6 Steps to Help Your Anxious Child
Dealing with an anxious child can be quite stressful for parents. As a mother of two sons who have experienced anxiety, I know all too well how difficult it can be to see them struggle, and what a strain it can put on the entire family. Each child’s reason for experiencing anxiety is unique, and these tools are designed to honor and address specifically what is going on for your child. These steps will help your child get some healthy separation from the intense emotions and help them find their own internal strength and calm.
You may have to do the steps for your child for a while, and eventually they will be able to work with the anxiety themselves, with just minimal guidance from you. And don’t worry if one or more steps don’t resonate with your child, just move through these tools and see what works.
STEP 1: VALIDATE
Stopping to breathe and validate your own experience can be so powerful. We can get so wrapped up in our child’s anxiety, we don’t think to validate the distress that we, as parents, are experiencing. You can do this inwardly/silently for yourself before you validate your child’s experience. What’s important to remember about validating your child’s feelings, is that even if the anxiety is not rational, your child’s experience is real. To validate your child’s experience, you can use phrases like, “I can see this is so hard for you,” or, “I am aware of how upsetting this is for you,” etc. So often, coming from a well-intentioned place, we try to talk them out of or minimize their anxiety, often resulting in the anxiety getting stronger. Notice what happens when you acknowledge how hard this is for your child.
STEP 2: FIND IN BODY & BREATHE
When a child experiences anxiety, their body is in a hyperarousal state – with their sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, signaling to their brain that they are not safe. Before we can really get to know and work with the anxiety, we have to calm them down physiologically. Using a combination of mindfulness and breathing can really begin to calm your child’s nervous system. Being mindful of, or observing, how the anxiety is showing up in their body is a good start to helping your child get some distance from the intensity of it. Some questions you might ask your child are, “What are you noticing in your body? Are your arms or legs shaking? Is your heart beating fast? Is your tummy tight or upset? Is it hard to breathe?” If your child can identify an area or areas in the body, ask them if they can take a deep breath and touch that area with the breath, as if comforting it. You may have to breathe with your child and help them make each breath a little longer than the one before. Continue to do that with a few breaths and remind them to gently send their breath to the activated areas of their body.
STEP 3: PERSONIFY IT
The technical name for this personification is eternalizing the anxiety. The anxiety can feel like all of them because it can be completely consuming. But seeing it as a part of them can really reduce the intensity. See if your child can give the anxiety – or feeling, such as worry or upset – a name, or draw a picture of it. Another idea is to ask them to choose an object, like a stuffed animal, to represent it. Imagining the anxiety in a more concrete way as a “subpersonality” makes it much more manageable for a child.
STEP 4: ASK IT FOR SPACE
Once your child can imagine the anxious part as a more concrete being, they (with your help) can ask the anxious part to give them some space. This takes some getting used to, but it tends to significantly reduce the intensity of the emotion. For example, I say to my son, “your nervous part is taking over you and now you can’t help it. See if it would give you some space, so that it knows you’re here to help. You can ask your child to take a few deep breaths and imagine the anxiety softening and giving a little more space with each breath.
STEP 5: INTERVIEW IT
When your child can get a little distance from their anxiety, they can begin to get to know it. You can ask the anxious part what it needs your child to know about why it’s so upset. Continue by saying, “what else does it need you (or me) to know?” Keep it going, as long as you can, by asking questions such as, “and then what?” or, “and is there anything else?” If your child gets overwhelmed with the anxiety while interviewing the part, go back to step 4 and have your child ask the anxious part for space, and then continue with interviewing. You’ll want to ask the anxious part if it feels completely understood. Your child will be able to answer this for it. It may be tempting to interject counter points when your child (the anxious part) is sharing what makes them anxious, especially if the anxiety is not rational. It will calm the anxiety down significantly more to listen whole-heartedly without trying to talk it out of its concerns.
STEP 6: TAKE CARE OF IT
Once the anxious part feels completely understood, it’s time to take care of it. See if your child can ask his anxious part, “What do you need from me to help you feel calmer? Or you can ask your child, “How do you want to take care of it now?” My son used to occasionally feel sad and lonely when going to bed at night. I would comfort him, but in order to help him feel more empowered, I had him pick out two stuffed animals – one to be his sad part, and one to be his lonely part. He was excited to do so. Then I asked him to let them know that he is there for them and they are not alone. He then hugged and comforted the sad and lonely stuffed animals, taking care of them and feeling calm and content himself. Whenever this comes up again, he finds those two stuffed animals and knows exactly what to do. The same comforting can be done for anxious parts and this really helps your child feel stronger and capable. Sometimes, the anxious part may need the parent to do something in the external world to help calm the anxiety, for example, advocate for them with a teacher or make a schedule in the mornings. This is ok and still valuable, particularly if the child is listening to what the anxiety needs and asking for help on its behalf.
Because each child is unique and each parent is unique, these steps may come naturally to some but not to others. No need to rush the steps. You can take them slowly and celebrate the progress along the way – even if it’s baby steps.