If you are an adult who suffers from anxiety, you likely have a few tricks you rely on to calm yourself down. But those exercises may be utterly useless if your kid is the one gripped by fear. Whether you’re on the soccer field, discussing a new summer camp or approaching a sleepover, your child may be too overwhelmed—or simply too young—to take in your advice. That’s why we’ve turned to child psychologists and other parenting experts for how to help a child with anxiety. Here are their best tips.
How to Help a Child with Anxiety, According to Experts
1. Recognize the Signs
So you have noticed something is a little off with your child as of late and suspect that big, unarticulated feelings are at play, but can’t quite hone in on what the problem is. Well, it’s actually pretty common for kids who are experiencing anxiety to lack the vocabulary required to identify and describe it themselves (duh), so you may very well have to read between the lines and look for other indicators to help you determine whether anxiety is the culprit.
According to clinical child psychologist Dr. Madeleine Vieira, one sign to look out for is frequent stomach aches or other vague complaints about feeling sick—namely because “when the amygdala is in overdrive and sending messages to the brain to fight or flee, digestion slows, which can feel like nausea or butterflies in the tummy.” Other indicators include difficulty falling or staying asleep (“their minds are racing and there’s nothing to distract them when they’re lying in bed”) as well as feeling tired (a consequence of the former) and finally, frequent crying that occurs with no discernible or proportional cause.
2. Keep Your Cool
Once you’ve observed some anxiety-related behaviors in your child, step one is simply to accept that your kid may be wired for more anxiety than some of his peers. According to parenting coach and social worker Dr. Erin Leyba, up to 20 percent of kids are born with a more anxious temperament, which means this fight-or-flight response is more easily and frequently triggered by stress or new situations. “Brain research suggests that it's extremely difficult (if not impossible) for kids to think with logic or control their behavior until they step out of fight/flight/freeze mode,” Leyba writes in Psychology Today. It can even take up to an hour for a child’s nervous system to return to a calm state…and it’s not their fault. Translation? Attempting to distract, punish or bribe your kids out of an anxiety spiral will be futile. So what can you control? You, of course.
Per Dr. Vieira, the single most important thing you can do to calm an anxious kid is to check your own reaction to their emotional experience: “Your knee jerk reaction might be to accidentally minimize their worry [with logic and problem-solving]...but when children are dysregulated, their feelings get really big. It’s like the volume is turned all the way up. They need a regulated parent to soothe them by making space for their fear,” she explains. As such, she recommends taking some deep breaths yourself if you start feeling frustrated by your child’s emotional state; better yet, invite your child to do it with you, and then you can both proceed from there. (But more on that later.)
3. Offer Gum
Though we can feel our dentist cringing, we were delighted to learn that chewing gum stimulates the vagus nerve (it’s near the voice box) and that this can interrupt a fight-or-flight response. Singing, eating a piece of dark chocolate or gargling with water may have a similar effect. But gum may be your best and most inconspicuous bet when out in public.
4. Validate Feelings
“Validation is a powerful tool for helping kids calm down by communicating that you understand and accept what they’re feeling,” writes Caroline Miller, editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. Instead of trying to deny, fix or change their feelings, make it clear that you just…get it. Per Dr. Vieira, one way to do this is by making neutral observations that acknowledge their fear, while also stating the facts, such as, “Wow, you’re really scared right now. You’re also safe. I’m here.” (Bonus points if they repeat it with you like a magic calming mantra.)
Echoing the advice, Miller explains that the reason why this works is that “feeling understood…helps kids let go of powerful feelings. Helping kids by showing them that you’re listening and trying to understand their experience can help avoid explosive behavior when a child is building towards a tantrum.”
Dr. Clark Goldstein, a specialist in childhood mood disorders and anxiety, points out that, “you can’t promise a child that his fears are unrealistic—that he won’t fail a test, that he’ll have fun ice skating or that another child won’t laugh at him during show and tell. But you can express confidence that he’s going to be OK, he will be able to manage it and that, as he faces his fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives him confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask him to do something he can’t handle.”
The takeaway? If you want to teach your child how to be resilient and self-regulate, the best way to do so is by encouraging them to accept and work through their fears, not attempt to deny them. After all, “any feeling is normal and there’s no such thing as a ‘bad feeling,’” says Dr. Vieira.
5. Blow it Out
When kids are anxious, the goal is to get them to take deeper breaths, which physiologically calms them. Leyba suggests having a whistling contest or pretending your (or their) fingers are birthday candles and then having your child blow them out. You might also carry a pinwheel in your bag and have little ones blow it for a few minutes. Blowing bubbles is an equally great (if potentially messier) on-the-go option.
6. Recognize Progress
When it comes to managing children’s behavior, positive reinforcement is always ideal. But it can be hard to find the upside when your kids are melting down or freaking out. It turns out even the tiniest bits of progress are worth praising. “When helping your child deal with an emotion, notice the efforts to calm down, however small,” writes Miller. “For example, if your child is in the midst of a tantrum and you see him take a deep inhale of air, you can say, ‘I like that you took a deep breath’ and join him in taking additional deep breaths.” Same goes for any positive self-soothing behaviors you observe.
7. Get Physical
“Heavy work”—like doing wall push ups, climbing a jungle gym, carrying a loaded backpack, pushing a vacuum or pulling a wagon—can help kids focus and regulate their emotions, writes Leyba. Ditto physical exercises that “cross the midline” of the body: wiping a table with one hand, walking in a figure eight, doing windmills with their arms. These moves “can help reset the brain” and enable kids to think more clearly and logically. Doing it with them could even provide some comic relief…and, you know, make it feel less like you’re an authoritarian Phys. Ed. teacher.