We tend to think of anxiety as something that primarily strikes stressed out adults. But the fact is, many kids deal with anxiety on a daily basis. The latest statistics from the CDC show that as many as 1 in 7 kids have a diagnosed mental health issue, with 3% battling anxiety.
And remember, those are only the kids who have been formally diagnosed. My guess is that the number of kids facing anxiety on a daily basis is much higher than that.
As a mom who has dealt with anxiety since childhood, I think it’s fantastic that these issues are getting more attention in the media. One of the worst things anxiety sufferers deal with is shame over their feelings. And bottled up anxiety is only apt to explode. It’s important that anxiety sufferers get attention, proper treatment, and love. Especially children.
It can be so hard to see your child suffer with anxiety—whether it’s a one-time instance, or something they battle on an ongoing basis. Of course, if your child’s anxiety is becoming a daily thing, it’s time to seek counseling or treatment for them. But whatever the case, we will all deal with a stressed out or anxious child at one time or another, and it’s good to have some tools at our disposal to help our kids through those stormy times.
Recently, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I came across a meme that addressed these very issues. It’s basically a “cheat sheet” of words and phrases you can say to calm an anxious child. I bookmarked it because I thought it was genius. And I wasn’t the only one. The meme, created by blogger Dayna Abraham at Lemon Lime Adventures, and shared by the Gottman Institute, has gone totally viral, with over 8,000 shares—and counting.
Check it out here:
Totally brilliant, right? The meme is based on a post on the Lemon Lime Adventures blog with family therapist and parenting coach Nicole Schwarz, who gives a detailed explanation for how to use each of the phrases listed on the meme, explaining that anxiety looks different for each child, so it’s best to take what you need here, and leave behind what doesn’t work for you.
“Not every one of these strategies will work for your kids,” says Schwarz. “You are the expert on your child. If you try something and it makes their worries worse, don’t panic. Just pick something else from the list to try next time. Eventually, you will find a few phrases that are effective for sending a calm, encouraging and empowering message to your child.”
The crux of the idea with these phrases, though, is that when your child is anxious, you don’t want to feed too deeply into the anxiety, but you also don’t want to pretend that the anxiety doesn’t exist. You want to find a middle ground, where you can be empathetic, allow your child to honor their feelings, but also help them learn that their anxiety is not something that needs to define them.
Natasha Daniels, child therapist and creator of the website Anxious Toddlers, tells Scary Mommy that helping your child overcome anxiety is “like walking a tight rope.” On the one hand, you don’t want to enable the anxiety, but you also don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist.
“If we swoop in to fix everything that makes our child anxious, they will never learn how to lean into anxiety and come out the other side,” Daniels. “If we shut them down, discount their fears or get angry — we might create an environment where our children no longer want to tell us their fears.”
For children, who can’t always put their feelings into words in the same way that grown-ups can, asking them to describe their feelings in simpler terms (like “How big is your worry”), asking them to draw the worry, or allowing them to come up with some other abstract way to describe it can be therapeutic.
“I am a big fan of externalizing anxiety by giving it a funny name,” says Daniels. “This helps with the responses you can give your child.”
She suggests having your child give their worry a name — like “Worry Cloud” or “Mr. Bossy” — and then having a conversation about the anxiety through that lens.
You might ask things like: “How is your Worry Cloud bothering you?” or “Mr. Bossy is making you scared. Let’s see if we can boss Mr. Bossy back and do it anyway?” explains Daniels.
Carla Naumburg, PhD, clinical social worker, mother of two young daughters, and author of the upcoming book How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids, has even more strategies to help your child manage their anxiety. Naumburg tells Scary Mommy that one of the top strategies she uses to calm her own kids is to employ the “This too shall pass” concept.
“You’re not going to feel this way forever,” Naumburg tells her kids. “This feeling will pass; what shall we do until it does? We could snuggle, or we could play a game, read a book, or play outside. Let’s make a plan to do something for about 15 minutes, and then we’ll check in to see how you’re feeling at that point.”
Naumburg explains that she then will do that activity with her kids, check back in, and if the anxiety hasn’t passed yet, another plan will be made. “Usually within 15-30 minutes, it has eased up,” she says.
Additionally, Naumburg has some other awesome tips in her toolkit. She likes to help her children visualize the anxiety in their bodies, and teaches them to breathe it out, shake it out, jump it out, etc. She also reminds her kids that anxiety can often feel “bigger” at night when our bodies are tired.
“If my daughter is too anxious to fall asleep, even when I stay with her, I’ll tell her that she doesn’t have to fall asleep, she can just rest, and that resting is almost as good as falling asleep,” says Naumburg.
All of these strategies are so helpful, right? And while not every phrase or method will work for you and your kid, it’s just good to have some options. As parents, we have the power to be our kids’ safe place—their anchor. We can’t always do it perfectly or on our own (again, if your child’s anxiety is debilitating in any way, therapy may be the answer for them).
But showing up for our kids, accepting them, teaching them that their feelings are valid, and assuring them that the difficult feeling will pass, are huge steps in the right direction.