Helping Free the Anxious Child from their Worries.
This article is part two of a two part series exploring strategies for how to help your child reduce their anxiety and use more coping skills. Last issue, we explored strategies specifically around summer-time anxiety caused by the known schedules of school and activities ending and having to face many unknowns around the summer schedule. This issue, we address anxiety as a larger more pervasive issue that you, as a parent, may or not be aware of in your child. As always, this article is meant to help support endeavors at home to help with children’s anxiety. This does not replace the role a counselor plays in your child’s life. The best support comes from a multi-pronged approach with helpful strategies at home in addition to professional help from psychologists and counselors.
As adults, most of us know when we are feeling anxious. We tap into our swirling thoughts and our physical sensations and know that we are feeling on edge. Some of us have developed coping mechanisms and strategies to either diffuse the anxiety or we have ways to remind ourselves to check in and see if all is well and if not, we know it is time to take some deep breaths. During an overwhelming period in my life, I used to have a little blue dot sticker on the steering wheel of my car. The blue dot was my little visual reminder to pause, breathe, and check in to see how I was feeling. Prior to having my little blue “pause button,” I was not necessarily aware that I was feeling amped up and nervous. Awareness of anxiety is problem number one to tackle. Check out this chart that shows how the brain and body respond to anxiety:
Anxiety is a sneaky, tricky thing. It slowly works its way into our thoughts, getting our minds to churn around all the “what-if” situations in our lives. This constant churning, in turn, causes us to feel distressed. Living with this stress becomes the norm. We are unaware of our perpetual nervous state. Now, imagine you are a child and you have those same sensations. You do not have the language or developmental maturity to express yourself clearly or even ability to recognize what you are feeling is anxiety. What do you do?
A PLACE TO START
Sometimes anxiety is easy to identify in children. This is especially true in older, more verbal children who can self-identify or children with more classic behaviors, such as being withdrawn. But more often than you’d think, kids’ anxiety can also present with anger and obstinance on the surface. It’s not always easy to see.
For parents and for children alike, it’s confusing. In our house, our kiddo outwardly seems peppy and jolly, but then, on a dime, her mood will turn and she will seem oppositional and defiant for no obvious reason. This is our cue that she is feeling anxious about something, or many things, and is having trouble coping with her feelings. Her anxiety hides itself under a layer of anger and overly-defensive behavior. When we see this behavior pop up, we know to disengage in any conflict she is trying to stir up.
Sometimes, when I’m lucky- I’ll be able to say something like “Did something happen today that upset you?” and get a response. If she is open to sharing her feelings, she will start to cry and start to release the pent up emotional tension that she is holding. If I’m really lucky, she will verbalize what was bothering her. This is not usually how it goes though.
Identifying the roots of anxiety can take time. Kids battle with anxiety more often that we adults know or care to acknowledge. This is why it is so important to teach a vocabulary around emotions as many children cannot self-identify beyond basic feelings of happy, sad and mad. Take some time to look at pictures of people expressing different emotions. Ask your child, “How do you think this person feels?” and “What is it that makes you think they are worried, excited, tired, etc.?” As an adult, it is easy to be dismissive or even impatient with our children’s emotional needs and concerns. We know the long view of their experience growing up. They are still in the thick of it.
Anxiety is especially overlooked in boys, so make sure to double check if your raging 8-year-old isn’t just trying to avoid dealing with these difficult feelings. Talking with your kids when they’ve calmed down about what’s behind those feelings (anger is often a cover/poor coping mechanism for other feelings) may help you get to their deeper concerns. For those of you that are familiar with the escalation curve, you know that you cannot reason, let alone teach, your child any skills when they are in a total meltdown.
Click here to see a more detailed look at behaviors that are on the escalation curve.
Once your child is in a calmer state and they are receptive to receiving information from you, you can begin to help by firstly defining what is a worry. Clinical psychologist Dr. Dawn Huebner, author of “What to do When You Worry Too much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” defines “a worry” very simply to make it understandable to kids; “ A worry is a thought that upsets you and makes you feel bad inside.” (p. 13) In our family, we’ve adopted Dr. Huebner’s language around visualizing the process of worrying. The author uses the idea of tomato seeds as the analogy for the little worry. If you keep thinking about your worries, you are creating more “food for thought”, and the bigger the worries will grow, just as adding water to a seed will being its growth into a much larger plant that bears its own fruit. A veritable hydra head of problems. We use the expression, “Don’t grow this into a 200 pound tomato” to jokingly remind our child the scale of her worries. Defining and visualizing worries helped our family build a common vocabulary to talk about what is happening.
A COMMON LANGUAGE, The Five Point Scale
Before kids can learn skills to manage their fears, they have to identify them and have some consistent language to communicate with the adults in their life. I like to teach the five point scale, where “1” is feeling calm and “5” is totally out of control. Ask them what it looks like and feels like to be at each of the levels. A One might feel like the surface of a still pond. A Five might be a hurricane or the proverbial attack of the two hundred pound tomato.* Once your child has a grasp of the 1-5 scale, you can start the process of how to use this scale in action with a sorting activity for different scenarios.
Write down a variety of situations that you might predict range from calm to extremely anxiety provoking (such as getting dressed, going to a new camp, reading a book, birthday parties, eating lunch, going to the grocery store), then have your child rate them. Pinterest in a great resource for examples these activities, if you want to make one at home. You can also purchase sets with ready-made cards and pockets such as “A Five Could Make Me Lose Control” or “The Incredible 5 Point Scale” .
THE SEED AND THE TWO HUNDRED POUND TOMATO
The Five Point scale begins to help concretize the size of the worry to your child. To further this understanding of the size of the worry or problem, or even the feeling of discomfort, try to use “big problem/little problem” language to talk about concerns. Give a safe reference point (big problems can be things like food/shelter/safety) for kids to reflect on their personal concerns.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP
Once your child starts to demonstrate an understanding of what a worry is, the size of their worry, and begin to recognize when they are worrying, you can start to implement strategies to help your child further process their anxieties.
Once such strategy suggested by Dr. Huebner is called “containment.” Carve out a 15 minute “worry time” where you listen, uninterrupted to listen to your child’s worries. The house rule becomes, beyond the worry time, your child is not allowed to talk about their worries, they have to wait or put their worry in the “worry box” until its worry time (this eventually lessens the attention given to the worry, though it may be hard at first and seem mean on your part). Yes, you are encouraging your child to openly sit in a place of discomfort and discuss their fears. But, this is a part of the process.
As they talk about their anxieties, the worry gets more concrete, and its easier to talk to them about the “scale” of the problem. In regards to fear, I once heard in a radio interview with Mandy Patinkin where he described fear being much less scary once it becomes mundane. When your child is talking about their worries during worry time, rating its size, etc, they are, little by little, making their anxieties more mundane. The more concrete their thoughts can become, the more mundane the worry seem to your child, and therefore far less intimidatingly scary. To end “worry time” I say to my child that we put the worries in a bubble and we blow it away.
BE A SUPER HERO TO DEFEAT THOSE WORRIES
Another strategy to give your child tools to manage their stressors is to visualize or externalize them. There are many routes you can take here as a parent to help your child visualize their problems. You can help your child create their own system of how they would like to imagine their worries and how they would like to portray themselves defeating them or you can use a variety of pre-existing systems.
Superflex is a curriculum created by Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Garcia Winner that is intended to support kids with communication and social needs. I have seen it benefit a wide variety of children, from those with Asperger’s and ADHD to Anxiety and Learning Disabilities. It features a superhero named Superflex and Unthinkables that span a variety of social-emotional and behavioral challenges.
The goal of this curriculum is for your own internal superhero to defeat the Unthinkables (such as Worry Wall) using different strategies. The curriculum is easily adapted for home in terms of the language used to cue your kids when they are starting to experience anxiety. Using the characters to talk about emotions works especially well with some boys who are hesitant to relate to emotional self-reflection. Kids love it!
RE-TRAINING THE BRAIN
Once your child has a handle on being their own super-hero who has conquered some anxieties, they are ready to imagine themselves without the worries. Their super-hero self is free from worries and can imagine their super-hero happy place hang out.
Start your child off with by having them describe to you a favorite happy memory. Have your child describe it to either you or themselves in great detail while lying down and relaxed. A strong concrete happy memory can help occupy an active brain and give it an activity to focus on. This starts to re-wire the brain to think about positives rather than dwell in the negative.
From that memory you can guide them to imagining their place of comfort for their super-hero to live. If your child is agitated and needs to burn off some steam (meaning they are not about to lay down and talk to you), get them outside as an alternative. Help your child think of physical activities they love to do to get them moving so they can re-set their system. Exercise helps clear the brain. Some therapeutic play spaces have “volcano rooms” where children can literally let it all out and physically express themselves in a safe place. If you have a small corner in your living space, you can even help your child build a “mini-volcano area” where they can play unhindered.
All of these strategies naturally lead to a mindfulness practice, some more actively than others. If your child is willingly engaging with any of the aforementioned strategies and you are beginning to see some changes over time in your child’s ability to self-regulate, then take advantage of that opening! Introduce your child to more mindfulness practices. Again, there are many many mindfulness resources out there, ranging from classes to exercises you can do at home. There are guided meditations on GoNoodle (if you are signed up for that site- its free!).
At our house, we use a guided audio track as a framework that comes with a companion book called “Sitting Still Like Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids” by Eline Snel. We do one or more of the tracks as a lead in to bedtime. But even a simple exercise nightly can help a child relax. When you child is lying down for bed, before you do any reading or singing or whatever you do during your child’s bedtime routine, have your child take some deep belly breaths, and the starting with the top of their head/ face, scrunch up and tightening each part of the body one at a time and them have them relax it like a noodle. By the time they get down to their feet, they will be feeling very relaxed, having let go of any residual tension from the day. In time, your child will be spending more time filling their heads with positive memories, peaceful thoughts, where they pay less attention to their worries, and when they do bubble up, as inevitably they do, your child will have many tools in place to move through them in a productive way.
*The categories of containment, externalization and reprioritize/distract are taken from the book “What to do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” by Dawn Huebner.
Contributing Author Susan Carter Anderson is a School Psychologist and a Mom who enjoys playing bridge, gardening, cooking and watching Sci-Fi movies.