Meaningful Ways to Help Kids with Anxiety

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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?

LISTEN.

Be accepting.

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 bed wetting 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

1. Therapy

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 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.

Example:

“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 anxiety in kidsThe 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.

Another way to help kids with breathing and visualization is to begin doing yoga. We have tried and recommend a variety of books, videos, and games you can find here.

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
This is probably my favorite book about feelings because it’s so accepting and models listening, not fixing. As you can tell from the title, after all the other animals try to fix things, the rabbit simply listens to Taylor with compassion when Taylor’s ready to share. (And when she doesn’t want to talk, the rabbit sits quietly with her friend.)


Ruby Finds a Worry
by Tom Percival
ages 4 – 8
Ruby loves swinging and exploring. One day, she discovers a yellow blob Worry who grows and grows and won’t leave her alone even brushing her teeth and at school. The Worry stopped Ruby from doing things she loved, becoming enormous and all-consuming. When she sees a boy with his own blue Worry, she realizes that other people have Worries, too and that when they talk about them, they become smaller, even going away. This is one approach that may help some children but if it doesn’t, don’t worry!


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
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.

Bibliotherapy! Read Picture Books About Facing Fears and Having Courage
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.

mindfulness picture books for kids
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 review
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?

how parents can help an anxious child

best books that help kids with anxiety

ALSO READ:

Books About Facing Fears and Having Courage

Anxiety Connected to Sensory Processing Disorder

Parenting Strategies to Encourage a Growth Mindsettips and strategies for kids to adopt a growth mindset

45 Responses

  1. Linda Dunn says:

    My relationship with my granddaughter is completely different from the ones I had with my children. Thank God. I have a high level of anxiety that at the age of nearly 63 years I am still learning to recognize for what it is. That helps me when I’m with my granddaughter. Understanding myself better helps so much in appreciating her as she is. Thank you for Imagination Soup. The work you do is part of the healing our whole world really, really needs. God love you.

  2. I was diagnosed with Generalized anxiety disorder when I was 7 and have been on medication ever since. I have seen therapists, read books, etc. I have found a number of techniques that have worked for me. For example, when I was younger I had a worry stone. A smooth stone bought at the store that had the word ‘breathe’ etched in it. I would rub and fidget with that whenever I got anxious. My mom had also told me a story about why it would help me. As a psych major I also know that finding the root of the anxiety/behavior can really help a ton. You may want to look into cognitive behavioral therapy. Here is some info http://effectivechildtherapy.com/content/cbt-anxiety. The most important thing you can do in my opinion is listen to her and support her unconditionally. Which it sounds like you are already doing.Best of luck!

  3. Gwen Pescatore says:

    Tamar Chansky’s book “Freeing Your child From Anxiety” was a change maker for us/my son. Taught him & us how to deal with anxiety. A year after reading, he faces his biggest fears head on. Before, he wouldn’t have left the house.

  4. My daughter’s anxiety manifests through an occasional stutter. Her main source of anxiety seems to be school and all the rules there. When she is on break, her stutter almost disappears. We have worked with her by having conversations to problem solve some of the things that make her anxious and help her see they aren’t such a big deal. Thank you for the additional helpful tips. Can’t wait to try some.

  5. IamBullyproofMusic says:

    We have a little song called the “Monkey” song I use to help anxious kids. My own sons, one gifted and an anxious type, now both brag that “No one worries less than me!” and I’m positive it’s because, from a young age, I taught them both that we are what we THINK. So hello. What are you thinking? I’ve been told this song truly helps with anxious kids because they can visualize the monkeys chattering endlessly in their heads handing them worry thoughts– and then just tell their silly monkeys to shut up! haha empowering or what? Visualization and a funny song can work wonders! Kids are never too young to be handed a clue! Use ideas, in other words. And hugs. Plenty of hugs.

  6. Sensory diet. If your child is experiencing sensory input problems, her body goes into fight or flight response. My son will vomit, cry that his stomach hurts, tell me his head hurts or his muscles hurt. He even gets chest pain once in a while. All of these have been checked out and he is ok physically. We have been doing OT work (once a week with a specialist – and OT) and at home several times a day. It is helping. Look into diet too. Healthy protein and fat in the morning will help as well – like high in fat greek yogurt (instead of the low fat options). Also, VERY little tv. My son gets worse and worse the more we watch tv or movies. I have had to wean him down from it.

  7. My daughter is now 7, and we breathe. I make her do it with me – breath in…. breathe out… breathe in through the nose… and out through the mouth… At one point I started making sure that my daughter knew that she was fine, that she wasn’t sick and that “her feelings were making her stomach and head hurt.” Since she realized that, she will take a few deep breaths with me. When she gets really going, she will say, okay, I am breathing, I am getting over myself. We talk about feelings. We discuss the issue and brainstorm solutions together…. We talk about perspectives… how she sees it, and how else it could be interpreted. She has come a long way since I started working with her on it 2 years ago. Caring teachers help, too.

    1. Lisa – your approach – by nature your own is the core practice of what I do for children in Mindfulness For Children. The breath is a stable influence in reminding children that self-soothing is always available. Further to this is the rhythmic patterns of daily routine that can be observed and then used as an anchor for children during overload. This is not just a method made up by MUM – its science: these habits effect Neuro-plasticity. I also support Kara’s sensory activities – given the child can access an exercise that is their first or second learner type – children will quickly respond to activities that are sensory based – used in conjunction with breath – this is Mindfulness For Children. Kind thoughts
      Glenda
      info@mindfulnessforchildren.co.nz

  8. Sensory, Sensory, Sensory. It is not just for kids who have sensory processing issues it can help calm anxiety an stress in children as well. Why else do you think they have water and sand tables in every preschool classroom. When your child is having trouble with a schedule change, exhibiting emotional outbursts in the evenings once the school year starts, sleep is one way to make things better but up that sensory activity after school. Squeeze playdoh, have them do the cutting and spreading and mixing it may take to make snacks after school or when prepping for dinner. Spent time in a sandbox, or a bin of legos. Paint with shaving cream or even fill the bathtub with a new type of toy like a stack of plastic cups. Why else do you think they invented stress balls for adults. The same thing works for kids. Even headphones work wonders for my son when he needs to block out the worlds overstimulation which can be the sourse of some of the anxiety kids face at school. My son also exhibited a symptom of chewing on his clothes at school namely his collar. We give him a piece of gum when he walks in the door and that biting was a stress release for him. My child is a typical child who has higher stress and anxiety not any diagnosed issues but the sensory activities helped this in a big way.

    1. Elizabeth Pearson says:

      This is a great reminder. It’s hard for me to remember to do this with my daughter, because I have a sensory issue myself. I don’t like touching sand or play dough, or anything icky/dirty. And that’s my issue that I certainly don’t want rubbing off on my daughter.

  9. Great article! My first grader also suffers from anxiety. We have also tried the visualization and breathing exercises, but like your daughter, she won’t sit still long enough. I found a book, which has become my go-to source, that is called Growing Up Brave by Donna B. Pincus. It is a great resource when it comes to understanding anxiety and some ways to deal with children who suffer from it. I have also found that behavior modification-type motivation works well for my daughter. She earns one or two stickers for things that stress her out. Once she earns 30 stickers I will reward her with a trip to the dollar store. It seems to be working for now. She just started school, so we will see how she does.

  10. We draw (when they were smaller) or write (now that they can) in a journal things that we are anxious about. It really helps. We also write some of the things that make us happy to balance it!

    1. Ha! My daughter is anxious about writing! Tears last night on the first night with a little bit of writing homework.

  11. Thank you so much for this! I’m going to try those Indigo Dream CDs (umm, well, anyway, I do feel a rather special connection with them! 🙂 ).

  12. Shonda sandoval says:

    Like others I have anxiety and so do my kids. When my daughter was little she could be reasoned with and I would talk her through what was the worst thing that could happen and they all ended with and I’ll be here and still love u. When I was a kid I would sing my favorite song when scared. So I sang ‘Would u like to swing on a star’ to her ad a baby and it still calms her and makes her smile. My son has aspergers and has been more difficult for me to find quick fixes! I do try to recognize when something is building and if possible use distraction and silliness (again, this works for me). With both kids I told them how I loved them always. Each one has a special way. Now i ask them “how do i love u?” No matter how deep my son is into an episode he will say “higher than the moon and more than all the fishes in the sea”. So If I need to calm him down by phone we start with that anf it really helps. He also has fantastic teachets and school staff that have been with him for a long time and I can assure him that they love him and will protect him until he is back with mom. When noise is too much or it thunders he wears headphones to block some sound.

  13. Harp music is being used in military treatment facilities to reduce pain and anxiety. Studies have shown that is changes brain wave patterns (to whichever ones are helpful, I forget.) After my husband returned from deployment, we put a harp CD on when going to sleep. (Only harp, no accompaniment) I was astounded at the difference it made. Perhaps there is some credence to Biblical stories of David calming a raving King Saul with harp music! Sounds like such a simple solution, but it can’t hurt….PS. I’m not saying it’s an “only” solution, but to let people know that it is an amazing additive to your toolbox.

  14. I have a son with Selective Mutism- a severe anxiety disorder. He was placed on medication for a year and he is doing very well right now. In dealing with him, I have learned a few things about helping a child with anxiety:
    1. Do not force the child to do something that makes them extremely anxious- encourage and offer to assist, but don’t force.
    2. Tell the child ahead of time if something will be changing or if something that makes the child anxious is approaching.
    3. Freedom to be him/herself- if the child feels “normal”, it will alleviate some of the anxiety, too.

    Great article!

    1. I’m glad he’s doing better – sounds like you’ve learned these lessons first hand. Thank you!

  15. One of my girls is a big worrier…. she can worry herself awake most of the night over something that seems so crazy to me… though I do understand because I am pretty sure she inherited the worrying from me. Which is why I really like your first suggestion… for her to see/hear me talking about and dealing with my worries would be quite powerful for her I think.

    We also use something called ‘the catastrophe scale’… though my girls are a little older (8) they’ve been using it since they started school and it’s been fabulous. Basically it started out as a visual picture of a scale and they wrote or drew on it what something bad would be, something really bad, something really really bad and something catastrophic…. and when something is worrying them I get them to put it somewhere on the scale…. it helps to keep the little things from getting way out of perspective!

  16. What a great list of ideas! I need to bookmark this one because I can already tell my son is going to have issues with anxiety! The initial signs are already there!! And, can I just say that I LOVE Love and Logic!!! Love, love, LOVE it!!!! 🙂

  17. Mindi is so right about trying different approaches. As a therapist working with anxious children I have found that ‘one size’ definitely does not fit all. Some love to relax with creative visualisation or hypnosis, while others get much more out of art therapy.

    Erin’s coping strategies are excellent. Mental rehearsal is so useful and using a character to ‘try out’ the scenarios can help an anxious child immensely.

    I also offer the visualisation of a ‘safe place’ so that the child always has somewhere they can withdraw to and find resources. On one of my cds called ‘The Magic Garden’ there is a wise old willow tree that children love to sit under and tell their worries to. This is another useful vehicle to offload troubling feelings. xx

  18. I love the Brave Charlie idea! I’ve read the other two books and agree that they’re both very good. Thanks for writing about them, Erin.

  19. We’re using the workbook, What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. My son doesn’t have any interest in actually doing the workbook pages, so we basically just read and use the activities as discussion starters. I also learned some great, simple strategies from the book, Helping Your Anxious Child, (Rapee, Wignall, Spence, Cobham, Lyneham) We’ve helped him identify activities that he can do to calm himself in various situations. For example, to calm down at home, he sits in a beanbag and listens to music or plays sports. At school, he gets overly anxious during unstructured times, like during lunch, so when he feels anxious, the plan is supposed to be to take deep breaths and observe what the other kids are doing for clues about what he should be doing, etc. Also knowing what to expect from an upcoming situation is a huge deal for my son, so we spend a lot of time talking though possible scenarios ahead of time. We often do this through storytelling, using “Brave Charlie” as the main character who succeeds by using his “calm down” strategies so he can think clearly and come up with great solutions to various problems.

  20. I think this was your best post yet! Im glad you pointed out that its important to try out different relaxation approaches for different kids. Its possible that yoga would be a good relaxation exercise for your daughter, although as active as she is, she may like Tae-Bo even better!

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