Anxiety, fear, and worry – unpleasant as they feel – are part and parcel with being human. Those feelings are so connected with our survival, in fact, that deep within our brains there’s an entire set of circuitry dedicated to them. So, way back when we had to be worried on a daily basis about being attacked by a bear, having those feelings kept us alive.
These days, however, that same set of circuitry gets tripped by less life-and-death things and more daily-annoyance things, like getting stuck in traffic (for adults) or having to wait for a turn (kids).
While those feelings are as much a part of our survival circuits as hunger, they can become a real problem if they start to interfere with everyday activities. When that happens, it’s important to know how to reach out for help (something we talk more about in the app). But even for life’s regular annoyances, it’s good to have some tools, not only for ourselves, but that we can teach our kids. When we can coach our kids through a challenging moment (or even better, help them have fewer of them), we are giving them a life skill they’ll use again and again. But how do we teach our toddlers/preschoolers/elementary students/tweens those skills? Here are some starting points.
For our very young kiddos, it’s normal to experience a great deal of anxiety and fear. After all, they’re very small humans in a very large world. But there are some techniques we can use that can set the stage for more moments of calm and fewer of chaos in the (not so distant) future.
Deep Breaths. For little ones, it may not be helpful to say, “Take a deep breath.” If we can turn it into a game of sorts, they’re more likely to try it – and benefit. Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry, recommends “pizza breath.”
You hold your hand out flat, palm up, and pretend there’s a pizza. You smell the pizza (deep breath in), and then blow on it to cool it off (long, sustained breath out). Another technique for the younger ones is a “magic wand.” If you attach a fluffy feather to a stick (like popsicle sticks), you can tell your little one that making the feather dance can help them feel better. Then you model a deep breath in and a long breath out, blowing on the feather and making it move. It’s very important to teach these deep breathing techniques in happy times, as trying to teach anything when the lizard brain has taken over is going to less effective. But when you have these techniques in place, they’re at the ready when they’re needed. I remember diving across the doctor’s office floor once after my daughter got a shot, saying, “Pizza breath!” and holding my hand out. The nurse looked at me weirdly, but she took those deep breaths and calmed down a little faster.
Building Blocks. Child psychologist Dr. Neha Navsaria often uses tangible items like building blocks as a way to represent worries or fears with her smaller clients. She asks the child to label each feeling or worry or fear that they have, and she stacks them up higher and higher. By giving their anxieties a real-world shape, you also give your child not just a way to show how they’re feeling, but also ways to knock that big wall down.
Lugs & Hugs. Occupational therapist Sahana Baker-Malone recommends any kind of “heavy work,” where kids do things like push or pull heavy laundry baskets, for example. Massage and firm cuddling is another way to give them proprioceptive feedback, which means your instinct to hug and hold (assuming they’ll let you in the moment) is spot on.
Early Elementary Students
Colorful Feelings. Dr. Navsaria also uses color labels with anxious kids, because a lot of times it’s hard for kids (and adults) to get a grasp on that feeling of anxiety. She will often ask kids to give a color to their feeling (green for anxiety, for example), and then when she checks in with them she can ask how green they were feeling that day. By using colors for these hard feelings, you’re giving your child more ways to communicate how they’re feeling with you.
Draw It Out. Some kids love to draw, and having them draw their own interpretation of their feelings can be really powerful for them. After all, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, how much more can they communicate about their feelings if they actually show you what it feels like? And from there, you can even ask them to assign characters to different feelings and help them come up with ways to manage them in a cartoon format, for example.
The Mindful Train of Thoughts. Another image that might work, especially for kids who have lots of anxious thoughts, is imagining each thought as the car of a train, and then imagining that train pulling into the station and talking about how you feel about each of those thoughts. Then, imagine the train is leaving, and talking about how you feel as each thought pulls away.
Late Elementary Students & Tweens
Online Programs/Games. I know it sounds contradictory to use an online tool to minimize anxiety, but there are some really good ones out there, and they work. Tools like GoZen or Coping Cat actually teach kids what’s happening in their brains during anxiety and offer techniques based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in language and images that are accessible and memorable.
Two more techniques developed by Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand In Hand Parenting, can be used by kids of any age.
Special Time. Setting some time aside on a regular basis to be with your child and follow their lead is an excellent way to strengthen your relationship and build trust, which also helps reduce stress. The important part is to be clear about how much time you’ve set aside (use a timer if necessary), and during that time let your child lead. This is not a time for adult suggestions or direction, but for the child to be in charge.
Play-Listening. This is often a time for some rough-and-tumble play, where you (the big, strong grown-up) are never quite fast enough to catch your child or strong enough to hold them. (Think of it as they’re the Roadrunner and you’re Wile E Coyote.) This lets them practice being brave and powerful and confront their fears or anxieties in a safe space.
But the most important tool? Modeling to your child how you manage your own stress. Our little monkeys see and do everything we do, whether we like it or not. Taking time to think about what tools work for you can go a long way toward helping your child reduce their own anxiety.
In HelloJoey’s “The Young & the Anxious” kit, you can learn more about the science behind the anxiety, fear, and worry that some of our kids experience and how we as parents can help give them a safe environment where they can express these feelings and overcome them.
Want to learn more about “The Young & the Anxious?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.