Developing coping skills for kids can be the best strategy for calming anxiety. These are the steps parents can take.
So you’ve gotten to the point where you recognize that your child suffers from some type of anxiety. Obviously, you want to help her. Although your immediate focus may be to help your child feel better now, ideally you could also help her reduce anxiety long term, and have the tools to help herself now and as she grows up.
No matter the age of your child, the best thing that you can do to help her with calming anxiety is to develop basic coping skills to manage that anxiety, even when you’re not around. Skills that can help her today, tomorrow and years in the future. Keep reading to learn steps you can take to do that.
Why Coping Skills?
We are all hard-wired to experience anxiety to some extent, and that includes small children. While all kids experience some degree of anxiety, problematic anxiety in kids can be an extremely common problem. And you can start to notice it, per experts, around ages three or four.
Coping skills provide the bridge between a troubling situation and finding peace or equilibrium. When you are able to cope, you are able to address and move through a difficult situation or challenge. Whether that’s one created by your own mind or by external sources outside your control. As applied to anxiety, coping takes you from the uncomfortable mental and emotional state filled with fear and worry to an internal state that’s peaceful, calm and functional.
And, basic coping skills can be used to manage other big emotions besides anxiety. Building these skills now will help your kid manage anger, sadness and other emotional challenges now and as she continues to move through life, as well as regular stress. (Note that stress and anxiety are not quite the same thing. Stress is a reaction to some external event or challenge. Anxiety is a reaction to stress, and may be out of proportion to the situation. Find out more about the differences between stress and anxiety)
Calming Anxiety: 10 Steps To Help Kids Cope
Solid coping skills will help your child with calming anxiety on his own, and continue to function even when he’s anxious. And, as he faces more situations and copes through them successfully, experts say that anxiety will diminish over time.
(1) Listen & Validate
One of the most powerful parental tools available to help develop coping skills for kids is the ability to listen. The first step to helping your child learn to cope with anxiety is to listen to what he’s saying and acknowledge that you know that the feelings are real.
It could be really easy to give irrational worries the back of the hand treatment. But that’s not a great strategie for calming anxiety. Your child complains of something that seems small, like fear of walking to the kitchen by himself. You may believe or know that’s never going to happen, but just saying the equivalent of don’t worry about it, won’t help. If anything, it may lead your child to avoid discussing his concerns with you and perhaps anybody else. Allowing them to grow in the dark.
So, when your child expresses something that sounds like worry, help her identify what’s she is experiencing. And help her figure out what the causes could be. By actions (listening) and words (validation), you want to acknowledge that her feelings are real and that you are going to work with her to find a way to feel better.
What That Could Look Like:
“I don’t want to go to school. The big kids will be mean to me.”
For younger kids, or a child who isn’t in touch with his emotions at a particular moment, you could start by identifying the emotion. “It sounds like you are worried about your new school. Which big kids are you thinking about?” Or, for an older kid, acknowledge that you hear him and want to understand what he’s experiencing. “Yes, I can tell you seem scared. What are you worried about?”
You can ask follow up questions that continue to acknowledge the real feelings, but that can perhaps make him see things differently.
Like: “You’ve played with big kids before and had fun. Why do you think something will be different?”
And, you could also walk through potential problem scenarios and help your child work on problem solving skills. (see below).
(2) Practice & Prepare
One of the biggest drivers and fuel for fear is the unknown. It seems like our minds can usually imagine a situation that is far worse than any reality could be. So, one effective strategy for calming anxiety is to make the unknown known.
If she’s worried about a particular situation, do a walk through or role play. Make the unfamiliar, familiar. If it’s a new class, take her to observe one. Worried about a new school? Try to take a tour. If it’s going to a party, role play what the first few minutes will be like when she walks in the door.
Likewise, if you guys have identified specific strategies that she can use to manage anxiety in the moment — like certain breathing exercises — take time to really practice the strategy when you’re safe and secure at home.
(3) Self-advocacy: Asking For Help
A very important coping skill that everyone should learn: Asking for help. So many problems could be addressed or more easily controlled when we are willing to ask for help from someone who is in a position to help us.
And asking for help can be a form of self-advocacy. It’s never too early to learn to advocate for yourself in a productive and respectful manner.
Is there a specific stumbling block that creates worry? Is it something a teacher or grown up can help with?
When my son was in preschool, he always seemed out of sorts about his lunch. Turns out that he was having trouble with the straw on his juice box and was embarrassed to have others watch him struggle. We practice and role-played how he could ask the classroom aid for help.
(4) Focus On Problem Solving
Problem solving can be a powerful coping skill for kids to cultivate. And one that your kid can carry with him as he gets older, and his worries grow bigger or more complex.
But problem solving does not mean that you’re charged with solving the problem for your child. In this context, it means working with your child to figure out solutions together. So he can learn how to solve problems when you’re not around (or easily accessible).
Help your child identify the problem, sort through the elements and figure out what makes sense to do next. Helping him figure out what steps he can take that will lead him to a comfortable resolution.
What This Looks Like
A lot of times a child’s anxiety will produce many “what if” type questions. What if there’s a tornado? Or, what if John calls me names on the playground? What if Aunt Flo forgets to pick me up from school?
Many times the “what if” questions can seem really outlandish and far-fetched, and it’s easy to say “don’t worry, that’s never going to happen.” But, according to experts, that’s not the most helpful approach.
For one thing, sometimes unfortunate and unexpected things do happen. So there’s benefit to helping your child know what to do when things don’t go the way you guys planned. Because there could always come a day when things don’t go strictly according to plan.
Also, some experts say that issuing a stream of repeated reassurances doesn’t really work for calming anxiety. They don’t actually reassure. Rather, they can add fuel to the underlying worries.
So, in the face of “what if” questions, help your child figure out what “should” happen if the “what if” event ever comes to pass. In response to “what if?”, try “yeah, let’s talk about that. If that happens what are some possible things you could do?
Helping your child figure out that he can work his way to an answer to his own problems, can make him feel less anxious and more confident about the specific issue. But also more confident about his ability to manage challenges in the future.
Additional Benefits Of Joint Problem Solving
Also, in going through the process of sorting through problems, and potential solutions, it can help you identify knowledge or skill gaps that need to be addressed.
So, for instance, my son would get really upset if he saw me climbing a ladder. He was worried that I would fall and get hurt. And he would start to cry if he saw me climbing up the ladder. So, we talked through what are things he could do if mommy fell off the ladder and couldn’t talk.
One of the options I suggested was that he could go ask our neighbor for help if it was emergency. His response: “But, how would I open the door?” Turns out he didn’t know how to work the deadbolt. So we practiced. And he felt better.
(5) Provide Comfort & Encouragement
Sometimes your child may not want to talk about what’s bothering her, or explore feelings right now. Let her know that you are there for comfort and support anyway. Stay positive. Reinforce small steps.
And, when you’re figuring out how to calm anxiety in your child, don’t underestimate the power of a good strong hug. Sometimes we underestimate the power of human touch.
Researchers have found that hugs have many health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety. Physical touch from someone you care about releases the hormone oxytocin, which increases our feeling of happiness and well-being, and it also reduces cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
So, a big hug really can help calm an anxious child. Other human touch works too. Like soothing back rub or stroking the head.
(6) Develop A Practice Of Confronting Fear
When we are afraid of situations, we may have a strong natural inclination to avoid them. But avoiding anxiety just yields more entrenched anxiety. Instead, repeated exposure to certain anxious situations can help contain and diminish it. So, if you can help your child face his fears rather than avoiding them, he can also learn that anxiety can be tamed and reduced naturally over time.
And, confronting fear doesn’t necessarily mean ripping the bandaid off all at once. You can start with small steps.
(7) Provide Motivation And Rewards
And, when you are encouraging your child to confront rather than avoid worries, consider implementing motivations or rewards for when she successfully facing his challenges. They can be used as needed to help her work up to confronting her fear in incremental steps. And the reward can be something simple like extra time doing some fun activity with you.
So, for instance, if your child is afraid of going someplace alone in your house, you can offer an incentive or reward for starting the process. You can have an extra bedtime story if you walk to the bathroom by yourself to brush your teeth. And, if it needs to be broken up, you can walk her halfway, and provide an incentive for doing the rest by herself.
(8) Structure & Organization
Routines can inherently provide comfort and security. They not only can help your child manage anxiety and other big emotions, but they can help weave calm and structure into your house for everybody.
Kids often feel calmer when they know what’s coming next. And having a basic daily schedule does that.
Also, sometimes kids who experience lots of recurring anxieties and worries will feel out of control. Having something that they can reliably control each day may help with managing the emotions. That’s something that can be incorporated into your regular routine. So, for instance, part of your routine could be that whenever he gets home from school, he gets 20 minutes of choice time. Or, perhaps there can be a certain time each day or week where he helps with menu planning.
We probably have all heard the importance of maintaining structure and routine. But there may often be a gap between what’s considered best practice and what we consider or know to be reality.
So a key thing to keep in mind: The goal is progress not perfection. Try not to get tripped up by minor deviations or unexpected mishaps. They don’t have to become disasters that sink the plan. Just get back on track as soon as possible.
Areas That Are Good Places To Start Implementing Routines
- Morning Routine
- After School Routine
- Homework Routine
- Dinner/Meal Routine
- Bedtime Routine
Tips For Creating Workable Routines
- Adapt To Reality Of Your Kid And Your Household
- Publicize It – Avoid Confusion And Misunderstanding
- Incorporate Visual Aids As Needed
- Be Flexible/Resilient
(9) Identify Physical Clues Of Anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t live entirely in one’s head. So there are usually physical changes associated with being really anxious, and these changes can often be readily detected. So, being able to detect the early physical signs of anxiety can be a great tool to have in the coping tool box. Knowing specific physical clues can help warn or remind a kid or clue her in that she’s feeling anxious, and that there’s something she can do about that.
So part of developing coping skills for kids would be helping your child figure out what her physical clues might be. Help her identify physical signs that can alert her that it’s time to pull out one of her coping strategies.
Does it get hard to breathe? Does her heart start beating really fast? So fast that she can hear it in her ears or feel it in her chest without touching her chest? Knotty stomach?
And then practice what she should do when she notices those signs so that she can calm anxiety on her own.
When I feel like I can’t catch my breath, or that tickle feeling in my stomach, I will grab my worry stone and do my a 5 senses exercise; or .
When my palms feel sweaty or I can hear my heart beating fast, I will take a time out to listen to music or special podcast.
(10) Create A Child-centered Plan For Calming Anxiety
Every child is different, and what may be effective for calming anxiety in one child may make anxiety worse in another. So when working on a plan to help your child manage anxiety focus only on what works for her.
When your child is in a calm state, sit down with to create a plan for how she can manage anxiety when it strikes at some point in the future. Having her actively participate in creating the plan can help her remember it and stick to it.
Don’t try to create a plan when your child is actively anxious or agitated. It won’t be very productive.
Start by talking with your child about a list of simple activities that can make her feel better and more relaxed.
Sample Coping Skills For Kids
Here are several different categories of strategies that you can try. Ideally, your child will have at least one that does not require any external props or tools. And, also have at least one that can be used in almost any environment, including home and school.
- Deep Breathing is probably one of the most well known strategies for calming anxiety.
- Blow actual bubbles. Slowly. Trying to make the bubbles as large as possible.
- Pretend you’re holding a cup of very hot chocolate. Blow on it with ten long, slow breaths to cool it off.
- Take 5 to 15 minutes to write out whatever thoughts come to mind.
- Take 5 to 15 minutes to write out specifically all the things that are bothering your right now.
- Focus on gratitude, and write about things that you are thankful for today.
- Children who can’t write could try drawing pictures instead.
- Jump Rope/Trampoline
- Facetime Grandma,Cousins
- Talk To Or Play With Friend
- Cuddle On The Couch
Focus On The 5 Senses
There are several different relaxation exercises for calming anxiety that revolve around using your five senses. Such as remembering a happy calm memory and methodically channeling each of the sensory experiences you had at the time. Or, rather than looking to the past, focusing on the present and honing in on what the senses are experiencing in the moment. Here are two examples.
Sensory Memory Recall
Recall a moment when you feel happy, relaxed and calm. And walk through what each of your senses feels during that moment identifying two or three specific examples.
We usually make a trip to the during the summer and that’s always one of my son’s highlights. So for him a happy memory to conjure up and channel:
- What I see: my brother riding a boogie board in the ocean with his friends, rows of beach chairs and umbrellas
- Sounds I hear: waves crashing on rocks and birds k-cawing
- Items I feel: the grittiness of the sand between my toes and the very hot sun
- Scents/odors I smell: salty seaweed from the ocean and french fries
- What I taste: salt from the ocean water and fruity flavors of a cool smoothie
Being Grounded In The Moment: The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise
A similar coping technique for calming anxiety uses a mindfulness exercise that’s based on the five senses to focus on the hear and now. Although you can do this in your head, for younger children it works better to say it out loud with someone.
- 5 things he can see: “I see a fireplace.” “I see a ceiling fan.”
- 4 things he can touch: “I can feel my hair.” “I can feel my shirt.”
- 3 things he can hear: “I can hear the clock.” “I can hear the air conditioner.”
- 2 things he can smell: “I can smell burnt popcorn.” “I can smell my lotion.”
- 1 thing he can taste: “I can taste my juice.”
You can also pair this exercise with a breathing exercise.
OTHER TOOLS TO CONSIDER
For more strategies for calming anxiety that are endorsed by parents and experts alike, check out our earlier post rounding up ideas for helping your anxious child at home.
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