Childhood anxiety impairs the whole family. Try these simple effective strategies for helping your anxious child. Reduce anxiety and improve coping skills.
Anxiety in children can be a very common and troubling condition that often goes unaddressed. Most parents don’t want to stand by and watch their child needlessly suffer. There are many things that you can do on your own for helping your anxious child at home. Read below to learn about the best strategies endorsed by parents and experts alike.
1. The Worry Box
One time tested approach for helping your anxious child with his worries involves creating a worry box. Although you can implement this strategy in several different ways, the central premise involves establishing a defined and limited period of time for your child to focus on his worries. You create a ritual for identifying his present worries, and then shut them away or close them off in some fashion.
Typically, parents will set aside 10-15 minutes each day when a child can openly worry. During this special period, your child makes each specific worry tangible. Either by writing it down on a card or slip of paper. Or, by drawing some picture that represents the worry. Your child then places it in the worry box, and closes it away for the rest of the day.
Alternatively, the worry box can be more of a holding place. In this scenario, the child places her worries inside the box to be reviewed and discussed later at a designated time. You can also make this a long-term ritual that includes specific worries you are working on with other strategies. And, once a specific worry is no longer overly burdensome, it can be removed from the box and discarded. With however much drama and ceremony seems worthwhile.
The box can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. You can make an elaborate version as part of a crafting activity. Your child can pick the box and whatever will go on the outside. It’s his or her special box. Stickers. Paints. Magazine cut-outs. Whatever your child finds satisfying.
Check out these examples for inspiration:
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2. The Worry Wall
As part of an established, structured time for focusing on worries, you can also create a worry wall or worry board to help your anxious child. This is basically a twist on the concept of a worry box. Instead of dropping the worries in a box, you attach them to a wall or a board (or similar item) that hangs on the wall. You can use post-it notes to attach to a bare wall. (You can now get oversized post-it notes and poster-size post-it notes that you can use to write in large letters, or use to draw pictures.) Or, you can create a poster board that you attach and remove notes from – either post-it style notes or taping up notecards.
As with the worry box, the worry wall/poster can be decorated by your child as she finds pleasing.
Some examples of a worry wall or worry board in action:
3. Personifying Anxieties
Another time-tested strategy for helping your anxious child involves helping your personify her anxieties. Giving her anxieties some type of physical form. You can implement this strategy in different ways. One version involves representing your child’s anxieties as a bully. Your child can name his bully, draw pictures of it, and talk about it in a safe manner. Giving her anxiety an identity can make it seem less overwhelming. It also provides a target to fight against. You can find useful tips on working with an anxiety bully over at the AnxietyBC website.
Alternatively, your child can create a more sympathetic character to represent her worries (e.g., “Anxious Alice”). Someone who you guys are working together to help. This more sympathetic character can be represented by a toy, puppet or drawing. Again, this strategy gives you and your child an accessible way to discuss her worries. It helps bring her specific anxieties out of the shadows. And gives your child an opportunity to help “Anxious Alice” problem solve.
4. Acknowledging Anxiety/Avoiding Avoidance
When you know that something specific triggers your child’s anxieties, you may have the natural inclination to try to avoid those triggers. But, in most situations, this would be the wrong thing to do. Simply choosing to avoid anxiety-causing scenarios does not help your child develop healthy coping strategies. It just keeps the anxieties in the shadows were they can fester and grow.
Instead, a better strategy for helping your anxious child would be to incorporate small steps to help your child gradually be exposed to the source of his worry. For instance, a laddering technique or other system for gradual increased exposure.
So, for instance, let’s say you have a child who is afraid of walking 30 steps from the family room couch to the bathroom alone. Perhaps your starting point is walking him to the bathroom and turning on the lights for him. The next step is having him turn on the lights himself. And then next time you walk him 25 steps instead of the full 30. Then you keep working on it until having you watch him walk to the bathroom is sufficient.
This graduated approach can be done with or without reward. Or, set up as a sticker chart.
5. Minimize Duration/ Not Exposure
As grown-ups, we typically like to receive advance notice for unpleasant or disruptive events because we prepare and plan ahead. For an anxious child, however, too much notice can be a bad thing. People tend to experience their most intense period of anxiety during the moments leading up to the dreaded event. Don’t make this longer than it needs to be.
So if you know an event will inevitably increase your child’s anxiety levels, don’t give him lots of lead time to obsess and stress.You might feel somewhat guilty about “springing” unpleasant surprises, but it will decrease the level of unpleasantness overall because it will be a much shorter period.
So, for instance, if your child hates the barber and the sounds and sensations of haircutting, don’t advertise that you’ve made an appointment a week advance. Try waiting until shortly before it’s time to go. You’ll have to judge what’s the least amount of time you can get away without making the situation substantially worse. Some parents might feel comfortable waiting until they are driving up to the shop. But, for some kids, that might result in a full blown panic attack.
6. Breathing Exercises and Rituals
Breathing exercises can be an important tool in helping your anxious child. When we are anxious, our anxieties tend to have a negative effect on our breathing. Making it more shallow, quick or broken. Conversely, if we are feeling anxious and actively seek to breathe deeply in a calm, relaxed fashion, our calm breathing can dampen our anxiety levels. Generally speaking, calm breathing means breathing deeply from your diaphragm rather than from your chest. (Think of the way someone breathes when they are in a deep restful slumber.)
Although you can learn lots of relaxation techniques to create diaphragmatic breathing, you don’t really need anything elaborate to accomplish the results that you want. And, this is a tool that is both free and portable! Once your child learns to call upon his or her breathing skills during anxious moments, this is a tool that will always be available.
So, what are some effective ways for helping your anxious child learn calmer breathing techniques? You should have your child practice deep breathing techniques during moments when he is otherwise calm. And there are several effective ways to teach deep breathing.
A common method involves blowing bubbles. Have your child blow bubbles and try to blow them as large as possible. This requires a steady slow exhale. Be sure he knows that the purpose of this is to learn how deep breathing feels so that he can do it even when no bubbles are around.
Your child can also practice by blowing on a pinwheel. Have a goal of trying to keep it spinning as long as possible on one breathe. He could also pretend to blow out a large birthday cake covered in candles. And he wants to get as many as possible blown out on one breath.
You can use many different exercises and scenarios. The main point is to choose ones that are easy for your child to practice so that this become a regular part of his tool box.
7. Helping Your Anxious Child With DIY Tools
Certain sensory tools such as fidgets, stress balls, or slime can be great tools for relieving stress and anxiety. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money on them. You can make great tools at home. And, this can even be part of a fun craft project that you do with your kids.
You can make a wide range of hand fidgets using small balloons and the filler of your choice. You can easily find different fillers in your own kitchen cabinets. Things like flour, rice, corn starch or beans. You can also purchase sand, playdough or birdseed.
Fill the balloons with the chosen filler, and then place it inside another balloon or two. This can add to the sensation possibilities, and also helps avoid breakage. You can decorate the final product with markers.
Here are some examples for inspiration:
Playing with slime can also be a calming activity for many kids. And, the process of making it can be fun too. You can find all different kinds of slime recipes. Some involving glitter or other fun add-ons. You can also incorporate essential oils to enhance the experience. Try these simple ones to get you started:
DIY Meditation Jars
And, as another option, you can also try making the very popular mind jar or calming jar. The basic concept is creating a snow globe type item that your child can tip back and forth to help with relaxation.
The children’s book Moody Cow Meditates can be a great way to introduce younger children to the concept of a mind jar or meditation jar. Although the main character, Moody Cow, is not particularly anxious in this story, he is having a very bad emotion-filled day. His grandfather visits to help teach him to settle his mind. The book includes an exercise walking kids through how to make their own meditation jars at home.
You can find countless variations of DIY meditation jars. You can make them with jars, jugs or bottles of any size. Just remember to seal the lid with super glue, duct tape, or other permanent adhesive. Fill the jar with some combination of colored water, glitter and oil or gel to obtain different visual effects.
Here are some samples for inspiration:
8. Unpacking Anxious Thoughts
Anxiety can often create cognitive distortions. The anxious mind can take a fact that may be based in truth and distort it into something false or irrational. These false or irrational ideas can then feed into the anxiety that created them. One strategy for helping your anxious child is to help him clear out the distorted thoughts and focus on what is true.
For this strategy, identify a specific thought to focus on, and then drill down to separate out what is true from what is untrue.
So for instance, your child might say “everybody hates me” or “I have no friends.” Find out why your child thinks that, and then walk through known facts that show that can’t possibly be an accurate statement.
So facts that support the idea that she has no friends or people hate her: she wasn’t invited to a specific party.
Facts that support the opposite idea: identify the parties or social outings that she *was* invited to, or list the people she likes and has fun with. Friends that she has lunch with. Friends she plays with at recess or who always ask her to play certain games.
The Kiddle Encyclopedia provides a good basic description of the most commonly experienced cognitive distortions. Reviewing these common distortions can help your family identify them and work to combat them. This Psychology Today article provides a more detailed description for grownups.
9. Meditative Coloring
Coloring can also be an effective strategy for managing anxiety.
We have two approaches to this. You can use coloring to draw pictures about worries and use those pictures as a springboard for discussion.
Or, you can use coloring as more of a meditative tool for relaxation. Instead of goal directed coloring – like a specific picture or real object – thing of abstract shapes and geometric patterns. You often see this with “adult coloring” but it doesn’t have to be an overly complex mosaic. Something simple that can be done with traditional colors or colored pencils. The focus is on the act of coloring itself, and not necessarily the outcome.
Another variation on this is to create a color key that assigns colors to different emotions. And then have the child use the color key to complete a design using colors that represent how he has felt in the past, how he is feeling now, and how he hopes to feel in the future.
Here are three example of simple mandala coloring books that contain easy designs appropriate for kids:
10. Helping Your Anxious Child Through Crafts
Crafting activities can also be used as a strategy for helping your anxious child.
A growing body of evidence suggests that crafting can be an effective tool for reducing anxiety and depression.
Alexandra DeWoskin at 2nd Story Counseling Blog explains why the physical act of crafting can be a great anxiety relief tool. And, she identifies seven fun crafting ideas that folks can use to chase away anxiety. Although these crafts are not specifically geared toward children, most of the seven individual crafts that she walks through can be performed in a child-friendly manner with adult assistance and supervision.
The simplest one that can be done with a child of almost any age is the yarn wrapped letters.
This craft that can be spread out over many days. It requires only simple materials of yarn and cardboard. Have your child select the word and letters that they would like to use. And they can also select different colors of yarn. The craft involves literally wrapping the chose letters in yarn until the entire cardboard cutout is covered. This can also be done with washi tape and/or wooden blocks.
You can find many different examples for making this work. But, you’ll find a really good set of detailed instructions for kid-based projects over at The Art Bar Blog.
11. Help Your Anxious Child With Strategically Selected Family Games
Some experts believe that you can use carefully selected board games to help combat or reduce anxiety in children. In other words, with prior planning, you can use a regularly scheduled family game night to help your anxious child.
According to child psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens, specific games can be used to help kids learn to tolerate and cope with anxiety because they promote flexibility. And, they help children grow comfortable with experiencing situations they can’t control. On her website, she provides a list of 22 specific games that she believes are particularly well suited to helping children learn to manage anxiety. She provides suggested age ranges for each as well.
These three popular games stand-out as ones that the whole family can enjoy, and that would be great for family game night:
An active version of the classic card game. Game includes an mechanical/electronic shooter. When player can’t match a card from the discard pile with one from his hand, he pushes the launch button on the shooter device. Either nothing happens or a variable amount of cards comes shooting out. Players also required to take their turn with the launch button if they draw a special “Attack!” card. Adds additional element of unpredictability and variability to the traditional game.
Kids spin the spinner, pop a hamburger into the pig’s mouth and pump his head. The more they pump, the more his belly grows (along with the suspense!) until – pop! The player who makes his belly burst wins the game. Also has educational value for teaching colors and numbers.
Another family classic. Players assemble a tower with wooden blocks, and then take turns removing blocks. Goal is to remove your block without topping the tower. Requires strategy, skill and luck.
12. Combating Anxiety With Worksheets And Pencil Activities
Does your child respond well to worksheets and paper activities? Here’s a collection of free printable worksheets that you can try. Many of them support some of the different strategies discussed above. Some ones that stand out as being particularly useful for family home use:
- Anxiety & Me
- My Worry Bully
- Anxiety says … I say…
- Challenging My Anxiety
- Evidence For and Against
13. Create A Go-To List Of Calming Phrases
One of the best tools you can use for helping your anxious child is communication. At critical moments, having a set of go-to phrases to use can be invaluable. Some simple phrases that can help calm your anxious child and help him work through difficult moments. You can find many lists with numerous suggestions, but the key is to settle upon 3-5 that you can have readily available in your mind. Ones that feel authentic to you.
Some of our favorites:
- Can we share a hug?
- What would you like to see happen?
- What is it you think I should know?
- I do hear you.
- You’re safe. Nothing’s going to harm you here.
Here are some useful lists that you can review and identify phrases that feel comfortable for your family:
- 13 POWERFUL PHRASES PROVEN TO HELP AN ANXIOUS CHILD CALM DOWN
- 49 Phrases to Calm an Anxious Child
- Helping Children With Anxiety: What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious
Closing Thoughts on Helping Your Anxious Child
Hopefully, one or more of these strategies for helping your anxious child will click with you, and you can incorporate the ones that fit into your regular toolbox. Each of these strategies has the potential to help you help your child to some degree. But remember that these strategies are intended to be useful tools, and not substitutes for professional therapy.