Everyone feels anxious from time to time, it is a normal human experience. However, excessive worry or fear can be pervasive, and at its worst, debilitating. Anxiety can be particularly difficult for children who may not have the language skills to express how they are feeling or the tools to help them navigate challenging emotional states. Parents and families with an anxious child are also significantly impacted. Fortunately, there are many coping skills for kids with anxiety that help them feel empowered and more in control. The goal is not to eliminate anxiety completely, or avoid anxiety-producing situations, but to better understand and manage the anxious feelings in healthy ways.
Breathing techniques are some of the easiest and most common coping skills for kids with anxiety to master. Deep breaths help kids create feelings of calmness and divert attention away from worries. Teach your child to first notice their breath and then breathe deeply and slowly. Visual guides and functional guidance help reinforce how to effectively take a deep breath. For example, have your child lie on their back with a stuffed animal on their belly. Tell them to breathe in and out deeply and slowly so that their stuffed animal looks like a boat gently floating on slow waves. Other kids might do well with a visual representation such as tracing a shape with their finger (Draw a star. Each outer line of the star represents a slow inhale then exhale, totalling 5 deep breaths.) Here are some fun deep breathing activities.
Help kids feel more grounded with mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness encourages children to shift their focus from their worries to the present moment and world around them. To practice mindfulness, have your child tune into their five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). They can think quietly to themselves about what they see, hear, etc. or name what they notice outloud. There are many engaging activity ideas to practice mindfulness.
The imagination is an excellent tool for changing how you’re feeling. Thinking of a favorite place or a pleasant memory is a simple way to help you feel safe and relaxed. Imagining specific details about your “happy place” makes this technique even more effective in decreasing your child’s anxiety. This is a quick and simple visualization tool kids can return to again and again.
Kids with anxiety sometimes get caught up in unhelpful thought patterns such as imagining the worst case scenario, constantly asking “What if?”, or the dreaded ANTS (automatic negative thoughts). Changing your thinking to positive thoughts is a challenging skill, even for adults. However, with practice and support, children can become more self-aware and learn how to name their feelings, how their thoughts affect their feelings, and how to use positive self-talk. Have your child come up with a positive phrase they can say to themselves such as- “You can do this!” Kids can even make a positive thinking bracelet out of colorful beads by assigning each bead a positive statement.
In addition to these coping strategies, parents can help their anxious kids by encouraging healthy behavior such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercise. A happy body and brain is much better equipped to handle stress. There are also many soothing activities that melt away anxiety. Some children will benefit from journaling. Young children, especially, benefit from snuggling up with a parent, pet, or stuffed animal. Sometimes, a comforting hug does the trick! Like anything else, there’s no one size fits all plan for coping with childhood anxiety. Allow your child to explore different coping skills and figure out what works best for them. Some families find it helpful to keep a list of coping skills that have worked well in the past. You could even create a “Coping Skills Toolkit,” which is a box with calming items, such as a stress ball, fidget toy, bubbles, and a list of strategies.
Remember new healthy coping skills take practice and change doesn’t happen overnight. But there are fun ways to teach kids what to do with their anxious thoughts. As your child begins to feel empowered with tools, they will start to feel more in control and experience improved mental health and physical well being. These coping skills for kids with anxiety can be done anytime, anyplace, and may prove helpful throughout their lives.