When working with parents, all of us at Porch Light Counseling encounter questions about how to support children in times of anxiety. Every child is bound to experience anxiety at some time in their life. Some kids seem prone to anxiety from birth, and it’s true that some research shows that we can have a genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression. Whether you’re dealing with a chronically anxious child or just managing the occasional jitters, here are four strategies to help both of you find your way back to center.
1. Keep yourself calm. Anxiety can be contagious. It’s like when someone in a room starts yawning and then everyone passes the yawn around the room. If your child is feeling anxious, do your best to stay calm to avoid “catching” their anxious feelings and passing them back and forth. If you need to take a break to catch your breath, say so to your child and then take that break. You’ll be modeling healthy coping in the process of calming yourself down.
2. Shift gears through mindfulness questions. Anxiety can feel like getting stuck in a rut. One way to bust out of that rut is to engage a different part of your child's brain by asking curious questions. Where in your body does the worry live? Does it feel prickly or itchy or burning? Something else? What pictures do you see when you think about the worry? Are there any other feelings that go along with worry? Sad or mad? Maybe scared? The purpose of this line of questioning is not to distract your child from their anxiety. That’s another tactic that you might try. This strategy dives right into the belly of the beast and gets to know it. In addition of demonstrating to your child that their anxiety isn't something they have to be afraid of, you’re also helping them to cultivate an observing mind, what Dr. Dan Siegel, a pediatric psychiatrist, calls “mindsight.” Click here to watch Dr. Siegel explain more about this technique.
3. Make calming down routine. If the first time you introduce the idea of taking a deep breath to calm down is when your child is in the middle of meltdown, you probably won’t have much success. The trick is to infuse your child’s routine with opportunities to practice staying calm before their anxiety gets the better of them. These printable posters from parenting blog Childhood 101 with steps to help kids manage big emotions are a great place to start.
4. Come up with a script. The part of our brain that thinks clearly goes offline when we’re feeling really stressed or anxious. If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to remember what to say when your child gets anxious, write down some simple scripts to help you out. It’s best to talk to someone who is anxious in simple, matter-of-fact language, so don’t worry about sounding like a robot. Chances are you’ll feel more settled yourself just knowing that you’ve prepared for this moment. Here are some helpful phrases to get you started.
A child with anxiety can be a challenge to parent. If you’re finding yourself becoming anxious and depressed yourself, it could be beneficial for you and your child for you to talk to someone who can help. All of us at Porch Light Counseling have experience supporting parents and families through difficult times. Please reach out if you need some support. If you're all too familiar with feeling anxious, check out my last blog post for some tips on rebooting your system.
Maybe you’ve come up with your own strategies to get anxious kids back on track? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!
Heather Branham, LCSW is a family therapist based in Asheville, NC specializing in non-traditional families. Contact her to discuss counseling or consulting services focused on the LGBTQ community.