Having an anxious child is a challenge. I’m a pretty patient parent in general, but figuring out how to help my kid when anxiety overtakes her has sometimes tested my limits. Logic and reason, which are my go-to tools, don’t work when she’s in the throes of anxiety.
My daughter’s anxiety disorder is not one that responds well to medication, so in addition to therapy, we’ve created our own toolbox of ways to tame it. Some of them are appropriate for different ages, and of course, each child responds differently to different things. But here are some things to try to help an anxious child manage in the moment:
1. Breathe together.
It’s a classic, yes. But I’ve found that rather than just tell my daughter to breathe, it’s more effective if we breathe together. Seeing my stomach rise and fall, hearing my inhales and exhales, helps her regulate her own.
2. Tell them “You are safe.”
Anxiety can feel very scary in the moment, even when there’s no actual danger involved. Reassuring them that they are safe and secure, even though they don’t feel like it, can make the anxiety pass more quickly.
3. Don’t tell them there’s nothing to be nervous or anxious about.
Telling a child they’re safe can be helpful, but telling them they’re worrying about nothing is not. Their anxiety is real, even if there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable cause for it.
4. Encourage them to ride it out.
Anxious thoughts tend to dig their heels in when you try to fight them. It can be more effective to just let them run their course and relax as much as possible until they’re gone.
5. Say “I’m here for you.”
So many times, we struggle to find the right words to make the anxiety stop, but the truth is, there aren’t magic words to make it stop. However, we can provide a sense of security when those scary feelings arise by letting them know we’re there. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
6. Focus on calming the body, not the mind.
Trying to stop anxious thoughts is like trying to stop a freight train. Focusing on the physical symptoms can be more effective. Breathing deeply, dropping the shoulders, unclenching muscles, feeling the heart rate slow down. Calm the body, and the mind will follow more quickly than the other way around.
7. Get them to laugh.
This can be tricky because you don’t want them to feel like you’re not taking their fears seriously. But if you can get them to see something silly or funny and get them laughing, those feel-good endorphins can help them recover more quickly. It can also help their brain see the physical intensity of anxiety/worry (a negative feeling) as excitement/joy (a positive feeling), which can help them panic less when the physical symptoms of anxiety start.
8. Wiggle and jiggle.
Anxiety brings with it tons of excess energy, and it can help to get that energy doing something. While they may feel compelled to close themselves into a ball and physically withdraw, getting them to do some jumping jacks or pushups or dance around a bit can help loosen their bodies, and by extension, help anxiety loosen its grip.
9. Keep your own reactions calm and soothing.
This seems like a no-brainer when you’re not in the thick of it, but in the moment, it can be frustrating to deal with an anxiety episode. I can tell you from experience that getting worked up in any way never helps and usually makes things worse. No matter how worked-up your kid gets, be their steady hand.
10. Help them put words to their feelings.
Depending on their age, some kids need assistance verbalizing what’s going on inside them. “I can see that you’re feeling very nervous right now. I bet your heart is beating hard and your tummy probably feels like its full of butterflies. Are you having some scared thoughts?” Just knowing that someone understands how they’re feeling can be helpful.
11. Give them a long hug (with permission).
Sometimes my daughter doesn’t want to be touched when she’s anxious, but sometimes a big, long hug works wonders. Science says a hug longer than 20 seconds releases oxytocin, which helps calm the body.
12. Talk them through progressive muscle relaxation.
Again, calming the body leads to a calming of the mind. Have them start with their toes and tense up one body part at a time for a few seconds, then let them completely relax. In my experience, by the time they get all the way to their head, the anxiety is significantly reduced.
13. Strike a power stance.
“Stand like a superhero,” I tell my daughter when she’s feeling anxious about doing something. Shoulders back, head up, hands on hips — like Wonder Woman — and hold it for 20–30 seconds. I thought it sounded silly at first, but it’s surprisingly effective.
14. Focus on the senses.
It can be helpful to get kids out of their head and into their body. Have them name five things they can see, five they can smell, five they can hear or touch. This shifts their focus away from their intrusive thoughts, which helps them dissipate more quickly.
15. Explain what’s going on in their brain.
If a kid is old enough to understand, explain that their body is trying to help them stay safe when they feel anxious. Their brain is sensing danger and revving up their body to either fight or flee. That’s not bad when it’s necessary. Their brain is just confused about when it’s necessary and when it’s not.
16. Give them something to do with their hands.
Hand them a stress ball, a fidget cube — even one of those oh-so-trendy fidget spinners. If they play a musical instrument, have them finger the notes to a song they know.
17. Offer a “breathing buddy.”
Some people think aromatherapy is hogwash, but I say don’t knock it ’til you try it. Keep a small, soft stuffed animal or tiny pillow infused with calming aromatherapy oils, such as lavender or chamomile, handy and give it to your child to smell when they’re feeling anxious.
18. Ask them to visualize and describe their happy place.
Again, a classic approach. Anxiety is sometimes a byproduct of an overactive imagination, so it’s worth trying to channel that mental tool in another direction. The more detail they can come up with, the better.
19. Help them see it as an anxiety tantrum, not an attack.
Anxiety can feel like a powerful beast, but really it’s more like an overtired, irrational toddler. Rather than thinking of an episode of anxiety as an “attack,” which gives it power, think of it as a tantrum like a little kid would throw. Like a toddler, the more you try to reason with anxiety, the louder it wails. Wait until it calms down, then try talking to it.
20. Remind them that they are strong.
Anxiety can be disheartening, and kids can feel powerless during an episode. It can be reassuring to know that you see them as strong and capable, and that you are impressed with how much resilience they have.
As I said, helping a child manage anxiety is not an easy task. The more we can share our successful strategies with one another, the better. They may not all work for every kid in every instance, but at least we can keep our toolbox full and ready.