Some kids struggle with anxiety starting even as a young child…and for us as parents, our deepest desire it to help them. As a parent with an anxious daughter, I’ve tried a LOT of things…some that have worked and some that haven’t.
Today I want to share the tools and strategies that I recommend you try to help an anxious children, keeping in mind that there are different reasons and severities of anxiety.
And please remember that the best thing you can do for your kids is to accept ALL feelings. Say, “It’s okay that you’re feeling worried. Can I sit with you? Can I give you a hug?”
Be reassuring that feelings can be really big and sometimes overwhelming.
You can normalize that people have all sorts of feelings and might share your own strategies in a gentle way. “I feel worried sometimes, too. Sometimes I like to…(take a walk, pray, read, take a bath, call a friend,…) when I feel worried. What do notice that helps you? Do you want to try something right now?”
My Daughter’s Anxiety Journey
After missing school and numerous trips to the doctor, my pediatrician kindly helped me see that my kindergartner’s stomach aches were mostly likely due to anxiety — there was no physical cause. And it turns out it would be the beginning of a lifelong struggle with anxiety.
My daughter, like many kids, experiences stress and anxiety physically.
Headaches, stomach aches, vomiting, and bedwetting are all common manifestations of worries in children.
Do you know any other kids with anxiety that experience their feelings physically?
In my daughter’s case, her anxiety turned into debilitating fears of leaving the house. (Which meant meltdown behaviors, crying and kicking before leaving the house, as well as some strange OCD behaviors.) I quickly realized that I didn’t know enough to help her. We needed professional help.
Meaningful Ways to Help Kids with Anxiety
We tried cognitive therapy WAY too young and it didn’t work well. (Two therapists weekly for two years. Lots of money wasted.) In retrospect, I would only recommend play therapy for children under age 8.
I’ve now come to believe that cognitive therapy is not the best approach for me personally or my daughter even after age 8.
Also, I really want to emphasize that it takes time to find a good therapist. We went through three in 6 months until we found the right fit, a therapist who is AMAZING and my daughter has been seeing for four years. But trust your gut– if it feels off, it probably is. I also recommend joining a session because that’s when I saw the harm that one therapist was doing to my daughter by talking down to her and shaming her. 🙁
As far as best approaches, My daughter and I both highly recommend Internal Family Systems as a therapeutic approach that is excellent for kids with anxiety and well, anything. (It’s also great for adults.)
A good therapist will help your child learn tools for handling anxiety– not necessarily getting rid of it– but to accept, notice, and live with it. Trying to get rid of anxiety actually leads to more anxiety as well as shame when and if you’re unsuccessful.
(Yes, medication can help, too. That’s a whole different blog post and something we haven’t tried so I can’t actually speak to it.)
2. Uncover the Brain-Based Reasons Like Sensory Processing Disorder
In addition, we personally found a HUGE connection between AJ’s sensory processing disorder and anxiety. Meaning, once we started the sensory diet for SPD including brushing and joint compressions, the anxiety improved drastically. Read more about that here.
There’s a lot of reasons for anxiety but brain stuff is a big reason. Besides sensory processing, my daughter didn’t ever crawl properly so we also found some modicum of benefit with belly crawling and regular crawling AGAIN correctly to develop the brain.
3. Overheard Stories
Early on, before therapy and before age five, I called in to the Love and Logic radio show with Dr. Jim Fay who suggested I tell my husband about my own anxiety when my daughter was nearby. He told me to talk out loud about how I handled my feelings, giving my daughter some solution ideas. I was supposed to let her overhear.
“I was so worried about going to that meeting today, I felt kind of weird in my tummy. I decided to take five deep breathes and that really helped. And, the meeting went really well after all.”
This was hard to remember but I think it was good advice especially for smaller worries. Kids do like to overhear things we say — especially those times we don’t want them to be listening!
4. Physical Movement
My husband notices that if our daughter doesn’t get enough physical activity, her behavior and anxiety get worse.
So, we make sure that we spent time outside running, swinging, jumping and playing. If it is too cold, we rough house inside, jump off the couch, play basketball in our basement (I put up a hoop)…we let her roller skate inside, too. Movement helps her so much.
5. Breathing and Visualization
Lori Lite created Stress Free Kids, a line of books, CDs and curriculum to help kids with anxiety. She sent me Indigo Dreams, 60 minutes of stories and music. Children follow the characters along as they learn belly breathing with A Boy and a Bear, make positive statements with The Affirmation Web, visualize with A Boy and a Turtle and relax with The Goodnight Caterpillar.
I liked the CD but my daughter wouldn’t sit still to listen to more than a few minutes. She will move up until the last second before she has to sleep. Even when I read to her before bed, she’ll knit, reorganize her desk or fold clothes. But sitting, listening and breathing? Not so much.
Learn about breathing deeply with motions and visuals starting with A for Alligator Breath in the book
Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing by Christopher Willard and Daniel Rechtschaffen. “Open your arms wide like alligator jaws on the in-breath. Snap them shut on the out-breath.” Try each letter of the alphabet like the Butterfly Breath, Cake Breath, Flower Breath, Ninja Breath, and Yawning Breath. Read, practice, and discuss which breaths you like the best.
I also recommend Breathe with Me by Mariam Gates for ages 2 – 6!
Mindfulness is all about breathing, staying present, and visualization. Resources for mindfulness can be found here.
5. Bibliotherapy: Children’s Books to Help with Anxiety
Bibliotherapy means using books to help kids know they’re not alone and to hear stories about how others have handled similar situations or feelings.
Below you’ll find picture books and middle-grade books that talk about worries, fears, anxiety, bravery, and courage. Maybe they can help as you seek to support your child with anxiety, worry, or fear.
Pilar’s Worries by Victoria M. Sanchez, illustrated by Jess Golden
ages 4 – 8
This story about a girl named Pilar shows a child experiencing anxiety — and what she does about it. She notices the sensations in her body like her heart beating fast and her legs prickling. She has strategies that help — breathing and saying, “I can do it.” It’s not overly complex but may show kids that they’re not alone and anxiety can get better.
The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld
ages 4 – 8
The Happy Book and Other Feelings by Andy Rash
ages 4 – 8
I love this book! It accurately shows the range of emotions that we experience in a healthy day of living. Pay attention to the symbolism in the colors as well as items and puns in a relatable story of friendship.
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
ages 4 – 8
Wemberly worries about many things, especially starting school. While this only touches on anxiety, it’s a reassuring story that sometimes things we worry about things turn out just fine.
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
ages 4 – 8
Jabari is ready to jump off the diving board. Mostly. His dad tells Jabari that he feels scared too, and sometimes after a deep breath and telling himself he is ready, the thing stops feeling scary and feels like a surprise instead. I like this advice, don’t you? And it works for Jabari, too. Beautiful illustrations, perfect text-to-picture ratio, and a helpful, relatable story make this a best picture book of 2017.
Breathe with Me by Mariam Gates
I love how Gates makes breathing accessible to children with powerful imagery. For example, when you’re sleepy in the morning and can’t wake up — try doing Rainbow Breath. Illustrated with a girl sitting under a rainbow we read about Rainbow Breath:
“Sit up and let your spine grow tall.
Bring your arms out straight to
the sides, palms down.
Inhale and sweep your arms up over your head palm to palm.
Exhale and bring your arms back
straight out to the sides, palms down.
Repeat three times.“
Or when you’re nervous about something new, try Dandelion Breath. (I LOVE the idea of blowing a dandelion, don’t you?) The book has five different ways to think about your breathing in total. And I think they’re all so brilliantly relatable for kids. MORE MINDFULNESS BOOKS HERE.
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
ages 4 – 8
After his fall of the wall, Humpty Dumpty isn’t quite all together again because now he’s afraid of heights. Eventually, he musters up his courage and climbs the wall. One step at a time. Until he’s not scared anymore. Although not specifically about anxiety, this beautifully illustrated and conceived picture book that shows kids fear is normal and courage is doing something even when you’re scared.
Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Calm, Focus and Peace by Whitney Stewart and Mina Braun
Beautiful illustrations with diversity (!!) give kids 50 games, visualizations, and exercises to promote mindfulness in 5 categories: feeling grounded, finding calm, improving focus, practicing loving kindness, and relaxing. Easy step by step instructions make these accessible for kids and adults. I can’t wait to try these with my kids.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (graphic novel)
ages 8 – 12
Raina shares her own life story, how in elementary school, her fears and anxieties led to terrible stomach aches, days of missed school, and time in therapy. Guts sensitively delves into the mind-body connection, showing therapy in a positive light. I wholeheartedly appreciate that the story shows a kind counselor who gives Raina helpful strategies. My daughter and I both love when Raina bravely presents to her class a strategy she learned in therapy — deep breathing.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
ages 8 – 12
After losing their home and living in their van for 3 months, the family is now about to lose their apartment. Although Jackson’s parents don’t tell him this, he knows the signs. He knows why they’re having a yard sale. He knows it’s not his dad’s fault for having MS but he’s mad and worried and alone. It isn’t until Crenshaw shows up and pushes Jackson to speak the truth to his parents that Jackson learns that he’s not facing this big fear and hard situation alone. Oh, and who is Crenshaw? He’s Jackson’s large, imaginary cat friend from when he was little returned to help Jackson in his time of need. I felt like it was a God metaphor. I wonder what you’ll think?
WHAT ABOUT YOU? How do you help your kids with anxiety?
What’s worked for your child and your family?