Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Anxiety in Children: 11 Ways to Make a Difference to the Younger Ones

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Anxiety in Children: 11 Ways to Make a Difference

Anxiety in very young children, or all children for that matter, is a pretty normal part of their development. They’re getting used to the world and making sense of their place in it. For about 1 in 4 kids though, anxiety can have a more intrusive impact on their lives.

For older children, explaining what anxiety is and why it feels like it does will make a huge difference. See here for how. They can do pretty amazing things with the right information. For younger ones though, this can be a bit more difficult, particularly if their language is still developing. The good news is that there are plenty of things the grown-ups in their lives can do to help them through. The truth is there’s no-one better:

  1. Touch them. 

    Humans were meant to be touched. It’s why we’re covered in skin and not spikes. If your little one is feeling anxious, touching them will initiate the release of neurochemicals that will start a relaxation response. Touching is one of the most healing things we humans can do.

  2. Ground them.

    Even better than touching them is holding them. Anxiety feels flighty. It feels insecure and turbulent. Help your little person feel grounded by holding them.

    Research has found that hugging brings on a significant reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone). The huggable target doesn’t have to be human – just something huggable. (Though does it get much better than human?)

    Let them feel you as a steadying presence. One of the symptoms of anxiety is clinginess. This isn’t surprising and actually, is another brilliant adaptive human trait. Young children might not be able to articulate it, but their body knows it needs to be grounded. If it’s what they need, give it. This won’t always be convenient, but if you can, let them fold into you. Stop cooking dinner, put down the phone and just for a couple of minutes, let them feel you keeping them safe. Make sure your own breath is steady so they don’t feel you as flighty. They’ll pick up whatever you send out.

    We are one of the few cultures that don’t walk around holding our babies close to us. This is completely understandable of course – having a baby attached isn’t always practical (though I’ll never stop being amazed by what people can do with little ones attached!) but when they’re reaching out for a cuddle or clearly in need of one, it’s important to respond. They’re just doing what humans are wired to do – looking for connection.

    Having said this, make sure that after a quick cuddle, you also encourage a brave response. You don’t want to inadvertently reinforce their anxiety by giving them something positive (a cuddle) every time they become anxious. Cuddle them, then encourage them to try something that will ultimately move them towards learning an effective response, even if it’s just holding steady and breathing. 

  3. Softly now – it’s sleeping.

    This will help teach them the skills to calm themselves. First, find your child their very own soft toy pet. Make sure it’s an animal that’s fairly lifelike – a dog or a cat or something else that they would be happy to have against them. If you can get one that’s sleeping, all the better. At bedtime, tell them that the puppy/cat/whatever, let’s say, puppy, has fallen asleep too. Put it in against their tummy or nestle it in to the side of them and tell them that they have to try to keep the puppy asleep by breathing and moving very gently so as not to wake it up. This will focus them on their own body and develop their capacity to control their breathing – a valuable skill.

    Breathing initiates the relaxation response, a process discovered by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson. When triggered the relaxation response instantly sends out neurochemicals that neutralise the fight or flight response. The relaxation response will decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower pulse rate, reduce the oxygen in the bloodstream and increase alpha brain waves, which are all associated with relaxation.

  4. Make sure their breathing is just right.

    In the midst of anxiety, breathing changes from slow and deep to short and shallow. This is one of the reasons for the physical symptoms of anxiety in children, or anyone for that matter. Have your child practice breathing every day so that when he or she is in the midst of anxiety, it will be easier to call on effective breathing. Effective breathing comes from the belly, rather than the chest. Have your child practice their strong breathing by placing a soft toy on their tummy when they lie down. If the toy moves up and down, their breathing is perfect. 

  5. Storytelling. 3 Ways.

    We love stories because we can relate – to the characters, the feelings, the situation. As well as being crazy good fun, stories can also be a powerful tool, particularly with kids. Let’s start with an example of a story and then we’ll talk about how you can use it. Make up a story about a child who has the same fear and shares other similarities with your child – maybe in relation to favourite foods, where they live, what they like.

    Here are some bones to get you started. Fatten it out with detail however you like:

    ‘Once upon a time (because that’s how all the good stories start) there was a boy. When I say boy, I actually mean superhero. Superheros, you see, come in all shapes and sizes. This superhero was human shaped, kid sized. His name was Mitch and he loved the colour yellow.

    During the day, Mitch did all the usual things that superheros did – he cleaned his teeth (because superheros need shiny choppers for shiny smiles, you know), captured baddies (that was usually over and done with by breakfast), washed hairy dogs, and cleaned his room.

    He did this no trouble at all. He did most things no trouble at all but bedtime – sheesh! – bedtimes did cause a little bit of trouble. (Bedtimes can be like that.) Mitch struggled a little because he didn’t like the dark. Even superheros get a bit scared sometimes – of course they do – but what makes them superheros is that when they get scared, then they get brave.

    Mitch needed a plan. He had a few ideas. He could sleep with a small light. Yes. That would work. He wouldn’t be scared of the dark if it wasn’t dark. He could be brave for ten minutes at a time, and then have 2 minutes with his mum or dad, or he could try special ways to relax so the dark didn’t matter.

    This is just an example and as you can see, it doesn’t have to be a complicated story, just one they can relate to. Now for what to do with it:

    •   Using storytelling is a great way to understand more about the issue. Kids might find it easier to talk about feelings when they don’t have to own them directly. Stories facilitate this perfectly. Asking kids about the thoughts, feelings, intentions of a character can reveal a lot about where they’re at because their answers will be influenced by their own thoughts and feelings. For example, if you were telling the story above, ask your child what Mitch thinks might happen in the dark? What does Mitch need to feel better? What happened that made Mitch frightened of the dark? Some kids might find it easier to project their thoughts and feelings onto something else outside of themselves, rather than answer directly from their own point of view.

    •   Use the story to involve them in the process. If kids feel as though they have some control and input, they’re more like to stick to the strategy you put in place. In your story, include the different strategies you might use to ease the bedtime ritual, and ask your child to choose. ‘So, if you were Mitch, what would you do? … You’re a bit of a superhero, I think this could work for you. Let’s try it.’

    •  Use the story to help them find an anchor. An anchor is a word or phrase they can call on when they’re feeling anxious. Chances are, in the thick of an anxiety attack there will be no words, which is why it’s important to decide on the word or phrase beforehand and remind them of it when they need it. It might be as simple as ‘relax’, or ‘I’m okay’. Ask what would be a good thing for Mitch to hear when he gets scared. 

  6. Mindfulness.

    This is an exercise that draws on the principles of mindfulness. If your child is worried, ask them where in their body they feel their worry might be living. Is it in their tummy? Their head? Arms? Legs? Chest? Ask them to gently put their hand on it, or they might prefer yours. Next, have them concentrate on their hand (or yours) and feel it comforting them. Remind them to breathe slowly in and out. As they breathe in, invite them to  imagine the air going straight to their worry spot. Then, imagine that when they breathe out, the breath is taking some of worry out with it. Just enough to make them feel more comfortable with the feeling. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go completely. The idea is to make it manageable. 

  7. The Stepladder.  

    The idea of the stepladder approach is to gradually expose kids to the feared situation or object so they can get used to it gradually. Start with a mild version of whatever it is that causes your child to feel anxious. Expose them a few times until they can handle it (make it super easy to start with) then move on to something that is a little bit more anxiety inducing. Expose them a few times until they get used to it. Gradually expose the child to situations that progressively stir a little more anxiety than the one before it. It’s important that you don’t force them, but let them go at their own pace. You might need to stay on one stage for a while, and that’s okay. If you can, involve them in working out what the steps should be.

    Here is an example for someone who is scared of dogs:

    >> Start with a book about dogs. Spend some time looking at the pictures.
    >> Move to a fluffy toy dog. Touch it and hold it with them.
    >> Lot at dogs on television.
    >> Hold a friendly little dog and encourage them to look at it.
    >> Hold the little dog and encourage them to touch it.
    >> Let them hold the little dog.
    >> Encourage them to look at a big friendly dog.
    >> Encourage them to pat a big friendly dog.

  8. There are better places for worries than inside you.

    •  Explain to your little person that there are better places for worries to be than inside them. Have them draw their worries and when they feel done, invite them to rip up the paper and throw it away. Whatever you do, don’t forget to explain that this is what you’ll be doing. You don’t want to be ripping up any precious masterpieces. 

    •  Make a worry tree. The idea here is to create a something your child can use to externalise their worries, or to take their worries from a faceless force inside them, to one outside of themselves that they can visualise and contain. Invite them to draw or create a big tree. The simplest way to do this is to draw a big tree on a whiteboard (but be as fancy pants as you like or use a real one if you want). Then, cut out leaf shapes from paper or cardboard. When your child has a worry, ask them to draw it on the leaf. When they’ve done that pin it onto the tree. This will give them a sense that the worry is contained (by the edges of the leaf) and outside of themselves.

  9. Two halves of a whole.

    This is a powerful technique for kids who struggle with separation anxiety. Copy a photo of you and a photo of your child onto a piece of paper. Make sure the photos are touching. Then, cut the paper in half and fold it up – to keep it safe. Give them the photo of you and you take the photo of them. When they are away, the photo of them stays in your pocket and the photo of you stays in theirs. At night, the photo comes back together and stays on the fridge or their mirror, or wherever it can be visible. (You might need to print a few spares).

  10. Don’t encourage avoidance.

    The more your child avoids a situation, the harder it will be to face. Though you don’t want to push them too hard, don’t go out of your way to avoid the feared object. This could inadvertently reinforce the fear by communicating to them that it is scary and should be avoided. Praise any attempt they make to show brave behaviour. 

  11. Avoid the labels.

    Avoid calling your child anxious or shy. It will become a part of their self-concept and they will behave in such a way as to reinforce the way you see them. Anxiety usually means that brave behaviour is coming. Even if it doesn’t come straight away, generally they’re working on it. Focus on their attempt to be ‘brave’, rather than their ‘anxious’ behaviour.   

For kids with anxiety, parents and the people who love them are so important and can really make a difference. Decide on the strategies that seem to fit for your child and stay with those strategies. Don’t worry if they don’t work the first time, or the first few. Anxiety can be robust and persistent, but with you behind them, your little person can be even more so.

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43 Comments

Sarah

Such valuable insight and suggestions. I teach 6 year olds at an affluent school and see a few children struggling with anxiety and have felt powerless in supporting them in the classroom. Thank you!

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Jennifer

Very well written article. I’ve been an educator for 17 years and unfortunately see so much stress and anxiety. The article identifies great ways to assist our young kiddos.

Thank you.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome. There are so many kids struggling with stress and anxiety aren’t there. It’s so good to know there are people like you watching out for them.

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Natasha Daniels

This is a great article. As a child therapist I use all of these techniques and it is great to see in succinctly written for parents to utilize!

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heysigmund

Thank you! Parents can do pretty amazing things with the right information can’t they. It’s important work you’re doing. Thanks for taking the time to get in touch.

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Sandra

Fantastic article, thank you. I see so much anxiety in children in my work as a Family Support Practitioner, I will definitely put this advice to the test, with hopefully a positive outcome. I’m looking to develop my counselling work to work with children and young people but the simplicity of this material could easily be adapted to work with adults. Thank you.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome. I’m so pleased you found the article and that it was useful for you. You’re absolutely right – these ideas could certainly be adapted for adults. It’s such important work you’re doing. Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

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amy

. My 5 year old son is struggling with separation anxiety ( i think due to a recent event) and I soooo needed to read this. #2 and #3 stand out to me. I might try the photo as well but I just introduced him to a jade rock that he is carrying in his pocket. that he can touch if he feels like he misses his parents. thank you.

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Tess

I love the idea about externalizing the worries for all ages of people! When I am feeling anxious about something, the very worst thing I can do is keep it inside and let it grow. I’ve experienced anxiety since childhood and my only coping mechanism was to stuff it down where I would even forget it after keeping it stuffed for so long. Then I would develop unrelated phobias and compulsive behavior. I have found so much relief in thinking through what is bothering me, not burying it, which is very hard for me since I learned to hide my feelings as early as three years old, and journaling or talking to a trusted person about it.

Thank you for posting a list of things that can be helpful to all ages. God bless the little ones who are going through such a struggle.

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heysigmund

You’re so right about working through things rather than burying them. Problems don’t go away – they just tend to turn themselves into bigger problems until we deal with them. You have such wonderful insight around this. I’m so grateful to you for sharing your experience. There are so many people (big and little) struggling with anxiety and hearing from someone else who has been there can provide so much comfort. Thank you!

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kali erickson

What if you do all these and your child still suffers? What’s next? I am feeling hopeless. I understand it takes time but I don’t know what to do in the mean time. Help!

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Hey Sigmund

It’s important to keep in mind that your child’s anxiety didn’t happen overnight. It took a while to take shape so it will take a while to ease. The mind is like a muscle, and it takes time and regular practice to make changes. In the meantime, just be there. Let your child feel you as a strong, stead presence while they learn a new way to deal with their anxiety, and keep practicing the techniques. If you feel like your child is really struggling, counselling might also be an option. I hope you are able to find some comfort soon.

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Amanda

My child’s suffering with anxiety mainly at school but she’s pulling out her hair literally and school and doctors are just saying give it time and not addressing the issue my lil girls long hair is all broken at the sides she has hardley any left… What can I do at home to help her at school she’s not allowed to take anything into school as they won’t allow but as one of the youngest in class she’s really struggling and I can’t help

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling like this at the moment. It’s awful watching our kids go through things and not being able to help. It sounds like your daughter may have trichotillomania, but a doctor would be the one to confirm this. If you’re not happy with the doctor you’ve been seeing, are you able to find another one? It’s really important that you feel heard and as though what’s happening to your daughter is being taken seriously. Here is some information about trichotillomania http://www.trich.org/dnld/ExpertGuidelines_000.pdf. And here is a website dedicated to the condition with resourches, explanations and ideas http://www.trich.org. Have a read and see what you think. I hope it helps.

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Emma

A friend sent me the link to this article and I’m so glad we’re not alone!! My 4 year old daughter is dealing with what I believe is anxiety at the moment, she’s worried her heart will stop beating after a fellow pupil at school told her “if your heart stops beating you will die” she’s also asking things like “what will happen to me if I hurt my leg”. This is affecting her going to school in the mornings as I know she feels she needs me there to reassure although her teachers have been brilliant. She is fine once she’s in school she says when she’s at the gate she’s really scared.. I feel I need to help her as much as I can now as I don’t want it to become worse x

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Hey Sigmund

You’re certainly not alone! With your little one going to school, she is trying to figure out her way in the world and what this looks like without you – not that she’s ever without you, but I mean for the few hours a day when you aren’t beside her. She’s wanting to know that she’ll be okay, which is normal and age appropriate, and it’s great that she’s asking questions. You’re doing absolutely the right thing in helping her as much as you can. Validate her and give her whatever reassurance she needs to face the things that the worrying her: ‘I understand why you’re worried if that’s what you’ve been told but you know, hearts don’t stop beating in kids. Yours is strong and healthy and working beautifully.’ ‘There are so many people around who are there to look after you and make sure you’re always okay.’ ‘It’s really normal to worry about things and be scared when you’re doing something new or different. That’s when you get to find out just how brave you are – and I know you are so brave.’ It’s good to hear that her teachers are on board – that’s half the battle. (How awesome are teachers!) When you think about it through the eyes of a four year old, it can be bit of a scary world out there. Here is an article that explains anxiety in a child-friendly way, to help them understand why their body feels the way it does when they’re anxious, and that that just because they feel scared, doesn’t mean there’s something to be scared of. You might have to adapt it to suit her age, but here it is anyway … http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/

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Karen

Can you email this article to me? My daughter is nearly 5 and has always had separation anxiety. This would give me the tools I need when I struggle with how to support her as I often get frustrated.
Thanks for sharing

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Gena Suarez

Right now we are having a problem with getting hurt. My 3 year old skins his knee and the whole world stops. He won’t let me touch him. Screams, won’t take a bath for a week after, what can I do emedatly to help him calm down?

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Hey Sigmund

Just be a calm, gentle presence for him. If this is his way of dealing with getting hurt, it’s okay and not unusual given his age. The more you push against him when he’s in that space the worse it will be for him. He will find a new way to deal with this when he’s ready. If you want to discuss with him a different way to deal with it (maybe – ‘we can find a way to keep the hurt bit out of the water when you have a bath’, ‘do you know if you take big breaths it will help it not to be so scary when you get hurt. Do you think next time we can try that?’), it’s important that it’s when he’s calm and relaxed and not in high emotion.

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Christina

Some great advice here – thank you. Question: how do you know if your kid is suffering more than average levels of anxiety?

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome! Now, about average levels … ‘Average’ is a tricky one because it would be different for all kids, but an important measure of whether or not it’s a problem is the extent to which anxiety gets in the way of day to day living – school, sleep, friendships etc. Some children are naturally more anxious than others but it’s not necessarily a problem – it’s just something they learn to manage. If the child thinks it’s a problem and if it’s getting in the way of them being happy or if it’s stopping them from doing things that they’d ordinarily be able to do, it’s probably time to explore ways to help them manage it. Hope that helps.

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Nicky

I wonder if you might be able to email this to me too. I have a child in my school who has just been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and this would be a good place for me to start!

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Heather

I would love to receive any articles you can send me on anxiety. I have an 8 year old daughter, who has lots of anxiety. She does not like water to be on her head or put her head under water ( she has not passed any swimming levels because of this). She is scared of wind, the possibility of a tornado. I had to carry her kicking and screaming just to the car for one whole summer to get her to go anywhere. She did not want to go outside from this fear. At school she will cry when there is a thunder storm and they end up sending her to the office with some friends to try and calm her down. She will get worked up about homework if she thinks she can’t do it or is not doing something right. It takes me about half an hour to get her calm enough for her to actually listen to what the question is asking of her. Then she will look at me and go oh I do know that! It’s like she panics in her head and convinces herself she can’t, before she really even hears what is being asked of her. She has nightmares every night, I need to have a light on in her room, I have to go in her room and stay there to get her back to sleep usaly at 12pm or 2am she won’t go back to sleep on her own. My husband has generalized anxiety disorder which he is on Paxil for. I don’t want to medicate my daughter I want her to be able to cope and realize what a truly brave and courageous girl she really is. Sadly Anxiety does rule her world ( and the rest of the family by proxi) some days it is simply exhausting! Any help you can suggest or send my way would be greatly appreciated!!!

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Heather, I’m sorry to hear your little one is going through this! I think one of the most important things when dealing with anxiety is being able to understand why your body feels the way it does. People with anxiety become ‘anxious about the anxiety’, so understanding that anxiety is a really normal physiological response can help with that. Your daughter is at an age where you can probably start really simple explaining this. Here is the article that will help with that: http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ . More than likely she won’t be able to take it in all at once, so don’t underestimate the importance and power of the incidental conversations you have with her. They all add up.

Another thing to do is to foster a growth mindset. That’s the belief that people can change, because brains can change. A lot of kids with anxiety will have a fixed mindset – the belief that who they are is who they will always be – their traits, their intelligence. Fostering a growth mindset will help her to believe that just because her brain does what it does now, doesn’t mean it will always do that. The belief that she won’t always experience anxiety the way she experiences now is really powerful in shifting change. Here is information about how to do it. It’s an article about resilience and bullying, but don’t worry about that – the method is the same for all growth mindsets. Just adapt it for anxiety. http://www.heysigmund.com/the-proven-way-to-build-resilience/

Here are some things to try that don’t involve medication. Remember anxiety can be managed but it can also be resistant so keep trying. The breathing and mindfulness it really important. Mindfulness will take a while for her to learn (maybe months) but keep at it – it will be worth it and it’s a skill that will hold her strong as she grows up. The research around what mindfulness can do is amazing. It changes the amygdala – which is the part of the brain that initiates the anxiety response. The research was done with people doing it for 27 minutes a day over about 8 weeks. That’s too long for your daughter, so start with 5 minutes. It’s a difficult thing to do especially for people with anxiety. Anxiety is about your mind racing ahead to the future (that’s where the worry comes in) and mindfulness trains the brain to come back to the present when you need it to. (I’ve done this with my own daughter and it took a while, but it’s been amazing.) Here are the articles:

Mindfulness: ‘The Difference 5 Minutes a Day Will Make’: http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-what-how-why/
‘Anxiety: 15 Ways to Feel Better Without Medication.’ http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-without-medication/
‘Managing Anxiety: 8 Proven Ways.’ http://www.heysigmund.com/managing-anxiety/

And some more that might help:

’Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety that Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me.’ http://www.heysigmund.com/the-things-ive-learned-about-anxiety-that-only-people-with-anxiety-could-teach-me/
‘When Someone You Love Has Anxiety.’ http://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/

And here’s information about dealing with nightmares: http://www.heysigmund.com/putting-the-halt-on-nightmares/ .
Something else to try with your daughter’s nightmares (if you can) is the position of her bed. There is some research that suggests people sleep best when they can see the doorway from where they lie in bed. This is evolutionary, and leftover from the days when people had to be ready to run when predators came to their cave door. Sounds odd, I know, but even though our circumstances have changed all these years on, our wiring hasn’t. It’s something to try if you can, but if you can’t don’t worry – the most important information is in the article I’ve given you the link to above. It’s based on Harvard research so it has a lot of red.

The main thing when you’re trying these things is to be patient and persistent. Anxiety is a hardwired response so it won’t shift quickly but it can certainly be managed. I hope this helps your daughter (and you!) to find some comfort.

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Jod

My 5 yr oldhas some crowd anxiety. Outside of this he is quite an extrovert …. In comfortable familiar environments he tends to be a leader. The other kids might follow him around in the playground. But if we enter a room with a lot of people – for example a dinner partywithAfew of my friends and their children – he literally hides in between my legs or crouches down like a mouse and hides his face. anyAdvice…(SorryMyKeyboardIsDoingStrangeThings..)

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Hey Sigmund

This is not at all unusual. Kids who have anxiety are often very well liked by their peers – they’re thoughtful, considered, funny, smart – what’s not to love! Because they’re generally not at all threatening, it also easy for other children to watch, look, listen and follow. They can be the life of the party when it’s in a situation that’s familiar or with people they feel comfortable with. In a crowd though, there’s a lot going on and it’s not unusual for this to have an effect, causing them to pull back a bit – the noise, the people, the unfamiliarity. It’s not unusual for 5 year olds generally, even those without anxiety – to shy away from crowds.

If you’re concerned that it’s getting in your son’s way (and remember, it’s only a problem if it’s causing problems), you can try a stepladder approach. The idea of this is to gradually introduce your son to the difficult situation. Start with something that’s fairly non-confronting but a little bit challenging. At the end, talk to your son about what it was like for him. Praise any brave behaviour you see and let him know that any other behaviour is completely okay and that you understand that these situations can be difficult. When he feels comfortable with that situation, move on to something a bit more challenging. Your stepladder might look something like this:

1. Going to the park and playing amongst other kids.
2. Going somewhere with one other family and their children.
3. Having a small group of children he is familiar with over to play.
4. Going to a party or an organised get-together with a small group of children.
5. Going somewhere with adults and children he knows.

Put in your own steps on the stepladder – nobody knows your son the way you do so you’ll be best equipped to set the graduating levels. The main idea is to build up your son’s confidence at every step, so he is better equipped to deal with the next step. It sounds as though your son is thriving, aside from more unfamiliar crowds, and it’s important to be careful not to give him a reason to think there’s a problem. If he’s confident with his own social group and is a bit of a leader, that’s wonderful. If you’re worried though, don’t hesitate to talk to a counsellor.

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Suzi Monaghan

Great article, thank you for directing me to it. I have a number of strategies to look into further and introduce slowly.

Thanks Again 🙂

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Cassy

Hi, we have a 3.5 year old girl who has always been quite sensitive and intuitive. She seems to pick up very easily on moods and her environment and can become quite nervous. She has been at her daycare for about 1.5 years now and has never been great when dropping her off, but she would usually go to one of the teachers for a cuddle first and then apparently is fine throughout the day. Which is fine as we know that she often takes about 10 mins to warm up to an environment.

However recently she has moved up to the preschool room where there are more children and it is a louder environment with some bigger kids. She hates going into the room when I try to drop her off in the morning and will kick and scream and cry and run off. She is apparently ok after I have left but it is heartbreaking and I want to help her feel ok when I leave. She has also told me recently that she doesn’t think any of the children at “school” like her (even though she will play with kids during the day, but she is easily upset if they say or do something minor that she interprets as “mean”).

She is also expecting a little brother in a couple of weeks so I am aware that these changes are probably a little difficult for her to cope emotionally at the moment. She is scared of me going to hospital and has become even more clingy with me again. Which of course could be why she doesn’t want to go to school. I guess I’m just wondering if you have any advice on how to help her feel less overwhelmed?
Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

Your little one sounds as though she picks up on everything, so it’s not surprising that the changes that are happening around her are affecting her. It’s difficult to make sense of new things, especially when you have the thoughts and feelings but perhaps not all the words. The anxiety she goes through at separation is normal for her age, though I know how awful it must be for you to leave her so upset.

When children become overwhelmed, it’s become there is a disconnect between the instinctive, emotional part of their brain (which is where anxiety comes from) and the logical, thinking part of the brain. The thinking part becomes flooded and disengages. When this happens, they are completely ruled by instinct and feeling because the logical, ‘calm down – you’re safe’ messages find it harder to get through. This is a really normal part of anxiety – in adults too. What needs to happen is for the logical thinking part of her brain to reconnect with the impulsive, feeling part of her brain, and you can help her do this.

The most powerful way is to name her feelings. In this way, you’re kind of ‘loaning’ her the logical, thinking part of your brain so she can make sense of things and find calm. The more you do it, the more you’re strengthening the neural connections between the two parts of her brain.

So, when she’s saying that she doesn’t want you to go, validate her and name what she’s showing you. Put her feelings into words, ‘You’re worried about me going to hospital, I understand that. It’s something we haven’t done before isn’t it and new things can always be a little be scary.’ Don’t try to change it or fix it – just notice and be a really calm, strong presence for her. By doing this, you’re giving her a context for her feelings and helping her to reconnect the emotional part of her brain with the logical thinking part. Try the same thing when she talks to you about the other kids at school, maybe something like, ‘You’re worried about what the kids at school think of you. I get that. I feel the same way sometimes when I’m with new people. It can be confusing when you don’t know what people are thinking can’t it.’ There’s more information here:
Building Emotional Intelligence – What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious: http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/
Hope this helps.

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Cassy

Hi,

Thank you, that is some great advice. it definitely seems as though there is no reasoning with her or even trying to explain to her when she is in a ‘state’. I have been trying to say to her that its ok to feel scared etc. and that I understand. I think labelling for her a bit more would be a great idea.

Thanks again

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Katie

Thank you for all your research and hard work. My 7-year old son is recently experiencing severe anxiety. The first “episode (s)” was after introducing him to a multi-aged basketball camp that he said he experienced “being bullied, hated it and was horrible”. By the third day he refused to go and locked himself in his room. This was the summer before he started 1st grade at a new school.

Now we’re dealing with school refusal. He’s always been extemely bright, magnanimous, energetic, and thoughtful. He’s always had tons of friends and been wee liked. Lately I find him self loathing, this thinking he’s bad at everything, ripping up his assignments from school because he doesn’t want me to see them. At back to school night he didn’t have one of the five displayed assignments up on the wall (somehow he managed to take them down before I got there).

He doesn’t want to try any sports, or wear new clothes to school or be noticed. He’s really struggling with reading and writing, which is now becoming g a mental block. He’s refused to go to school now three times. Unfortunately, it became an all out war of force, extremely violent behavior on his side and eventually, I gave in, which only makes the fight or flight scenario worse because he’s gotten out of it three times so it’s reinforced the flight mechanism.

I know he has so much potential but is a little prisoner of his feelings, fear and anxiety. The hardest part for me is that he once was a sweet, happy little guy and he’s beginning to develop a negative mindset towards everything. He now has a more aggressive coping mechanism, where he will take out his feelings on me or his little sister or brother in punching, screaming, etc. How do you help channel this?

I will be implenting some of these steps. I feel helpless, but after reading your articles, may see some hope.

I would like to believe that as his parents we have the ability to get him through this and I’m not against therapy, but I don’t want him labeled or diagnosed with something he associates with his whole life. I think we’ve contributed to his behavior by not understanding him and fighting him — becoming educated is really helping.

Sorry for the lengthy message, were just desperate.

All the best,
Katie

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Katie,

It sounds as though your little man is struggling a bit at the moment, and I understand how helpless this can make you feel as a parent. Kids will always have times where it feels as though they’re moving a little off track – it’s all part of their learning and experimenting with the world and their relationships. As a parent, you have a lot of power to steer him in a better direction. Kids do great things when they are given the right information. I can see how open you are to this so you have enormous capacity to do this and to make a difference.

Here are a few articles, just in case you haven’t read them yet. This one explains where anxiety comes from http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Having this knowledge can be really empowering, though you may need to have quite a few little conversations, rather than one big one, so the information doesn’t overload him.

This one explains where anger comes from http://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/ and again, can be really empowering. It also talks about ways to manage it. And here is one about building emotional intelligence generally http://www.heysigmund.com/social-emotional-intelligence/.

Don’t blame yourself for anything you’ve done. As parents, we do the best we can with what we have – sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. (I’ve done plenty of things that have haven’t worked!) The good thing is that even when what we do doesn’t work, we can turn it around. It’s really normal to want to talk them out of what they’re feeling or push against them – it’s so normal! – but something that might work better is receiving his feelings and naming what he’s feeling. He needs to know that you understand what he’s feeling. Even though you do understand, the important part is that he really feels this too. He also needs a hand to put his feelings into words. At 7 he won’t have all of the words himself yet. When he is overwhelmed with emotion, there’s a disconnect from the part of his brain that is rational and logical and able to make sense of what he’s feeling, and instead he acts purely from the primal, instinctive, automatic part. When you name what you see in him (‘I can see that you are really worried about going to school. I understand that. It’s hard when you have to do something you don’t want to do isn’t it.’ I really get that.’) it gives him the words to make sense of what he’s feeling and slowly brings back the logical, rational part of his brain so he can make more sense of his behaviour and find calm. Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen straight away. Good things take time. The main thing to know is that you’re strengthening his capacity to respond in a healthier way every time you do this.

One final thought, and I appreciate that you’ve probably already explored this, but did anything happen on camp? Sometimes kids hear things or experience things that can leave them feeling hurt but they don’t really know why. He might not have the words to articulate, he might be feeling a little bit of shame around it, it might have come from him comparing himself to others, or it may have been something that, on the face of it seemed okay, but just made him feel bad. It might not even be anything that was done maliciously. Sometimes it’s not always obvious to them (or us) why they feel like they do. Even though he might not be with those kids at school, being in a group of kids can trigger the same feelings that he had on camp. If this is the case, and he’s being triggered by the similarities, point out how school is different to camp. Also, acknowledging his feelings and letting him know that you understand and that what he’s feeling is really normal will help him to slowly make sense of things. I wish you and your little man all the very best.

Reply
Katie

Thank you so much for your quick response. I really appreciate all points and an anxious to implement.

As for camp, I think something did happen, although I don’t know exactly what (something like not getting passed the ball, being the worst one, and bullies). He’s a major perfectionist so not being good at things makes him instantly shut down and never want to try again.

I’m just worried about how this affects life – we’re never going to be good unless we try and then practice a lot, but I can’t even get him to the “trying” part.

He definitely compares, and part of the root of this is that one of his best friends (also who he used to attend private/home school with) happens to be a VERY bright girl (reading at a 5th grade level at 7) she’s very gifted and as much as he loves her, I think she’s become the benchmark of normal (she also attended bball camp with him). We felt her influence wasn’t good for his confidence or socializing, which was part of why we switched to public school.

He also thought he was going into 2nd grade, but as an August 26 baby, we decided to keep him back and start in 1st grade, another blow to his extremely fragile ego.

All this to say, much of this could have been avoided had I known, but now it’s all in retrospect. I just want to move forward and help him move on.

He is terrified of being embarrassed, that is his most verbalized phobia right now, 2nd to failing.

????

What do we do.

All this to say

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Rachel

I’ve just come across your site and I wish I’d found it earlier! I have a 5yo adopted son who had a pretty traumatic early life. He has a lot of problems with anxiety, some of which I can pinpoint the cause for, but he seems to add to his list of unacceptable things as he gets older – water, dogs, birds, crowds, new people/places, being questioned, going ‘too fast’ in the car. Whenever we go somewhere, he takes 10-15 minutes to ‘warm up’, even if it’s somewhere really familiar like his best friend’s house. If someone speaks to him during this time he hides, buries his face in my clothes etc. I had just been thinking it might be time to look into some therapy as his anxiety seems to be getting worse – I think I had hoped he would somehow grow out of it, but I don’t see that happening! But now I’m going to try the suggestions here first. Even if we do end up seeking therapy for him, I can see that these ideas will help us now, and give us something to build on. Thank you.

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Shelly

Thank you for the tips…I have a 5 year old son who seems to have emotional outbursts when not allowed to do what he wants…I know that sounds like most kids but it is different…He is extremely defiant and verbal…He tells me his is very angry in the moment…This has put a huge strain on our family and I want to help our son be in control of his emotions…He doesn’t seem to an anxiety in new situations-it is almost like he knows he will get a reaction out of me so if he fusses enough then he thinks I will cave and let him do what he wants…any suggestions?

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Hey Sigmund

Shelly I completely understand how much something like this can stretch your family. First of all, you are doing the right thing by not caving in. Your little man needs to know exactly where the limits are and it’s really confusing for them if those limits keep getting moved around. It’s normal for all kids to experiment with the limits. His job is to find where he fits into the world and he will do this by establishing himself as a separate person to you. All kids will do this differently, but sometimes this will mean pushing against you big time. When he is angry, acknowledge what you see, ‘I can see you’re really angry with me right now’. At five he is still trying to find the words that fit his experience and this can be really frustrating. Using words helps to tame the emotion by giving it meaning and structure. Big emotions come from the right brain. The structure and meaning and words for that come from the left. In high emotion, there is a disconnect between the left and the right, so without the structure and meaning from the left brain, the feeling feels overwhelming and big. He may not be able to access his left brain, but you can ‘loan’ him yours by giving him the meaning and the words. ‘It’s annoying when … isn’t it.’ ‘I really understand why you’re angry. You want … and I’m saying no. That would make me angry too if someone said no to me.’ This will help him to feel heard and validated.

His anger is a valid feeling and it’s completely healthy and normal to feel this. What isn’t okay is what he is doing with it. Validate the feeling, redirect the behaviour. When he is calm, talk about what has happened. Don’t try to reason with him in the midst of an angry outburst. The part of the brain that is receptive to logic and reasoning is ‘offline’. When he is angry, he is being driven by instinct and impulse and that is what you need to respond to. Let the consequences be not for his anger, but for his disrespect, but make sure the consequences aren’t shaming. Discuss this when he is calm. Perhaps the consequence can be something like helping you with dinner instead of play time or tv or whatever else he would ordinarily do then. This is a consequence that makes sense because the problem with an angry outburst is that it hurts people and causes disconnect. Take the opportunity to nurture his empathy. ‘What do you think it is like for me when you yell?’ The idea is to try to support him in thinking about this from another point of view. Empathy can be difficult to learn, but such so important. The more you can nurture that, the better he will be for it. H

Here is an article about anger and kids and teaching them to be the boss of their brain – http://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/
And here is one about what to do when anxiety looks like aggression. The strategies here will be useful even if it’s not anxiety – http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/

Reply
Denise

I’m so glad you brought light to this topic! Many people still don’t realize children can suffer from anxiety. I knew something was “different” about me by the age of 6. Even not knowing I had anxiety my mom did a few of these things. But, these tips are definetly valuable for any parent of a child with anxiety.
I’m not a parent yet but, I know there’s a possibility I could have a child with anxiety. I wi keeping these tips in mind.

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