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5 Anxiety-Reducing Tools to Use With Children

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Growing up is tough, and sometimes as we get older, we can forget just how difficult it was. Children may experience anxiety in different settings: school, home, transitions, events, performance and other social situations to name a few. Take a moment to remember what it was like to go through your childhood. Having to navigate each step of life, learning and developing, whether it was necessary skills or about yourself, could be scary. Responding with mild anxiety symptoms is “normal” as a child is met with new challenges and changes, but when it starts to impair a child’s ability to function, your child may need some extra support.

Here are 10 common anxiety symptoms in children:

  • Stomachaches
  • Shakiness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Nail-biting
  • Challenges with sleep
  • Clingy behaviors
  • Refusing to do things like homework, or getting dressed

If you’ve been noticing your child or teen having a difficult time, then consider introducing tools to support your child who is experiencing anxiety:

1. Dragon breathing.

Deep breathing is a powerful tool to help reduce anxiety, but explaining it to a younger child may require creativity. Framing this as “dragon breathing” may help your child be more open to this new tool. If your child prefers to use their imagination, they can imagine themselves as a dragon.

1. Take a deep breath in through their nose for four seconds.

2. Hold the dragon breath for two seconds to get ready to blow fire.

3. Exhale through their mouth for four seconds.

If your child prefers a more hands-on approach to keep their interest you can create a dragon mouth by taking the tube of a paper towel or toilet tissue roll, have them decorate it and cut out colorful strips of paper to tape at one end. This will allow your child to exhale through the tube and see their dragon breath in action.

If you have an older child or teen, you may be able to guide them through a deep breathing exercise without referring to it as “dragon breathing.” You will go through the same steps above, but drop the dragon references. Deep breathing promotes relaxation, decreases anxiety levels and is a good way to reset.

2. Five-four-three-two-one senses countdown.

Engaging the senses can allow your child to become grounded in the present moment and calm down. Pairing this exercise with deep breathing will have an even better calming response, but it is not mandatory, especially when they are just learning these new tools. They can do the countdown out loud or in their mind.

1. Five things you can see.

For example, using a pillow: what color is it? Is it a solid color or is there a pattern or design? Is it big or small? What is the shape?

2Four things you can feel.

They can choose to pay attention to what they already feel, such as the clothes on their body. Is the fabric soft or tough? Is it itchy? Is it loose or tight? They can also choose to feel something in their surroundings if it is appropriate. Do they have a toy or a book close by? What does the item feel like? Is it cold or warm? Is there a specific texture they notice?

3. Three things you can hear.

Do they hear birds or traffic outside? A clock ticking? Music? Their own breath?

4. Two things you can smell.

What type of scents can they pick up on in the room? If they are unable to pick up on any smells, then prompt them to name two of their favorite smells.

5. One thing you can taste.

Did they recently brush their teeth and can still taste the toothpaste? Maybe they just had a snack or meal and can name the taste. If they cannot identify something they can taste, they can name an enjoyable taste like their favorite food.

3. Spaghetti body or progressive muscle relaxation. 

Explore how your child feels when they are experiencing anxiety. Anxiety often manifests in physical sensations and it is important for your child to become more aware of what they are feeling when they are triggered. You can use spaghetti as a way to explain what body tension feels like. Uncooked spaghetti is straight and inflexible, which is how the body might feel when anxious. Cooked spaghetti is wiggly and flexible, which can represent how the body feels when relaxed.

1. Have your child tense their body up and pretend they are uncooked spaghetti while counting for four seconds.

2. After the four-second count, have your child get wiggly and pretend they are now cooked spaghetti, once again with a-four second count.

Your child may only feel comfortable with the spaghetti body at home, which is totally OK! For when they are in school or somewhere out of the home, they can practice tensing up their body and releasing for the same effect.

Progressive muscle relaxation is also an option for older kids and teens. Ideally, your child would be able to tense and relax their entire body (toes, legs, stomach, hands, arms, shoulders and face). This is not always easy when a child is in a public space because they may experience worry about someone noticing what they are doing. If this is the case, explain to your child they can practice just tensing their hands (making fists and then relaxing) and feet (curling toes and then releasing). This allows them to use this tool no matter where they are!

4. Yoga.

When your child is feeling triggered, they can become filled with anxious energy which can worsen some of the physical symptoms they experience. By engaging in the practice of yoga, your child can learn how to be in tune with their body, and movement will release endorphins that will reduce feelings of anxiety. There are different options to have your child engage in yoga by enrolling in a local class, Google instructional videos or even a podcast or book.

5. Supportive language.

How you speak to your child or teen can make a difference of whether or not they are feeling supported. You may not always be able to wrap your head around why your child is experiencing anxiety over something you feel is “not a big deal,” and that’s OK. But to your child, the issue may feel like the end of the world and it is important for them to know they have a support system in their corner.

Telling a child to “get over it,” or “just do it” may lead your kiddo to shut you out and they may start to believe their feelings are invalid. Consider using language like:

“I understand you’re having a tough time with (identify the issue), but I am here for you (reminds them they are not alone) and want to help (you are offering to support them).”

It is important to create space for their feelings and for them to communicate what they are thinking. Also, remember it is typical for older kids to decline wanting your help, but continue to be gentle and authentic so they know you are there when they are ready.

These tools can help your child to become more aware of their anxiety and cope when they are triggered. Remember to be patient with your kiddo because growing up is not easy, and remember to be patient with yourself because it’s OK to get frustrated as a parent or caregiver. Reassuring your child you are there for them is key and it will allow your relationship to grow.

Getty image by fizkes

Originally published: November 21, 2019
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