Helping Anxious Kids
According to the Child Mind Institute, anxiety is the most common emotional problem in children. It can manifest as common fears of the dark, separation issues, problems with social interaction, or persistent worries that interrupt daily activities and sleep.
While some anxious kids are cautious and shy, others have tantrums and emotional meltdowns. Some children withdraw while others develop elaborate rituals to help them feel in control of the world of around them. Anxiety can be an underlying factor in symptoms of sensory processing disorder, with children developing anxiety related to aversive sensory experiences.
Conversely, anxiety can trigger increased symptoms of sensory processing issues, such as intense sensitivity to tactile or auditory input in the presence of anxiety related to school attendance, test taking, social activities or other stressors. Understanding that anxiety may be influencing a child’s behavior is the first step toward finding resolution for a challenging behavior.
Addressing anxiety is often the key to helping children feel secure and confident so they can successfully navigate participation in everyday activities. At STEPS for Kids we recognize how even a little anxiety can have a big impact. Providing the right support and a caring environment can make all the difference in reducing a child’s anxiety.
Quick Strategies to Help Calm an Anxious Child
There are many ways to help a child relax when feeling nervous. Here are some of our favorites that we recommend to parents.
- Redirect with cognitive tasks or humor: Ask the child to perform a cognitive task like naming animals, doing simple math, or telling jokes
- Redirect with a task: ask the child for help with a simple chore or activity, involve them in physical activity like jogging in place or doing an obstacle course
- Breath Activities: Belly breathing with cues like “Smell the flower, blow out the candle” or Breathe a Star by breathing in then out as you follow the outline of a star with your finger for five full breaths
- Provide hugs, comfort, and a calming space depending on the child’s individual preference
- Offer empathy by recognizing the feelings and expressing understanding without judging or criticizing the child’s emotional state
Reduce Anxiety and Avoid the Meltdown
Our goal is always to help children learn the skills they need to reduce anxiety through improved task performance, increased self-awareness, and independence in self-advocacy. We help parents to understand their child’s perspective and to practice empathy for their child’s experiences and needs. By focusing on skills, we recognize that all children are capable of new learning that reduces or eliminate meltdowns.
Teaching proactively is more effective than punishments for “bad behavior” that many parents use in an attempt to manage meltdowns. Keep in mind that children in the midst of a meltdown at the peak of the anxiety curve – no learning occurs due to the intensity of the emotional experience. Teaching when the child is calm is the most effective way to influence behaviors.