Have you ever considered that young children struggle with anxiety during traumatic situations? During a conversation with one of my daughters, she mentioned that her children were having trouble sleeping and the 4-year-old was acting out in odd moments. We wondered if it was anxiety from the drastic change in their little lives. Her oldest was finding that journaling was helping her, but the 4 and 7 years old didn’t have a healthy outlet for the stress. That conversation prompted me to research how to deal with childhood situational anxiety on behalf of many parents, not just my children and grandchildren.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR CHILD IS EXPERIENCING ANXIETY?
Unfortunately if your child’s daily schedule and activities have drastically changed, then they are feeling confused, frustrated and anxious.
WHAT DOES ANXIETY LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN?
Young children – these little people don’t know or understand what they are feeling and lack the ability to express it constructively.
Example: If your 4-year-old was accustom to preschool on Tuesday and Thursday,
Mother’s day out on Wednesday and a play date on Friday, and suddenly those activities
all went away – he would be feeling lots of emotions, emotions that for him have
no name and he has no constructive tools to handle them with.
You may notice that a young child:
- Start bed wetting
- Complaining of tummy aches or just not feeling well
- Bad dreams
- Have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
- Are irritable, weepy or clingy
- Have outbursts of anger, which could be out of control
In older children, you may see that they are:
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Have trouble sleeping
- Have bursts of anger
- Not eating properly
- Troubled with negative and fearful thoughts
- Tired, irritable or moody
- Tense and fidgety
- Using the toilet often
- Complains of stomach or headaches
It is important to recognize that anxiety is a part of life and that learning to navigate it is an important life skill. Every child (person) will experience anxiety multiple times in their lives to some degree.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically
about something with an uncertain outcome.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD HANDLE ANXIETY
I want to offer some things you can say and do with your child when you see they are experiencing anxiety.
Ways to discuss the situation and anxiety.
- Can you draw a picture of the way you are feeling?
This is a useful outlet when the child can’t use their words or they don’t know the words to use.
This could be drawing, painting, or even doodling or scribbling.
- Why do you think you feeling this?
This is helpful for older children.
- You know everyone feels like this sometimes.
Just knowing that anxiety happens to everyone, lets them know that their anxiety is not an indication that something is wrong with them
- OK, let’s talk about the worst thing that could possibly happen.
After you have gone to the worst possible case scenario, you discuss what the best possible scenario would be. Finally, discuss what the most likely scenario is. The goal of this discussion is to aid your child to view life and the situation more accurately. This is a great exercise for any age person!
- I love you and you are safe.
Your child is feeling like their minds and bodies are in danger. Your assurance of your love and care provides a feeling of comfort and security.
- Tell me about what you are feeling
Just let them talk about what is bothering them. This is a time for them to process their own thoughts, sometimes hearing what you are thinking brings clarity and they may come up with their own solution or ways for comfort.
- What do you need from me?
Do they need a hug? Time alone? A snack?
- If you could give your feeling a color what color would it be?
Most of the time your child won’t know the words for what they are feeling, but having them compare what they are feeling to a color, allows them to reflect on their emotion relative to something simple. Then you can ask why their feeling is that color.
- Let me hold you.
Physical connect gives your child a space to relax and feel safe. This could be a hug or a snuggle.
- Discuss with your child what is going on in their body when they feel anxious. This will help them begin to verbalize when they are feeling anxious.
Physical symptoms of anxiety can be:
- Trembling or shaking
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Stomach pain, nausea or digestive trouble
Activities to help with the anxiety
- Let’s pretend we are blowing up a huge balloon. OK, let’s take a deep breath and blow it up while I count to 5 with my fingers.
Taking a deep breath in the midst of a wave of anxiety is very helpful in getting through the wave, but asking a child for that kind of response probably won’t work. So making it a game will allow them to take deep breaths without knowing that is what is happening. Make it funny and silly, try to get 3 good breaths from them.
- I’m going to say something and I want you to say it just the way I do. “I can do this”. Say it differently 10 times.
Marathon runners use this trick to help them get past “the wall”.
- Let’s move our bodies!
Physical activity helps release anxiety for several hours because it burns up excess energy, loosens tense muscles and it can boost your mood. This would actually work with any physical activity – walking, riding a bike, stretching, swinging, etc.
- Children of all ages find assurance in routines, so try to stick to a regular schedule.
This could be bedtime, meal times, outside activity time, quiet time. It doesn’t have to be complicated or overly scheduled.
15. Have a daily reading time.
This could be when they read or look at books on their own or even better a time that you read a chapter a day of an exciting or funny book out loud.
- Learn something new together.
The internet is a wonderful place to find free tutorials, anything from yoga for kids, how to play the guitar, art classes, you can probably find anything you and your children wanted to learn.
Some distraction phrases are
- Can you please tell me when 2 minutes have gone by?
Staring at a watch or clock for movement allows the child to focus on something else other than their anxiety.
- Let’s count ______.
This is another exercise that distracts and stops the wave of anxiety. Look around where you are and count something, people with hats on, red cars, the number of children, etc.
- I can’t wait until ________.
Excitement and anticipation for something in the future will help shift the emotion inside.
- Let’s make a list of all the people you love.
A result of focusing on happy and pleasant thoughts is that the emotions inside shift and what happier thoughts are there than recalling how much you are loved.
Emotion Awareness in Children
Children and some adults have a limited vocabulary when it comes to what they are feeling or what they could even be feeling. This is something that often needs to be taught on an intentional level. People need a diverse emotional vocabulary.
Here are some suggestions to help children expand their emotional vocabulary.
- Watch the movie Inside and Out – this will be a great reference tool for future conversations.
- Read books on emotions.
- Together with your child make a list of all the emotions/feelings they can think of.
- Use this list to make a feelings book
- Get a mirror and act out the feelings, see what someone’s face looks like expressing that emotion
- Use a feeling chart to help them identify what they are feeling at that moment
I have created a feeling chart and ideas on how to use them, to receive them complete the form at the end of the blog.
- Set an example by talking about your feelings and how you deal with the negative ones.
- Don’t punish or shame emotions. If the behavior that came from the emotion needs addressing, make sure you separate how they feel from what they did. In other words, they are not bad because of what they feel or did, but their behavior was not acceptable.
MANAGING YOUR OWN ANXIETY
One of the biggest ways to help your child is to manage your own anxiety. There is an occurrence called “Second-Hand Anxiety”. This is a neurological phenomenon that refers to the way that emotions spread from one person to another. This is not the place for a biology lesson. If you are interested in learning how and why this works visit this site. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/what-is-second-hand-anxiety/ What is important to know is that your child can and will pick and “catch” your anxiety.
Ways to manage your anxiety
1 .Have some structure in your day and week.
2. Get enough sleep.
3. On a piece of paper and draw a large circle and one on the inside. Inside the middle circle write down all the things you are in control of. In the outer circle write down what you are not in control of. Remind yourself of these things during the day.
4. Realize the anxiety is the way your body alerts you to the fact something isn’t right in your world. Look at it like pain it has a job to do. One part of us feels anxious and for most of us, another part of us fights against the anxiety – with words of shame, judgment or problem-solving.
Ex. For me, anxiety comes in when I think about my retirement accounts being adversely affected by the quarantine, which is a legitimate concern. The anxiety gets out of control when I start with these thoughts, “you know better than this” “don’t you believe that God will take care of you” or “ lots of people are worse off than you”.
A battle has begun inside me and I am supporting both sides, now the physical effects come in: shaking, sweating, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, head and stomach aches.
Instead of participating in this war, make friends with the anxiety. This looks like sitting and letting is wash over you without judgement, acknowledging there is a legitimate concern. Take a minute to be mindful of it, the wave will pass.
5. Practice gratefulness. Start a gratefulness journal; it only has to be one sentence a day! There is something about being thankful that helps shift your perspective on life. I have a blog on gratefulness and a free list of prompts for your gratefulness journal.
6. Find something that brings you joy. It may be listening to music, knitting, doing yoga, working in the garden, or painting. Whatever it is find time to enjoy that activity if possible every day, because feeling joy will help shift the anxiety away for at least a while.
A final word about anxiety
Finally situational anxiety is not limited to a quarantine; it could come from a move, a death, a divorce or an endless list of situations that up-end a child’s life. As a parent, you need to be in tune with your child and watch for signs of anxiety. You are most likely the only one who can offer the comfort and assurance your child needs.
So be watchful, be proactive, teach them to acknowledge their emotions and help them handled their feelings. Be sure that you are taking care of yourself.