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Helping your Anxious Child

How do I recognize if my child has anxiety?

Childhood anxiety rates are at a record high. One in five children experiences intense anxiety. Their anxiety is frequent, severe, and persistent, and it’s affecting their ability to be a happy child. Common worries in school-age children include: test anxiety, completing projects, social anxiety, perfectionism, sports or performance-based anxiety, speaking in class, separation anxiety, and specific phobias (snakes, dogs, storms). Often over time, one form of anxiety (such as separation anxiety) may change to a different form of anxiety (such as perfectionism).

Anxiety may present in somatic symptoms, including: headaches, upset stomach or nausea, constipation, increased heart rate, chest tightness, sleep disturbance, vulnerability to viruses, appetite change, or fatigue. It may also manifest in negative behaviors, including: irritability, outbursts at parents or siblings, inattention, school refusal, or avoiding activities that they once loved. Any sudden change in the following symptoms could be an indicator that your child’s anxiety level is higher than typical:

  • Physical complaints (stomach aches, nausea, headaches)

  • Change in eating or sleeping (repeatedly visiting parent’s room in the middle of the night)

  • Avoiding activities that they used to love (after-school clubs, games, playdates)

  • Suddenly refusing to go to school

  • Excessive need for reassurance (especially in new situations or during severe weather)

  • Explosive outbursts

  • Irritability

  • Decrease in attention

How do I talk with my anxious child?

1. Truly listen and validate their feelings. When your child comes to you worried that she will not pass her quiz, responding with: “It’s ok, the quiz doesn’t matter anyway. You are only in the 3rd grade!” is only going to make her feel like you don’t understand her feelings and are judging her for being anxious. Instead of minimizing and trivializing her anxiety, let her know that you understand that she is worried and can relate to how this worry may feel. Focus on the feeling. Then brainstorm how she can appropriately manage that feeling. Statements such as, “When I’m worried, I like to think of something calm. Do you want to try that before you study?”

2. Share about your own experiences. Be careful not to let your child in on adult worries (like money and your adult relationships) but do share with your child what made you anxious when you were young and what you did to help yourself (such as whispering worries to your teddy bear, journaling, or hugging a parent). Demonstrate both positive and negative emotions so your child learns that it is ok to have emotions. This will improve your child’s ability to recognize and express his own emotions.

3. Model appropriate stress responses/self-care. Let’s face it, more often than not our children are a mirror of our own behavior. They see how we handle stress and mirror the same habits, whether good or bad. When you are stressed, show them that you can care for yourself: take a bath, go for a walk, take a break.

4. Be consistent with routines. Children, specifically those with anxiety, thrive when they know what is expected of them and what activities need to occur in which order. Creating a calendar on the refrigerator can be helpful.

5. Come up with a step-by-step plan. If your child is anxious on the playground, prep her ahead of time. Role play walking up to peers and asking “Hi, can I play.” If your child is anxious about storms, come up with a severe weather plan to implement at home when there is a storm. When children feel prepared, they are in more control of their feelings. Anxiety is often accompanied by feeling overwhelmed. Breaking down the steps and writing it down can simplify the project, make it seem manageable and provide a visual reminder for the child about his progress. Crossing off small steps as they are accomplished feels good!

6. Focus on effort not product. Pressure on performance amplifies anxiety. Your child may not be able to be the very best at each category of his life (sports, math, science, art) and may feel like a failure if he’s not the best. Instead, focus on what a great job your child is doing and how proud you are for how hard he worked, how much he studied for his science test, or how much time he put into his class project.

are there any coping strategies I can teach my anxious child?

With these techniques, it’s best to teach a child when they are calm and alone. Evening time, right before bed, is often the most beneficial. The hope is that you can do the techniques together, and then when your child needs to implement the skill, it will come easier.

1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Relaxing our bodies in turn relaxes our minds. The two work together in unison. One way to relax our bodies is to tense and then release muscles. It sounds counter-intuitive but it really works. What you are doing is systematically tensing one muscle group at a time and then releasing the tension, paying close attention to how your body feels when the tension is off. To try this, sit tall firmly in your chair. Start with your toes and squeeze them tight while you breathe in deeply. Then release the tension as you blow air out slowly. Work your way up your body, squeezing and releasing each muscle group (one at a time) 5 times.

*If you have a young child who likes animals, an adaptation to this exercise could be pretending to be a turtle and squeezing your shoulders up and tucking your head into your “shell.” Making any skill-based activity fun or like a game will show your child that he can have fun while learning to manage his body, mind, and emotions.

2. Guided Imagery or Think of a Calm Place. Imagining a place that reminds you of calm, peace can calm your mind dramatically. Ask your child to name a place that is calming to him and create a story about this place. For some this is the beach, the lake, or even their backyard. In the story, specifically name sights, sounds, smells to bring an attention to the senses. Use a soothing tone as you tell the story and make it engaging so that your child is able to sustain attention.

*If story-telling is intimidating, try one of these Youtube videos for a Guided Meditation: “Hot Air Balloon Ride”, “Magic Bubbles”, or “Your Secret Treehouse”

3. Color a Picture, Coloring Book, or Mandala. Studies prove that simply the act of coloring is calming. Since anxiety makes people feel out-of-control, the choices that must be made while creating art can give a sense of empowerment and control. In addition, coloring engages the right side of the brain and takes the focus away from worries and words, allowing your brain to be soothed and to enter a state of calm. Pick up a sophisticated coloring book or one of Susanne Fincher’s mandala coloring books.

4. Journal. According to therapist Nicole Wood, "Journaling can help children understand their feelings more clearly. Getting their thoughts and worries out on paper can be a stress reliever and may help clear their minds and hearts of negative thoughts and emotions. Journaling might sound like an overwhelming activity for your child but they don't have to write in it every day for it to be beneficial, and it doesn't have to be long or detailed. Even just writing down a few feelings they are experiencing when they are anxious can help them process and reflect on their feelings and worries. This expression and relief of emotions can lead to improvement in their physical and mental health. Make it fun by allowing them to pick out their own journal or make it into an art project by having them make and decorate their own journals so they are excited to use them."

As a parent, you can make a tremendous impact on reducing your child’s anxiety, but if your child continues to struggle and his happiness is impacted frequently, consider seeking help from a therapist. Call Art It Out 770-726-9589 to learn more about creative art therapy combined with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and how it can help children with anxiety.

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