there's also social anxiety. This is triggered when you're in front of groups of people or big situations. And there may be panic attacks. These anxiety episodes a lot of times can happen without warning and include physical symptoms that children can experience like a pounding heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, or a tingling feeling.
Lastly, is PTSD which is post-traumatic stress disorder. That's usually anxiety that stems from a prior experience and a lot of times that includes things like flashbacks, nightmares, fears and avoidance of that traumatic event in the present time.
With PTSD, sounds and smells can also be triggers. It could be something like an adult yelled loudly or screamed at sometime and created stress (physically, emotionally, mentally). There could have been a certain tone to the voice or a smell that was happening. The child might hear someone talking that sounds like that person and instantaneously, the body is back in that fight or flight from trauma.
It is fight or flight or sometimes it could even be freeze. With all the flux and the changes in routines and not being able to hang out with friends, you’re going to see more of the generalized anxiety. Here are few tips and tools and phrases that you as parents or caretakers can use to help in those situations.
Tips & Tools & Phrases:
Before we begin, take a big, deep breath to help manage your own anxiety and pulse rate. Just note, you can’t try to fix or change something in the middle of an intense situation. You can give these phrases which will help tone it down, but you can’t try to “fix” something when you’re in that fight or flight. This is why taking that breath may allow you to be aware of what is required before it explodes into an episode.
Take a deep breath in, then a long deep breath out.
Imagine all of your troubles falling off your body into the ground.
Expand your own zone of awareness out:
Notice the space around you and expand that out as far as you can. Include your child in that so they can also feel the space.
It's almost like perceiving that they're in this bubble or box, and they have way too much going on, and you are actually expanding the edges of that bubble and making it bigger so they have a greater space, allowing them to actually breathe deeper, their heart rate starts to decrease, etc. That is expanding your zone.
1. Blow up a pretend giant balloon:
Instead of asking the person experiencing the anxiety to take a deep breath, turn it into a game. “Let's pretend we're going to blow up a giant balloon. We're going to take a deep breath and blow it up to the count of 5.”
Trying to tell a kid or a person to take a deep breath in the midst of an attack is not probably going to go well. They're going to scream, yell, say “I can’t!” Saying “Let's blow up a giant balloon, let's blow up a beach ball,” takes the significance out of the event. Essentially what we're doing here is we're making a game out of taking a deep breath. Make funny faces, whatever you need to do. Take three deep breaths - breathe in, breathe out and blow up that bubble.
The breathing in and the blowing out actually starts to prevent or reverse the stress response in the body. A similar exercise is blow out the stuff that isn't working for you or that is bothering you into the bubble and then once the bubble’s really big, you pop it with all the stuff in it. Kids love that.
2. “If how you feel were a monster, what would it look like? Or, "What monster would it be?”
So this is essentially giving characterization to the anxiety. It means that you’re taking a confusing feeling and making it concrete and palpable, but in a third party sort of a way. It allows them to step aside without being in the feelings; to identify the feeling so that then you can deal with it.
Once you have the character, like the Cookie Monster or The Grouch, whatever it is - once they have a “worry character,” then they can talk about it. It allows you to have a conversation that helps them work through it.
It allows them to be able to look at their feelings and be with it rather than it taking over. It's almost like taking it outside of their body and allowing them to really be with it versus having it in them which is creating that shortness of breath, increased heart rate, etc. It creates the space where they can get out of the overwhelm, look at it, and know what they know. Because when we're stuck in the fight flight or freeze we can't know we know.
3. "Help me move this wall!”
This includes the physical aspect and gives deep pressure input. Actually go to a wall in your house and put your hands on the wall while standing farther away from the wall to where you actually have to push really hard like you would be pushing the wall over. Make sure it's a solid surface, something you can't move or knock over and you're not standing on a slippery surface where you could fall.
It helps relieve the tension and the emotions that are locked into the joints and the muscles. The other thing you can do with that is you can stand away from the wall and do wall push-ups to where you fall into the wall with your hands open. It's giving deep pressure input to help organize the system.
4. “What does your thought bubble say?”
This is great for those who like the comic books or graphic novels...
The thought bubble helps move the story along in the comics and it also allows them to talk about how they're feeling as a third-party observer, creating a different perspective. It allows them to step outside of the feeling and get clarity.
If your child likes to draw or scribble or anything like that, you can also draw out the thought bubbles with characters! Even if they’re not drawers, they can actually just use different symbols, etc. to represent how they're feeling.
5. “Is this a big problem or a little problem?" "Is it a mountain or is it a molehill?"
As anxiety mounts we turn a molehill into a mountain. How big is this problem really? Asking this question helps break the 'problem' into the smaller steps to make manageable.
It is also great to put a numeric scale to it: “On a scale of 1 to 10, is this a big mountain or is this a molehill? Is it a big problem or a little problem?” 10 is the mountain problem, 1 would a little problem. When they can identify, “Okay maybe this is really actually a 5." Then ask, "What do we need to do to bring it down to a 1?”
6. “If you gave your feeling a color, what would it be?”
“Why is your feeling that color? What does that color mean to you?”
This is an alternative to the monster question.
Everybody's different and every child is different. I have worked with children that actually perceive people by color. The color of a person gives them guidance of how they need to react or be with that person. As an example, perceiving a yellow person maybe someone who is naturally more calming. Each child has her own color scale.
These tools are amazing for assisting an empathetic and aware, or highly sensitive child. Please remember the goal isn't to truly eliminate the anxiety, it’s to be able to help the child manage it. Helping them learn to manage anxiety is the key. If you always remove them from every given situation where they might have anxiety, you're showing them not engaging in their environment as the coping method. Play with these tools and help them realize what tools and techniques that they need to manage and work through their anxiety. That's empowering..
What are some of your best tips and tricks for managing your own or your child's anxiety?
Feel free to share in the comments below, or connect with me on social media!
This information is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice or care. One should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or disease. Reader should direct any question concerning personal health care to licensed physicians, occupational therapists & through individualized evaluation & intervention
Trina Rice, OTR/L, MBe., CF is the Co-Creator of Energetic Signature Formula. A Master Facilitator & Coach and Best Selling Author. She has been an Occupational Therapist for 25 years working with children, young adults and professionals & is the owner and founder of Harmony Therapeutics, LLC, a successful therapy business for over 15 years. She is currently a co-host of The Misfit Squad Podcast, where she helps listeners to make their awareness easy to use and invites them to embrace their differences, shifting dis-abilities into abilities.
In between traveling, enjoying our Earth and cosplaying as a Superhero for charity events and comic-cons, Trina loves facilitating classes around the globe inviting people to inconceivable possibilities and more joy. She also enjoys facilitating kids and adults in person, phone or video conferencing to have more ease and the brilliance of them.