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Calming the Butterflies: How to Help Your Anxious Child

Hannah Hopper, LPC

Anxiety can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s a child who’s experiencing the anxiety. It can help to learn more about anxiety and how to manage it, but what if it’s your child who’s experiencing the anxiety and lacking the words to tell you what’s going on? When anxiety surges, it can cause a fight-or-flight response that increases our blood pressure, triggers stress hormones in our body, and ramps up our breathing rate to prepare our bodies for movement. A child who’s feeling anxious may cry, kick, scream, run away, act silly, feel nauseated, or become quiet and withdrawn. Parents often try and calm their kids down by saying something like “You’ll be fine.” “Stop crying.” “Try to be brave.” And because anxiety can look like defiance, parents might punish their anxious child. But according to therapist Dr. Erin Leyba, these approaches won’t work very well for a child struggling with anxiety. What’s needed are simple strategies for helping a child to calm down, address the anxious feelings, and reestablish safety in their environment. 

  1. Start Moving 

Doing a physically demanding task like climbing a jungle gym, pushing a vacuum, doing sprints, or jumping jacks will release some pent up energy. Movements around pushing, pulling, and exercise will help a child to feel calm. 

  1. Take Deep Breaths 

When we begin to feel anxious we start to take shallow breaths from our chest instead of breathing from the stomach. Practice taking “belly breaths” with your child by laying on the floor and noticing how your stomach moves up and down when you are breathing from the stomach. Inhale through the nose for three seconds, hold, and exhale through the mouth for three seconds. 

  1. Have a Plan

Talk with your child about anxiety and how to know when they’re feeling anxious. Create a plan together so that your child will understand what’s happening, and what they can do to manage their feelings. For example, one young girl who began ballet lessons for the first time decided that if she began to feel anxious she would adjust her ballet shoes and take a break by walking to the bathroom. Brainstorming the actions your child can take will help them to feel more in control when the anxiety comes on. 

  1. Establish Rituals 

If you know an anxiety-provoking event is going to take place soon for your child such as going to the doctor’s office, have a ritual in place to give your child a sense of stability. For example you might take your child out for ice cream after the appointment is over. 

  1. Name the Anxiety 

Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel talks about the importance of naming it to tame it when it comes to feeling intense emotions. Emotions can feel chaotic when your body is in fight-or-flight, so helping kids learn to tell a story about what they’re feeling will help them to use their frontal lobe. Try asking your child what they’re feeling, and why a particular circumstance is making them feel anxious. 

  1. Focusing 

Narrowing attention and focus can be a way to distract from the overwhelming feelings and bring on relaxation. Have your child focus on one thing in the room, and take deep breaths as they hone in their focus. Coloring and guided imagery can also help your child to relax. 

Finding different ways to help your child manage their anxiety can decrease stress for you and increase your child’s self-esteem. If you’d like to understand more about how to help your child or to have some extra support for yourself, you may find it helpful to talk with one of our Chicago therapists at Symmetry Counseling. 

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