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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

How to Help Children Cope With Anxiety

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Imagine you are on an airplane and suddenly, the seatbelt light goes on. The pilot's voice tells you to prepare for turbulence up ahead. In one moment, your heart starts pumping faster, your stomach drops and you're breathing rapidly. These are the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety.

Children, as well as adults, experience anxiety and stress all day long. If left untreated, anxiety and stress can lead to long-term debilitating, emotional and physical problems. Even the loss of sleep can stress your child and lead him or her to become anxious.

Strategies to help your child cope and manage anxiety:

  • Adopt a nightly ritual. Sleep disturbances affect our physical coordination and the ability to control our emotions, including irritability, sadness, anxiety, impulse control, concentration and decision-making. Poor sleep habits, in and of themselves, can lead to stress and anxiety. Develop a nightly ritual in which your child has time and space to talk over the problems of his or her day. Include a little back rub, cuddle and/or prayer. This gives your child a sense of control and the feeling that he doesn't have to deal with his problems alone in the night... and, if he wishes, it is within his control to pick up those problems up again in the morning.
  • Monitor your child's media intake. Watch the news with your children, and provide explanations when necessary. This allows you to see what they are watching and diffuse whatever tension your child is experiencing. Young children are in concrete operations, and when they see violent news, for example, they may fear that they and their family may be personally affected.
  • Help your child confront his fears. I've created an empathic process in which you can dialogue with your child and discuss the things that are bothering him or her, and your child can gain a sense of control by investing in their own solutions. This will teach your child how sharing his or her problems can lower anxiety, and that he or she is supported by family. Further, you can help your child practice and rehearse through role-playing how to relax under stressful and anxiety-producing situations. By being reliable and consistent, you are teaching your child that you can be trusted.
  • Teach your child progressive relaxation techniques, such as calm breathing, meditation and creative visualization. This can guide your child not only to manage stress and anxiety, but also to bond with you. In fact, meditation and progressive relaxation techniques can impact the default system in the brain. This lowers the decibels of sadness, for when the brain loses focus and wanders, the default system activates sadness.
  • Don't over-schedule your child. Your children need downtime to decompress. When your children are asked to perform at the level of their parents by meeting schedules packed with activity, they can start to display the same anxiety problems and illnesses of their parents, such as headaches, stomachaches, ulcers, sleep disorders, anxiety attacks and nail biting as well as bed wetting and regressive activity. Since your children don't have the same coping skills as you, they experience free-floating anxiety with little relief. We often press our children to perform because we feel that their success reflects on our parenting skills. This is a terrible burden to place on your children, which can cause performance anxiety and impact personal relationships.
  • Carve time out for creative play. This can take the edge off and build positive moments and experiences for your child. Here your child has a chance to return to his or her inner core and sense of self to restore confidence and face problems in a healthier and more constructive way. Your child needs to play, have fun, and time to just "to be."
  • Incorporate exercise into your child's regular routine. Exercise can have a similar effect as it stimulates those positive endorphins and takes your child's mind off his or her problems. Because endorphins are released during creative play and exercise, they psychologically level the playing field and problems that seem insurmountable are often approached with optimism and success. As a result, your child has the ability to gain a sense of control, which supports his or her coping skills.
  • Be what you want to see! Your child is a social learner, and interprets behavioral cues by modeling your behavior and that of all primary caretakers. If something happens to your child that is traumatic and you can stay calm and not overreact, then your child will learn to have the capacity to handle the psychological or physical assault in a much better way. Thus, you need to pay attention to your own psychological health and wellbeing so that you can influence your children to respond to anxious and traumatic situations in a calm and healthy way.
  • Never discount your child's feelings. When your child is frightened, upset or bullied at school, it is important to be empathetic and compassionate. Don't make your child defend his or her experiences; rather, advocate for your child, be his or her trusted home team. If you validate your child's feelings you communicate that he or she is valued and seen.
  • Help redirect your child's focus to the positive. When your child is anxious, he or she may concentrate on anxiety or losses. You should guide your child to see the positive aspects of the situation.
  • Actively listen to your child's problems. The first step in active listening is to help your child acknowledge the source of anxiety. Then you can lead your child toward a solution, one in which he or she participated. This builds security, confidence and competence.
  • Spend time with your child. One of the best anxiety reducing techniques I have witnessed in my years as a researcher, educator, and parenting expert, is simply spending time together as a family.

However, if your child's anxiety and yours can no longer be addressed in a healthy way, reach for psychological help and counseling before the problem becomes habitual and a lifelong struggle with anxiety. By teaching your child how to skillfully cope with anxiety, you are giving him or her the potential to cope with anxiety. This will make a healthier, happier child, and therefore, a healthier and happier you.