Fact of life: even little ones get anxious—and their anxiety can take many different forms. You might see physical signs: headaches, tummy aches, muscle tension, restlessness, picky eating, or difficulty sleeping. Emotional signs can include frequent crying, sensitivity, irritability, and nightmares. Occasionally, unsettling behaviors crop up, including refusing to go to school or participate in class activities, or avoiding contact with both strangers and familiar people.
The good news is there are dozens of effective ways to help your little one deal with his anxiety. “Kids are naturally curious, and they love learning,” so they can learn the techniques that work for them, says life coach Renee Jain, who founded the New York City-based GoZen to help children learn to manage anxiety.
Jain recommends presenting stress-busting techniques to your child when she’s not feeling stressed or worried. That way, when you find yourselves in the midst of an anxious moment, you can remind your child she can calm herself down using a stress reliever that’s already familiar to her.
“The most powerful way to introduce these skills is to adopt them yourself,” says Jain. Talk about a time that you’ve felt worried, and what you did about it (using one of the examples below).
Try yoga—including some of the more calming poses, such as downward-facing dog (put your body in an inverted V, with hands and toes on the floor and hips high); inversions, including a headstand or touching the toes while standing; or a simple child’s pose—kneeling with head touching the floor.
Embrace exercise. Encourage your child to dance, run, or jump her way out of a funky moment. Moving the body helps tense muscles relax, releases feel-good endorphins, and burns off the extra blood sugar that the body produces in stressful situations.
Breathe—and blow. To help slow your child’s racing mind and calm his body, help him regulate his breathing. Have him blow bubbles, blow out candles, or blow on a pinwheel. Help him extend and slow his exhalations by moving the candle farther away, or challenging him to make the pinwheel go faster and then slower. You can also teach your child belly breathing: He should picture his belly as a balloon. As he inhales, the balloon fills up. As he exhales, the balloon deflates. Do it together!
Meditate. Yes, even kids can learn to meditate. Try talking your child through a visualization of a calm and happy place for a few minutes. Or help her think of a mantra she can repeat, such as “I am safe.” Even counting slowly up to five, with eyes closed, can give the brain a chance to reset and stop the anxiety cycle. You can also suggest a calming focal point, such as a snow globe or fish swimming in an aquarium.
Create. Painting, drawing, coloring—all give your child something to focus on besides his worry, and the act of moving his hands and fingers is calming. You can even add some background music. And rocking in a rocking chair works, so try that, too!
Once your child’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, it’s harder for him to respond to some anxiety-zapping strategies. Here are more to try:
A big hug. A nice bear hug, lasting at least 20 seconds, can drop blood pressure and help the body produce oxytocin, one of the “happy hormones.”
A drink. Even mild dehydration can make your child (or you!) feel out of sorts, so take a sip from a glass or cup and picture those water molecules traveling to all your thirsty muscles and joints. Or, if it’s a cool day, try a mug of warm milk, tea, or cocoa.
Push a wall. If a yoga pose isn’t a good option (say, you’re in a busy public place or your child is feeling too anxious to try a pose), pushing hands against a wall can be a good substitute. Show your child how to push hard for 10 seconds, then stop, then repeat a few more times. Contracting and relaxing muscles helps stress dissipate.
Squish and squeeze. Give your child putty, tissue paper, or bubble wrap and let her smoosh those anxious feelings away.
Get moving. Take a short walk. Fresh air, physical activity, and a change of scenery can work wonders.