Everyone feels nervous and worried sometimes. How can we help a child who is having anxious feelings? In general, the goal is not to eliminate anxious feelings altogether, but to help kids learn to move out into the world despite their worries.
Here are six suggestions for parents and caregivers to help kids manage feelings of anxiety:
- Validate their feelings, even if you don’t quite understand where it’s coming from. Your goal is to listen, seek to understand and normalize that feeling, even if it’s not something that you think they should be getting anxious about.
- Try saying things like, “I understand what it’s like to be scared. Tell me about what’s making you nervous right now.”
- Pay attention to not promise safety as this can also invalidate the feeling. For example, you can't promise your child will never be injured riding a bike, or they will never fail a test, or they will never be in an embarrassing social situation.
“Don’t be scared.”
“I can tell you are worried about going to the doctor. I don’t like getting shots either. But I know you can be brave and we’ll get through it together.”
“You’ll be fine.”
(Promises of safety)
“I can tell you’re feeling nervous about trying to ride your bike, but I'm going to be there next to you to help you learn how to do it.”
“Are you worried about passing your test today?”
(Leads to anxiety)
“How are you feeling about today’s test?”
- Move Towards Anxiety. Avoiding the things that make us anxious or nervous makes anxiety stronger. Safely facing our fears makes anxiety weaker. The anxiety may not go away, but doing a task while being afraid is the most effective way of coping with anxiety. Some ideas to move toward anxiety include:
- Helping your child break down a task they are nervous about into smaller steps.
- Helping them practice things they are anxious about in a safe setting.
- Challenging them to do one thing “afraid” this week.
- Expressing confidence that you will be able to help your child through any challenge that comes along, and that they’ll feel less nervous the more they practice something new.
- Teach them to evaluate the evidence. Our fears and anxiety often come from the way we think about ourselves and the world. You can teach your children to come up with the evidence for and against their anxious thoughts. It can also be helpful to use examples of things your child has mastered in the past that they were initially worried about.
- Consider distraction. Find something to take your child’s mind off of what’s worrying them. For example, if you’ll have to wait some time for a doctor’s appointment that they’re nervous about, bring along an activity to keep their mind occupied, or bring up a game on your phone you both can play.
Relaxation exercises can be a great distraction for kids who are feeling nervous. Not only does it distract their scared thoughts, but it also helps relax the body. Try breathing or meditation exercises. Practice relaxation techniques with your child while they are calm, then they will be even more effective when they are practiced during these high stress times.
- Avoid adding to anxiety. Sometimes, well-intentioned adults ask questions or make statements such as “Are you worried about passing that test today?” This can make a child feel anxious about something they may have not been thinking about. Instead, try asking more neutral questions like, “Are you feeling ready for your test?”
Similarly, spending too much time trying to convince a child that “everything will be OK” can also make the feelings worse. Over placating gives too much attention to a situation and can send a message to the child that there is something to be worried about.
- Model healthy ways to manage anxiety. When adults provide good modeling of ways to manage anxiety, it shows kids they can do it too. Tell kids in your life about the times you feel nervous and how you are getting through it.
Activities for Anxiety to Help Kids
On Our Sleeves experts have developed three activities you and your child can do to ease their anxiety and help them express how they are feeling.
- My Anxiety Game Plan: Together you can create a game plan to write down how kids recognize, deal with and challenge anxiety.
- Thought Challenge Chart: A chart to track negative thoughts and difficult emotions that might come up after a variety of situations.
- Anxiety in My Body: This outline of the human body helps kids draw what they are feeling inside.
Feelings of anxiety, nerves, and fear happen in all children.
If you notice that these feelings start to become more frequent and stop your child from doing things in their daily life it could signal the need to seek guidance from their pediatrician, school staff or a mental health professional. Find out more about anxiety disorders.