By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.
Children are creatures of habit. They thrive in calm, consistent, predictable environments. When there is change for them, or even when they have the anticipation of change, it can create anxiety.
As much as we would love to put our kids in a protective bubble, it is impossible to create a life for our children that is free of any fears or anxiety. Rather, what we should aim to do is help give them the tools, the strength, and the confidence to navigate new, anxiety-provoking situations with confidence and bravery.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell what anxiety looks like, especially with older children who more naturally start to pull away from their families. Some symptoms include new feelings of overstimulation (or becoming more easily overstimulated), becoming “hyper focused” on things they are worried about, feeling overwhelmed by daily tasks, or expressing fear of participating in activities or leaving home.
They could also have physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, bowel issues, or consistently feeling sick. As a parent, it can feel incredibly overwhelming when your child is struggling in these ways. However, it is important to know there are many tools we can put in your toolbox to help guide them through their more difficult moments.
- Be a model of self-regulation. This means when we see that our child is feeling anxious, we want to help them learn how to self-regulate and express how they’re feeling in a healthy way. It is important to remember that our children need to be calm before they can talk to us about what they are feeling.
There are several great strategies for helping a child self-regulate when they are feeling “big feelings.” First, I would recommend deep breathing with long, slow breaths. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, release for four seconds. The second technique is 5-4-3-2-1 grounding, which helps children find five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can feel, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste.
- Help them with visualizations. Visualization entails using the mind to picture a place that makes them feel safe and calm. They can use this very powerful tool at any time.
- Ask them to choose an activity you know they enjoy. This could include creating something artistic, being physically active, listening to or playing music, etc. By joining them in the activity while they are upset, you are re-enforcing the activity as a coping mechanism.
Anxiety is a big feeling. It can be overwhelming for the child as well as the parent. Together you can use healthy coping skills and communication to help your child work through their anxiety.
If you feel things are not getting better, professional help is always a positive choice for your child. Teaching our kids that it is okay to ask for help when they need it is also important. The Youth First Social Worker in your child’s school is always available to help as well.