Disclaimer: In this blog post, we are discussing mild to moderate levels of intermittent anxiety that impacts the majority of our youth and some point. If your child suffers from crippling anxiety or chronic feelings of distress, it is recommended that you speak with your physician or family psychologist for further support.
It's important to know that if your child has struggled with anxiety in the past, that they are not alone. According to studies at Georgetown University, approximately 5.6 million kids were diagnosed with anxiety problems by 2020. It's no surprise that 5 million children also experienced behavior and problems that year, a whopping 21% increase from the year prior.
Supporting our children with their anxiety is an ongoing job. It starts with validating their experiences and feelings (and doing so consistently). As always, one size does not fit all when it comes to accommodating anxieties; effective coping strategies could look very different from one child to the next.
When supporting our little ones through their big worries, here are some things that we should avoid:
- Try not to overlook their concern as something that isn't a big deal.
- Avoid jumping into fix-it mode and provide a barrage of solutions instead of active listening and offering them a safe space to communicate and feel.
- Try not to show that that you are irritated if big feelings show during inopportune times - asking for a moment to separate and breathe before co-regulation is so powerful.
- We must not approach anxiety with the intention of eliminating it- our goal should be to help manage it as it ultimately serves to protect us. In addition, a moderate amount of anxiety can be motivational and help us focus.
- Finally, we want to avoid hiding our own anxieties. We often think we are protecting our children by coming across as strong and stoic, however, this ultimately does more damage than good, as our children need to be able to see themselves and observe appropriate coping skills from their role models.
Predictability is key to ensuring that our children feel prepared and safe. This shouldn’t be a surprise- we’re all guilty of creeping a guest list or looking at the parking situation before RSVPing to a party, asking what others are wearing or curating a list of emergency conversation topics.
First and foremost, it's crucial that your child develop vocabulary to help them identify their feeling cues. What are the first signs of the worry monster? Warm ears? A racing heart? Sweaty palms? Checking in frequently in creative ways is the first step towards catching the worry before it grows.
Using that history and predicting what could go wrong, although it may seem counteractive to a calm state of mind, is an essential way of proactively dealing with behaviours.
Try: Use visual calendars when possible, first/ next or even just host a Q and A or an assigned worry time before starting the day or bringing your child somewhere new. Co-plan a safe space and coping tools students can find and use when they start to feel overwhelmed. Practice mindful breathing on a regular basis to reinforce accessible coping skills and ensure that your child is getting enough sleep.
Visualizing anxiety as our body’s bouncer, changes the narrative that it is a bad feeling. Anxiety is just our body’s way of seeking safety so it’s important that we sit with it for a while instead of dismissing it without thought or smothering it with toxic positivity. Feel it - thank it - release it.
Try: Practise this concept with tangible tools, such as a Hoberman Sphere, balloon, or stress ball. Your primary students, counseling groups will squish or expand it to mimic the time we invest to sit with the thought, and then release it when they are ready.
Movement is not an addition to learning but one of the core components of learning. Physical activity produces endorphins and reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and helps regulate mood by increasing levels of seratonin. Movement breaks have been shown to support brain development in children, specifically in areas related to executive function and attention.
Try: Encouraging your child to shake their arms and legs when they feel the onset of anxiety. Humming and swaying is also a helpful way to release endorphins and stimulate the vagus nerve which can help lower blood pressure, slow down our heart rate and promote a relaxing sensation.
Which activities have proven to have a calming effect on your children at home or primary students at school?