It’s a typical weekday morning. You’re rushing around to get out the door to school on time, and sure enough, your child looks at you and says, “I can’t go to school, Mommy. My tummy hurts!” This isn’t the first time. You’re upset, and you’re frustrated because you know her tummy isn’t really the issue. Is this going to just keep on happening? How can you help?
If this scenario feels familiar and you’re the parent of an anxious take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Anxiety affects one in eight kids, often resulting in missed school curtailed social activities, sleep problems and that yucky feeling of persistent dread and worry. Parents feel helpless and scared watching their little one go through such tough times.
What can you do? While there’s no easy fix, there is a unique five-step approach you can start right now to help manage your child’s anxiety. When your kid is experiencing anxiety at school, home or anywhere that makes them feel overwhelmed, try this:
Hold on. Literally.
Is it the tummy again? Have your child hold on to something. It could be the rim of a desk, the back of a chair, even a pencil gripped hard. Just have her feel something, tighten her hands around it and consciously pull in their emotions. Holding on helps us tether those anxious feelings. When you’re anxious, you feel as if you’re rising out of your shoes, a balloon about to float away. The act of holding on keeps us grounded.
Now, breathe. Again.
After holding on to something and regaining a feeling of control, have your child take a deep breath. Make it a long, deep one. Then another. Then another. Then another! Seriously. Expect her to huff, kick, scream and push back at the concept of breathing as a means to combat anxiety, but that’s OK. Stay right there with her, and be patient as you guide her back into her body through deep, conscious breaths.
It’s your move, Kid.
Has your child regained a sense of stability? Ask her what she feels should come next. What’s the best move? For her, not you. Giving kids the power to decide next steps helps them understand they can make clear and practical decisions about their bodies. It sends a clear message that they are in control, not the anxiety.
Talk it out.
Don’t underestimate the power of communication. After things have calmed down a bit, ask your child how she felt before, during and after the above exercises. See what she thinks might have created the anxious feelings. Help her understand what triggers anxious feelings, so she can be prepared and steer clear in the future.
But, what if the trigger was a friend problem? Now is a great time to ask her how her friends make her feel. You want to hear adjectives such as appreciated, liked, admired, and loved. But if she hesitates, or uses words like compared, judged, different or sad, it might be time for a deeper conversation.
Lay on the praise.
This last step is a must. Always remember to praise her for her ability to soothe herself, even if it’s just an attempt. The intent to soothe is what matters. It’s commendable to work through those anxious feelings, however much of a struggle it is. Anxiety is a natural part of life, and we must be prepared to deal with it.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Kids are no exception. While it’s hard on you, the parent, to watch your child battle persistent feelings of worry, you must remember you are your child’s champion. You can help. Simply being there for her and guiding her through the process of regaining control of her body will help settle her mind, do you both a lot of good and bring you closer together.
Jill Sylvester is a licensed mental health counselor who has worked with adults and children in private practice for nearly ten years. Her first book, the novel The Land of Blue, is the recipient of a Mom’s Choice Award. Her new book Trust Your Intuition: 100 Ways to Transform Anxiety and Depression for Stronger Mental Health will make it seem that Jill is there beside you, coaching you through the techniques she uses with the adults, adolescents, children and parents she counsels in her private practice.