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Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

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Anxiety in Kids: The Skills to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

Anxiety is a normal response to something dangerous or stressful. It becomes a problem when it shows up at unexpected times and takes a particularly firm hold. When anxiety is in full swing, it feels awful. Awful enough that anticipation of the feeling is enough in itself to cause anxiety. Anxiety in kids can be especially confusing , not only for the ones who are feeling anxious, but also for the adults who care about them. 

We already know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage or character. It picks a target and it switches on.

When that target is a child or teen, it can be particularly distressing, causing problems with sleeping, eating and missed school from unexplained illnesses such as sick tummies or headaches. 

One of the worst things about anxiety in kids is the way it can happen without any identifiable cause. The physical feeling is familiar – that panicked feeling that comes when you miss a stair or as my daughter recently described, ‘that feeling you get when you’re almost asleep and you feel like you’re falling.’ (‘Yes, we’ve dealt with it in our home too. It’s under control now, so I can assure you this works.)

The good news is that anxiety in kids is very treatable and they are particularly responsive. I often think we don’t give them enough credit. They’re so open to possibility, and very quick to make the right connections when they’re given the right information and support. As the adult in their lives, you’re the perfect one to give it.

Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Turning it Around 

  • Don’t talk them out of it.

    As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with gentle comments in the way of, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ or ‘You’ll be fine‘.

    This comes from the purest of intentions but it runs the risk of them feeling as though there’s something wrong with them. The truth is that when anxiety has a hold of them, they can no sooner stop worrying than fly to the moon. As much as they want to believe you, their brains just won’t let them.

    What they need to hear is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to articulate – and that’s okay. Then, ask if it’s ‘like that feeling you get when you miss a stair,’ (or ‘that feeling you get when you feel like you’re falling in your sleep’). Often, this in itself is such a relief because ‘someone gets it.’

  • Normalise.

    Explain that:

    •. Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life – before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school.

    •  Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away. 

  • Explain why anxiety feels like it does.

    Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety in kids causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There’s a reason for this, and understanding the reason is key to managing the anxiety.

    Here is a child-friendly explanation. I’ve used it for a variety of ages, but nobody knows your child like you do so adjust it to suit. 

    ‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Anxiety in kids is common, and lots of adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.  

    It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. It’s job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.

    If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.

    If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all. 

    Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. It’s a doer not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe.

    If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.

    So when the amygdala senses a threat it floods your body with oxygen, adrenaline and hormones that your body can use to fuel its fight or flight. When this happens:

    ♦   Your breathing changes from normal slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Your body does this because your brain has told it to stop using up the oxygen for strong breaths and send it to the muscles to they can run or fight.

    When this happens you might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You also might feel the blood rush to your face and your face become warm.

    ♦    If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up and the carbon dioxide drops.

    This can make you feel dizzy or a bit confused.

    ♦   Your heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body.

    Your heart can feel like it’s racing and you might feel sick.

    ♦   Fuel gets sent to your arms (in case they need to fight) and your legs (in case they need to flee).

    Your arms and legs might tense up or your muscles might feel tight.

    ♦   Your body cools itself down (by sweating) so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee

    You might feel a bit sweaty.

    ♦   Your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs in case you have to fight or flee. (Don’t worry though – it won’t stay shut down for long.)

    You might feel like you have butterflies in your tummy. You might also feel sick, as though you’re going to vomit, and your mouth might feel a bit dry. 

    As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.’

  • Explain how common anxiety in kids is.

    Anxiety in kids is common. About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety – so let them know that in their class, there’s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been through it before. Maybe they’re going through it right now.

  • Give it a name.

    ‘Now that you understand that your anxiety feelings come from the ‘heroic warrior’ part of your brain, let’s give it a name.’ Let your child pick the name and ask them what they think of when they picture it. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also demystifies their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless ‘thing’ that gets in their way, it’s something contained – with a name and a look. 

  • Now get them into position.

    ‘The problem with anxiety is that [whatever their ‘heroic warrior’ is called – for the moment, let’s say, ‘Zep’] Zep is calling all the shots but we know that you’re really the boss. Zep actually thinks it’s protecting you, so what you need to do is let it know that you’ve got this and that it can relax. When you get those anxious feelings, that means Zep is taking over and getting ready to keep you safe. It doesn’t think about it at all – it just jumps in and goes for it. What you need to do is to let it know that you’re okay. 

    The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. It sounds so simple – and it is. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow and deep to quick and shallow. That type of breathing changes the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Once your breathing is under control, Zep will stop thinking he has to protect you and he’ll settle back down. Then, really quickly after that, you’ll stop feeling the way you do.’ 

  • And breathe.

    Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold your breath just for a second between breathing in and breathing out. Make sure the breath is going right down into your belly – not just into your chest. You can tell because your belly will be moving. Do this about 5 to 10 times.

    Practice before bed every day. Remember that Zep, the warrior part of your brain, has been protecting you for your entire life so it might take a little bit of practice to convince Zep to relax. But keep practicing and you’ll be really good at it in no time. You and that warrior part of your brain will be buddies – but with you in control.

    One way to practice is by putting a soft toy on your child’s belly when they lie down. If the toy is moving up and down, their breathing is perfect. 

  • Practice mindfulness.

    An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness.  MRI studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the brain, providing relief and protection from stress, anxiety and depression. See here for more information.

    Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Essentially, it’s being aware of the present moment, and there are plenty of fun ways introduce children to mindfulness.  

    Start by explaining that anxiety comes about because of worry about the future and what might happen. Sometimes these thoughts happen in the background – we don’t even know they’re there. Mindfulness helps you to have control over your brain so you can stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to. It trains your brain to stay in the here and now. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. 

    It sounds easy enough but minds quite like to wander so staying in the moment can take some practice. Here’s the how:

    1. Close your eyes and notice your breathing. How does the air feel as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating. If your mind starts to wander, come back to this.
    2. Now, what can you hear? What can you feel outside of you and inside your body? If your mind starts to wander, focus on your breathing again. 

Remember that anxiety in kids is very treatable but it might take time. Explain to your child that his or her very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there’s trouble coming, doesn’t mean there is. Keep practising and they’ll get there. 


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is a book for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brain’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations. (See here for the trailer.)

 


 

 

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836 Comments

Cindy

I have had anxiety since I was just a little girl and now my 6 year old little boy is having the same. Thank you so much for this information. It will be great to have a way to explain to my son what he is feeling, Not only does it help my son, but great ideas for myself. Thank you.

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heysigmund

I’m so pleased! You will have so much insight that will be so valuable in helping your little boy get through his own anxiety. It sounds like he’s in very good hands.

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Kathleen

My 11 year old son has seen 3 therapists over the last two years. Your article had helped him more in 48 hours than the two years in therapy. I am going to share this article with my many friends who are also watching their children struggle with anxiety. Thank you!

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome! I’m thrilled to hear how the information has helped your son. Kids are so smart and it never stops amazing me what they can do when they’re given the right information. Thank you for letting me know. It means so much to me that you and other people are sharing the information. You just never know who you’re helping when you do. Thank you!

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Margaret

This is fabulous not only for children but for adults as well. I have had anxiety for many years and I am finally at a point where I feel confident and in control. I have 2 children who also go through periods of anxiety and we have all been practicing mindfulness together and now I can add to our practices with the explanation you have given about the physical process. Thank you.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! I’m such a fan of mindfulness – it’s great to hear you’re practicing it with your girls. They’ll benefit so much from that. I’m so pleased you’ve shared your story. It’s one thing to hear that anxiety can be beaten – it’s another to hear it from someone who has actually beaten it. Thank you!

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Robyn

i’m a 36 year who has been struggling with anxiety and depression for 15 years. My son was born with many defects, heart, kidneys and thyroid. He’s 3 now and the more his personality develops, the more I can see anxiety on him. Thank you for your article, I will start explaining immediately exactly (in your words) what is happening. Reading your article gave me reassurance as well!

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m so pleased you’ve been able to find reassurance. I’ve seen quite a need for information on dealing with anxiety in much younger kids will be posting on that sometime soon. Thank you so much for making contact with me.

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Jennifer

Thank you so much for this information. My son struggles with every new situation or change and I feel this process will have a profoundly positive impact on his life. 🙂

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome! I’m so pleased that you’ve found the information. The process described in the article is so powerful. I have no doubt it will be great for him. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment.

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Sheila S

This is such a great article. I suffer from anxiety and worry so much about my kids suffering from it. What great information and insight!!!

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heysigmund

Thank you! I’m so pleased the information has helped. I want you to know that just because you have anxiety, it doesn’t mean your kids will and even if they do, it doesn’t mean that they’ll experience it the same way as you. For a start, they have the benefit of your insight from dealing with it yourself. Thank you so much for making contact.

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Angel

Hi! Thank you for your post. I have a 5.5 yr old who I THINK has major anxiety. He has some strange habits and his emotions get very intense over very small things (in my mind). I am having a really hard time dealing with it, so maybe I can try this. He is in pre-k now and I am so worried about how he will handle K in the fall.

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome. I hope the information helps. I always believe parents have remarkable intuition when it comes to their kids. If you’re worried, a counsellor will be able to shine some light on it for you. The techniques in the article will be useful anyway, whether or not he has anxiety – they’re all valuable life skills that you’ll be teaching him. Start now so he is better able to access the techniques on his own by K. The techniques might take some time to master but stay with it – it will definitely be worth it. Remember that there are counsellors who can certainly help you to know what you’re dealing with. I hope you both find some relief soon. My very best wishes to you both.

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Kelly

Thank you so much for this article, I can not wait to read it to my 10 year old son. He gets anxiety from things that have never even happened…it is more of a what if…. What if there is a tornado, what if someone breaks into the house…ect. There have been many nights where he has cried for hours not wanting to be left alone. His doctor suggested melatonin which has helped but being able to give him the knowledge of why his brain is making him feel this way will give him so much relief, and to know that he is not alone. Again, thank you!!

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome! I’m so pleased you found the article. That’s such classic anxiety – worrying about the future. It’s why the mindfulness exercises can also be helpful – it ‘trains’ your mind to stay in the present. He is certainly not alone. The response to this article has been enormous and it’s because there are so many people who are experiencing exactly what your son is experiencing. If only they all knew about each other – they’d never feel alone again! Thank you so much for making contact.

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Corinne

Thank you for this article! My 12 year old suffers from anxiety and we have tried so many things to help her. It amazes me how debilitating it can be to her and I feel so helpless when it hits. She’s a very intelligent girl- I’m hoping we can read your article together and discuss how it might help her. Thanks again!

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m so pleased you’ve found the article for her. It’s awful isn’t it when you would do anything in the world to help them but there’s nothing in the world you can do. Reassure her that she’s not alone. There are so many people struggling with anxiety. I hope she’s able to find some relief. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

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Gwen

love this! I have a son that struggles daily with anxiety in all areas of life, and we are constantly looking for ideas. Thanks for the great insight!

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Debi Powell

This article was such a blessing to me. My amazing 13 yr old daughter suffered from anxiety and had severe tummy aches and IBS was mentioned by peds GI specialist and recommended counseling. She had 8 sessions and amazing results and tummy aches stopped (breathing/imagery was taught)…… but now, a year later she started picking the skin around her nails. She has her thumbs with small lacerations from tearing skin. I know this is in response to anxiety but have no idea where its from!? She says she has no idea when she is doing it….. how can you tear your skin, and not even know it. I get a hang nail and about cry! Anyway…… your insight is so very helpful, and obviously appreciated, and needed!! Keep these words of wisdom coming!! :). Bless you!!

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heysigmund

I’m so pleased the information has helped. In relation to your daughter’s skin picking, this isn’t unusual where anxiety is concerned – it’s not necessarily common, but it’s not unusual. One of the reasons people seem do it when they are anxious is to self-soothe. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but it seems to soothe the nervous system in some way. If it becomes a problem, therapy can certainly help. Mindfulness will also be useful. I will certainly keep the posts coming. The response to this one has been overwhelming and the comments so incredibly generous and open. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

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Judith

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I have a Highly Sensitive Child who is 4.5 years old and have been struggling with how to help her cope with her anxiety in new situations. Your post has given me some really concrete direction. Thank you.

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome. I’m so please you found the post for her. I’ve seen a real need for something for younger children as well so will be posting something on that sometime soon. Thank you so much for making contact.

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Miriam Barlow

Great article! One other thing that I have found helpful with children also is to explain to them what is going on around them. If a child is being cute and people laugh, they may have a lot of anxiety, but explaining that this is a positive response to their cuteness can help. Also, if there is a confusing situation where they are sensitive to the emotions but not equipped to understand it, just explaining it simply, honestly, and straight forwardly can help.

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heysigmund

Yes! The points you make are excellent. Sometimes it can be hard enough for adults to interpret other peoples’ responses, so for kids it can be really confusing. Thank you so much for your comments. You’re spot on. They will help a lot of people.

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Tanya

Great article, but would love to see a post about anxiety in much younger children. My son is 3 and has ASD. We struggle with anxiety for much of the time. Last night I could hear him grinding his teeth in bed, from downstairs!! I have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but it’s heartbreaking when it’s your child and especially difficult when they’re so young as it’s hard for them to understand their feelings.
Any help would be gratefully received.

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heysigmund

It’s so heartbreaking when you’re watching your child struggle and you’d do anything to stop it but there’s nothing you can do. There have been so many people with smaller children with anxiety. I will be doing a post sometime soon so keep your eyes open for that. If you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, signing up to the newsletter might be a good idea. All of the posts are published on that and it gets sent out on a Friday. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know it will help other people.

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tamee

Thanks for this. I have a four year old and her dad and I got divorced last year. Recently, we have been having MAJOR meltdowns and disciplinary problems. We (her dad and our partners and I) have been chalking it up to being four but I am hoping to follow this article when you post a new article for the parents with kids my daughters age who are having discipline issues as well. She is getting a step mom this week and a little brother in two months so I think it may be anxiety about the changes. I am so glad I came across this and hope to follow when you write a new one. Good work.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! I’m so pleased you found this for your daughter. There are a lot of changes going on for her at the moment so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her behaviour was related to that. Sometimes you just have to let them process it in their own way – all with gentle guidance of course. It sounds as though you are all doing a really good job of parenting after divorce. It’s so critical and will make all the difference to the young woman she grows into. Great to have you on board!

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andrea

wow! this article opened my eyes to see what my 6 year old son is dealing with in school/home. I was doing everything wrong! I kept pretending nothing was wrong thinking he would just ignore his feelings he was having. I was worried if i talked to him about it he would be sucked into having anxiety really bad the older he got. thanks again! i’m sharing with everyone i know!

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heysigmund

I think you did the obvious thing to do in that situation so please please don’t give yourself a hard time over it. There wouldn’t be a parent alive who got it all right all of the time. I’ve had some shockers myself! What’s great about you is that as soon as you were given some new information, you straight away grabbed it and made the connections. Your son is lucky to have you. Thank you so much for sharing it around! You just never know how many people you’ll be helping. It means a lot to me. I’m so please the article was helpful for you. Thank you for letting me know.

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Claire

Thank you for writing this article. My 11 year old son suffers from anxiety and now, I know what to do to help him. He’s due to start High School in September and is already getting anxious about it, as he does about everything that is different. I will definitely use this.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! I’m so pleased it has found its way to you. There are so many changes that happen around this age aren’t there. It sounds like he’s in good hands though. I’m so sure the techniques in the article will be good for him. Thank you for for making contact.

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Clare

I was forwarded this article from a beautiful friend who is a school counsellor. I have a 7yr old with anaphylaxis, who recently had two attacks in one and a half weeks. We have been managing his anxiety response to this for the last month and see some improvement. Your article has given me more info to work with and generated discussion with my child around the physical symptoms he has been feeling. Thank you for a wonderful, child focussed article. Would be grateful for any ideas re: apps to help my child with mindfulness and relaxation..

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m so pleased it’s been able to help you. I’ve seen a great comment about the Smiling Mind App. I know the app and the website is wonderful. Here is the link http://smilingmind.com.au. I’m not sure if it’s been moderated yet but I’m working my way through. It will be up soon. Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

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Julie

Thank you for a wonderful article. Great simple ways to explain and help my beautiful 7 year old grandson. It’s so distressing to watch him miss out on some fantastic opportunities because the anxiety takes over his little life. Good times ahead!!

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heysigmund

Your’re so welcome. I’m so pleased you have found it for him. Definitely good times ahead! Thank you for letting me know.

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Brooke

Just to let you all know there is a great app on iTunes called Smiling mind.
It’s a mindfulness app that has age appropriate lessons on relaxation
Hope this will help some of you.
My son also suffers from it and this app has helped him self soothe and taught him that when he feeling anxious he can do techniques so that he is in control of it.

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Helen Nayler

this is a great way of explaining anxiety to kids. I have not read every reply so forgive me if this is mentioned before. My son really benefited from learning Emotional Freedom Technique. He felt able to cope better as he had something he could do to help himself. On a physiological level it slows the blood flow down to the amygdala, therefore reducing anxiety. It is yet another really helpful tool to deal with anxiety, as well as mindfulness, as you rightly say.

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heysigmund

Thank you for sharing this! I know there are a lot of people reading the comments and it’s wonderful that people like you are sharing so openly. This hasn’t been mentioned yet so thank you!

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Helen Nayler

You’re welcome. Emotional Freedom Technique is easily done, it involves gently tapping on meridian pressure points releasing feelings of being stuck! Really great for letting go of fear and anxiety for my 11year old, who has been using it since he was 8years old when he was experiencing massive levels of anxiety due to being bullied! He even used to see himself tapping when he was not in a situation where he could tap and that helped too! Amazing what a difference it made, and how the shift from scared to
courageous happened! Would love for both mindfulness and EFT to be taught in schools. It would make such a difference to the pressure our kids feel, often too much too soon!

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Lori

Saw this article at the perfect time as my daughter has been increasingly having struggles with anxiety. Thank you so much! She is 15 and an overachiever despite me trying not to put pressure on her. I am going to try some of these great ideas with her, including mindfulness and breathing techniques. It also made me feel better to read all the comments and see that other young kids and teens are dealing with the same issues as it is not something you can see on the outside.

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’ve been amazed by the response to this article – it shows how many people are struggling with anxiety. I’ve also been incredibly moved by the generosity of the comments, such as yours, in sharing information about something that as you said ‘is not something you can see on the outside’. It’s so powerful because it’s so easy to feel alone when you deal with something like this. So many kids with anxiety are intelligent and over-achievers. They put so much pressure on themselves! I’m so pleased you’re sharing the information with her. I’m sure the techniques and explanation will make a difference. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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Annette

Great article and so very much needed. Very helpful at any age even the very young with age (with age appropriate language). Helps anyone to know that there is always something they can do about whatever situation they are in, and that they can master their anxieties.

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heysigmund

Thank you! You’re so right. Everyone experiences anxiety to some extent – a job interview, an exam, meeting new people – it’s a sign that we’re right up against the edge of ourselves and about to do something brave. These skills are life skills that everyone can benefit from. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.








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