Simple Strategies To Help Diffuse Anxiety in Children
If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety or if your child has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you may feel rather overwhelmed and not knowing what to do. Beyond seeking help and support from a mental health professional, there are other things you can do to empower yourself as a conscious parent. You are not helpless and you can learn how to best support your child and help him thrive by working with him or her at home.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), Anxiety disorders include disorder that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat. Anxiety disorders differ from developmentally normative fear or anxiety by being excessive or persistent beyond developmentally appropriate periods. Children experiencing anxiety show signs of unrest hidden below the surface. They often feel that they cannot meet the demands of their daily lives because they are too difficult or frightening. These children struggle with a chronic worry of missing something, being late, or not getting things done on time. At times, anxious children become very serious, overly diligent, and unnaturally responsible. Any discrepancy in their daily routine makes them nervous and uncomfortable. Other times, anxious children pull on their hair, bite their nails, or develop tummy aches and headaches. It is also very common for anxious children to refuse to sleep alone in their bedrooms, have sleep problems and nightmares.
You as a parent are especially well qualified to recognize that your child is overwhelmed and needs help. No one knows your child as well as you do. In fact, according to a research study, brief, parent-only intervention were evaluated and found to be an efficacious treatment approach for child anxiety disorders. Specifically, the parents of 61 anxiety-disordered children (7-14 years) were randomly assigned to either the 6-session parent-only group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) intervention or a wait-list control (WL) group. Diagnostic and questionnaire measures were administered at post-treatment; as well as 3-, 6- and 12 months following the completion of treatment. Families in the WL group were re-assessed after 6 weeks (the duration of the active intervention) and were then offered the intervention. The parent-only intervention produced superior outcomes for children on diagnostic and questionnaire measures. The percentages of children free of any anxiety diagnosis following the intervention were 38.7% (post-treatment); 58.6% (3-mth); 69.2% (6-mth); and 84% (12-mth). At the post-treatment assessment point, 3.4% of children in the WL group were free of any anxiety diagnosis. Mother and child questionnaire measures demonstrated gains from pre to post-treatment that were maintained over time. (1) Even though the therapy cited above still requires an involvement of a mental health professional, it still shows how powerful and efficient you can be as a parent.
So what can you do at home?
Pay Attention – listen to your child with full attention and an attitude of acceptance. Be empathetic and compassionate rather then critical, judgmental, or demanding. Watch for the clues of your child becoming overwhelmed. Notice his thoughts, observe his thoughts without judgement, notice his breathing and body language. Be aware of your own behavior, especially your own anxieties and reactions to stress.
Worry Testing – Rather then asking your child not to worry or assuring him that “all is fine,” help him test his worries and prove them wrong. You child is not afraid of the situation but rather of the scary misinformation and pictures his worries created in his brain. Help your child think through his worries by asking him questions, such as, “What is your worry telling you about this?” “Do you think that can really happen?” “Do you think it’s true? “Could this just be a scary idea?” This kind of conversation with you brings your child a great relief as you are enabling her to step away from her worries and take a look at them from the distance. You child has a certain picture in his mind that he uses as a reference point. Our goal is not to tell the child not to worry, but rather evaluate his worry, and help him change the picture in his mind to the point where he realizes that there is nothing or very little to worry about. In other words, our goal is to enable the child to see the situation more realistically and diffuse the worries on his own. In her book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, Dr. Chansky, writes, “Without the concept that worry is always wrong, it is to be tested, not trusted, children take their worry thoughts at face value and begin to look for evidence to support the possibility that their worries could be true.” (2)
Opportunity to Succeed – It is crucial to give your child opportunities to succeed especially in the areas in which they have previously failed. Present each day as a new opportunity to try again. If your child is afraid to try something new, provide him with a gentle encouragement and suggest small increments of engaging in the feared situation. At the same time, encourage his independence. When a child believes that he is incompetent and cannot thrive without the help from others, he can become discouraged and feel stuck. (3)
Relaxation Games to Play – below are simple, easy, yet very helpful games to play with anxious children
The Most Beautiful Stain: This game offers us an adventure of discovering new shapes and riches of imaginations. Using ink or paint, make a large stain on a piece of paper. Pick up the paper and slowly shift it from side to side, allowing the stain spread around the paper and create various amazing shapes. We can also create a symmetrical design by folding the paper in half. You can then leave the stain as is or use a brush to create something new out of it.
Rolling the Barrels: Outside, on the grass, or inside on the flat surface (if enough space), the child lays down on his back and the adult tries to gentle roll the child like a barrel to a certain distance. The child does not resist, but does not help either and lays still with his arms by his side. The parent and the child can then switch. This game typically produces a lots of giggles, relaxes the child, and creates a bond between the child and the parent.
Essential Oils – One of my favorite strategies to reduce symptoms of anxiety is the use of essential oils. If you are not familiar with essential oils and how to use them safely, please click HERE to learn some basics. According to developing research, there are now multiple oils that appear to have an amazing anxiolytic (antianxiety) effect. Please read my post Antianxiety Effects of Essential Oils in Children.
Sunshine – Healthy sun exposure provides healthy UV rays that stimulate vitamin D production and reduce the stress response which then increases feelings of peace and relaxation. Several studies have shown that anxiety is also correlated with lower vitamin D levels. Try to get high quality sun exposure everyday if possible on as much of your body as possible, but avoid sun burning. (4)
I hope you find these strategies helpful. I see many parents in my practice that are very much overwhelmed with their child’s anxiety and simply need a little more parenting help. Please don’t hesitate to contact me here.
All questions and comments are always welcomed. Before you leave, don’t forget to sign up below to stay in touch and not to miss my new posts.
With well wishes, Denisa
Sources For This Article Include:
Cobham VE, Filus A, Sanders MR. Working with parents to treat anxiety-disordered children: A proof of concept RCT evaluating Fear-less Triple P. Behav Res Ther. 2017 Jun 15;95:128-138. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.06.004. PubMed PMID: 28641122
Tamar E. Chansky, PhD. Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias. and Be Prepared for Life – from Toddlers to Teens. Revised Edition, Harmony Books 2014, ISBN 978-0-8041-3980-9
Sherianna Boyle, MEd, CAGS. The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Childhood Anxiety: A Mindful Approach for Helping Your Child Become Calm, Resilient, and Secure. Adams Media 2016, ISBN 10: 1-4405-9414-7
Huang JY, Arnold D, Qiu C, Miller RS, Williams MA, Enquobahrie DA. Association of Serum Vitamin D with Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in Early Pregnancy. Journal of Women’s Health. 2014;23(7):588-595.