Anxiety in kids – 5 small steps with a big impact

Anxiety is something I didn’t comprehend until my 8-year-old daughter went through it this year. She was really moody with dramatic outbursts and would constantly want to be by my side. It got to the point that I was embarrassed to take her into the classroom because she looked miserable and refused to smile at the teacher and her classmates. Then the turning point came when her teacher took me aside, wanting to know what was going on at home for her. Had there been any changes? Was everything ok at home? What was going on for this child? Unfortunately, I didn’t have any answers except that I thought she was going through a stage, but I was open to working out some strategies to help. 

In hindsight this was the best conversation we could have had, because I’m happy to say that months later my daughter is a different child.

I just want to mention that there are so many different variations of anxiety and so many different definitions, however, the best explanation I’ve come across is anxiety is the brain’s natural response to something that could harm us. It’s when the fight or flight part of the brain kicks in to keep us safe.  Anxious kids often dwell on whether something’s safe and it shows up in many ways, school refusal, anger, clingy behaviour, overly emotional and withdrawn. These are the strategies that worked on my daughter

steps to help an anxious child

EMPATHY & ENCOURAGEMENT

Empathy

The first thing I did was empathise with my daughter. I said ‘I can see you’re a little nervous at the moment and I want you to know I’m here for you.’

Encouragement

Following this I asked her, ‘how can I help you? Do you want to brainstorm some ideas?’
So I made it clear that I wasn’t going to carry her, however I would help her come up with ways to help.  Fortunately, my daughter said she’s like to brainstorm some ideas and this is what we came up with.

At School

She said in the classroom she wanted to be asked to be more involved. She wanted to run things to the principal and hand out some paperwork. Basically, she was saying that she wanted to feel important in the classroom.  She also wanted me to spend more time with her in the morning and get to school early so she could play with her friends.

I suggested that when she saw me after school that she could come give me a hug because that made my heart sing. Also, I suggested that maybe instead on focusing on the worst parts of the day when I asked her about school, she could start by talking about the best 3 things that happened to her during the day.

At Home

She wanted me to talk more gently to her. I agreed that sometimes I got things wrong and at times I probably spoke more harshly than I meant to.  I said I would really watch this and if I was speaking too harshly, could she please tell me.

I suggested to her that we use ‘Super Thinking’.  What this meant was, if I asked her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she would give it a go with a positive attitude. I told her super thinkers ‘give things a go’.  She agreed to try this and we started using the term ‘super thinking’ a lot. 

ACTIVITIES

We decided that we would focus on a couple of activities that she liked. She didn’t have to love them, however, the agreement was when she tried something new she would ‘give it a go’ and give it everything. So we brainstormed what she liked doing and what she was willing to give a go. We came up with horse riding during the holidays and gym one afternoon a week. I’m now happy to report that she LOVES horse riding and looks forward to the holidays with a passion. She’s also doing well at the gym and smiles in class, which makes my heart swell with pride. I also wanted to mention that we’d tried a number of activities which didn’t work out, however, it was all about giving new things a go until we found something she enjoyed.  

PET THERAPY

During this period we also managed to finally find an animal that suited our lifestyle and home. We came across and kitten from a shelter, which has had an enormous positive impact on her state of mind. She nurtures that cat like it’s her own and often goes to the him when she’s feeling upset. Not everyone needs or wants an animal, however, I will mention that this little addition to our family has been a very welcome surprise.

DIAPHRAGM BREATHING

We talked about what happens when we feel stressed or nervous.  Our heart starts beating faster and we start breathing quickly.  When this happens, we need to slow down with deep breathing.  We found a clever breathing technique that worked for her to calm down which was called ‘the figure 8’.  She would draw a figure eight on her hand and breathe in when drawing the top of the 8 and breathe out on the bottom of the 8.  She would repeat these 3 times and it became a great way of self regulating.

PRAISE

Finally, praise went a long way.  She  needed to feel that giving something her all was the best outcome.  ‘Good try’ were the words I used while we were exploring and learning together.  ‘I’m really proud that you’re trying something new’.  ‘You’re very brave trying something new’.  This only gave her the confidence to take the next small step.

The steps above contain the main strategies, however, things like positive parenting and slowing down go a long way in helping a child who feels anxious.  It’s definitely still early days for my little girl, however, I’ve seen her turn such a corner since undertaking the strategies above that I really wanted to share them and would love to know your thoughts and any strategies you feel work well with your child.

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