Imagine you are on the stage in a large crowded room. You are to give a presentation. On a topic you know nothing about. As the audience stares you down, you feel your heart begin to beat a bit faster. Your stomach starts to knot up. Your chest tightens, so much it feels like someone is sitting on you. You can’t breathe. Your palms sweat. The dizziness sets in. And worse, you hear your inner voice saying “what are you doing here?”, “why would you have agreed to this?”, “everyone thinks you’re an idiot”. Suddenly, every small sound is magnified — a pen falling to the floor sounds like someone dropped a pot lid onto ceramic, your eyes dart around the room as the buzzing of phone notifications sound like a swarm of angry bees. People are staring at you, waiting for you to speak, and all you can see is their angry faces. You stand there thinking, “where can I run?”
Now imagine if even the smallest of tasks made you feel this way. Thinking about having to talk to your boss, taking a crowded bus, driving on an unfamiliar route all make you feel intense nervousness. Even walking into the grocery store to get milk and seeing everyone staring at you – but they’re not. This is living with anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a relatively common mental health challenge. According the the National Institute of Mental health, 18% of adults live with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a natural state and all of us will have some anxiety in our lives. However, for those with an anxiety disorder, the worry is persistent enough that the distress it causes interferes with everyday life. They may go to great lengths to engineer their lives to avoid common everyday events which cause them anxiety, which paradoxically worsens the stress and fatigue.
Anxiety affects not only adults, but also children.
If your child struggles with anxiety, there are several things that you may notice, including:
- Chronic and excessive worry
- Clinging, crying, and tantrums when they separate from their parents (and are not toddlers or babies)
- Chronic complaints about stomach aches or other somatic complaints without obvious medical explanation
- Looking for excuses to avoid places or events that provoke anxiety
- Social withdrawal
- Sleep difficulties
- Aversion to loud, busy environments
Watching your child struggle this way is difficult for parents. Thankfully, there are things that you can do to help your child manage their anxiety symptoms.
Teach your child effective strategies to help them overcome anxiety
- Normalize anxiety symptoms: reinforce to your child that everyone feels anxious sometimes and that it is a normal way to feel. Tell your child that anxiety can feel scary (especially when we feel our bodies reacting) but anxiety cannot hurt you. Teach them to say to themselves “This feels scary, but I know that I am safe.” Remind them that it is temporary and that even the worst anxiety episodes end. Your child could say to his or herself “my anxiety is trying to keep me safe, but I am ok. Thank you for looking out for me, anxiety.”
- Build relaxing rituals into your child’s day: teach him or her to make downtime a part of their daily routine to help them to release building tension. This could be time to unwind after school or before bedtime routine starts. Teach your child to notice their body before and after, noticing differences in their muscles, or in their “tummy butterflies”. Make yourself a part of the ritual. Children learn to self-soothe by having their parents soothe them first. You could have after school cuddles, reading time, or give your child a gentle massage. Things that involve touching, warmth, and talking with a soothing tone are most effective.
- Teach your child meditation, breathing techniques, and muscle relaxation: these techniques are proven to help people self-regulate and “live in the present.” This is helpful for anxious kids because they tend to constantly think about the future. Teach them to breathe in with their belly instead of their shoulders. As they breathe in, teach them to count to 4 in their head. Have them also breathe out to a count of four. Do this repeatedly for one minute and have them focus on how they feel afterwards. There are many proven meditation practices for kids. The Child and Youth Health Network of Eastern Ontario has a fabulous program called Mind Masters. They provide a free, downloadable CD of meditaions you can do with your child here: http://www.cyhneo.ca/mini-mindmasters.
- Teaching your child to ground his or herself: anxiety can often bring a cascade of racing thoughts. Trying forcefully to stop those thoughts can actually make it worse. Redirecting the attention to anchor oneself to the present is more successful. Teach your child how to do this by having them name five things that they can hear around them, five things that they can see, five things that that can feel and five things that they can smell. These sensations are all around us all the time but we often tune them out. Bringing these back to our attention can be incredibly calming and effective.
- Teach your child how to recognize anxiety in their body: your child likely knows when he or she is at peak anxiety. What he or she may be less aware of is how anxiety builds up. Give them a picture of a person. Have them colour on it to show how they feel their worry. They may colour scribbles over their heart, or blue water on their hands for sweaty palms. Talk about low and high anxiety situations and repeat this activity. Teach them to recognize when they have a little bit of anxiety in their bodies and help them to use coping strategies before their anxiety level gets too high.
- Teach your child to tense and release: some children respond well to squeezing every muscle they have as tight as they can, and then letting that go. Have them squeeze their hands to the tightest fists as they can and squeeze!…..squeeze!………squeeze!…..and…..Let it go! Ask them how their hands feel. Then do it with their arms, shoulders, feet, legs, tummy, face and then with their whole bodies. Invite them to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths afterwards and notice how their bodies feel.
With time and patience, your child can learn how to manage when stressors feel overwhelming. It is important to take your time with each strategy and not be discouraged if some don’t work for your child. When you do find the right strategy for you, it will work like a charm! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find your “magic bullet” early in the process.
The critical part of these techniques is that you practice it with your child regularly. In order for your child to integrate the learning, the practice must occur when they are feeling relatively calm. When they have really mastered it when they are feeling well, they will have greater chance of relying coping tools when they are not feeling well.
Most importantly, it is important to empathize with your child. Never minimize their feelings or reactions. If you are constantly telling your child to “calm down,” the underlying message is that their reaction is not valid, increasing anxiety in the long run and teaching them that they cannot rely on themselves to manage when life gets tough. Say to them “I understand that this is difficult for you. I know you are working hard to make these things easier. And I think that you can do it.”
Anxiety is tough, especially for little ones. But many people go on to live successful lives and even translate anxiety into a strong drive to achieve as adults. With time and patience your family can devise strategies that can help your child overcome anxiety and strengthen your family as a whole.