The number of children experiencing anxiety has risen dramatically over the years. Data from the National Survey of Children’s Health showed that the number of children, ages 0-17, who experience anxiety increased by 27% from 2016 to 2019. The trend has continued, with 5.6 million children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 2020 alone.
As parents, when our children are hurting, we want to step in, remove whatever is bothering them, and make sure they feel better. Unfortunately, this can often worsen our children’s symptoms of anxiety and distress.
If there is real, actual danger, of course, we need to get involved, but when children are too anxious to go to school or refuse to let go of our leg at drop off, lovingly telling them they are strong enough to do it and they cannot stay home with us will help them develop their own inner strength. Bailing them out too often when they are anxious or scared will send the message that they aren’t strong or brave enough to overcome the distressing feelings on their own.
So, if bailing them out isn’t the answer, what can we do to help our kids cope with distressing feelings and situations? Here are some of my favorite tips.
Pair Validation With Confidence
Validate your child’s feelings by saying something like, “I know it feels hard to go back to school”). And then demonstrate your confidence in them by continuing, “…but I know you can handle it.” Kids need to know we understand how they are feeling and that their struggle is real, but also that we believe in them and are confident in their ability to overcome the situations and events that cause anxiety.
Teach Them Skills to Help Calm Their Bodies
Deep breathing is a superpower, both for children and adults. Deep, slow, belly breathing can calm their nervous feelings, slow their heartbeat, help them settle down, and signify to their body that they are okay. Some kid-friendly ways to introduce deep breathing include:
- Blowing bubbles. Blow as slowly as they can to see how big the bubble can get).
- Finding or making a pinwheel. See how far away they can hold it and still make it move with deep breaths.
- Pretending each finger is a birthday candle they need to blow out slowly one by one.
Encourage your child to practice deep breathing when they are calm. Just like you wouldn’t ask the kid who never shows up to basketball practice to take the winning shot, you can’t ask your child to “do that breathing thing the therapist talked about” for the first time when they are overwhelmed.
Having moments of anxiety is part of life. Teaching our children tools and strategies for calming their bodies, helping them understand that uncomfortable feelings won’t last forever, and showing them they are strong enough to handle difficult emotions, will help them face the challenges that arise now and when they become adults.