Empowering your Anxious Child
I work with many young children suffering from the paralyzing effects of anxiety, and I see the anguish of parents who feel scared and helpless. I can confidently say that this experience does not have to be a life sentence. With consistent effort and practice, anxiety can be controlled and managed. The earlier a child feels empowered by using the tools that are accessible to them anytime, anywhere, the less impact the anxiety will have.
One of the first things I do with a young person when I see them for the first time is ask questions about where they feel funny – is it in their tummy, or in their chest? Do they feel sick, or afraid of getting sick? Do they feel dizzy? As soon as I know where it’s happening, I reassure them that what they’re feeling is completely normal, and as scary as it is, there’s nothing wrong with them and that lots of people, all ages, big or small go through times when they feel this way. Familiarizing them with the physical feelings of anxiety, makes it less scary and more common.
I ask kids what makes them happy – is it a video game, Christmas, playing with friends? When they get talking about what they like, their nervousness naturally subsides and then I can show them how talking about good things, or thinking about happy stuff, ca can quickly causes a change in how how their body feels.
I then tell them that if a house builder was going to start building a really strong house, he would first have to make sure he had all the tools in his toolbox needed, so when it comes to making our nervous feelings better, we also need to have the right tools in our toolbox. The first tool is reminding ourselves to switch our thoughts to the things that make us happy. I have them close their eyes, and I take them through a visualization in which they picture themselves in a place they feel safe and happy, and then I go on to have them describe what it looks like, feels like, smells like etc. Going through this detailed visualization transports them emotionally and physically to a calm place, and they immediately see that they can do this anytime they need to.
Another great tool for the toolbox, is learning to do a quick shift of focus; it’s not a cure for anxiety but it’s a great way to draw attention to something other than nervousness. With this tool, I ask the kids to pick a colour, and then look around and try to find as many things that colour as they can. When they’re finished with the first colour, they can move onto another one, and keep going until they feel better. Colours are everywhere, which makes this a very accessible tool to use any time.
Positive statements (affirmations) are another very helpful tool.
When you catch your child using negative self-talk “I can’t do it” “I’m stupid” “nothing works” help them re-shape their sentence into something more positive. Instead of “I can’t do it” they could say “maybe I’ve had a hard time with this in the past, but anything is possible, and if I keep trying, things will get easier.” Teaching children to repeat statements like “I am calm”, “I am ok”, “I am safe” “I am in control” “This is normal” “lots of people feel this way sometimes” “I know how to calm myself down” Teaching them to use these kind of statements repeatedly will eventually help them feel more confident and in control. I help the children I work with create a positive statement journal or poster board that they are asked to read and look at every single day. We learn through repetition; the more we repeat things, the more they become part of our DNA.
Blowing up an imaginary balloon is another great visual. Have your child pretend to be holding a balloon in their hands – as they blow into the balloon, it gets bigger in their hands…have them keep doing this until the balloon is big and their hands are very far apart. They can also imagine that they when they were blowing into the balloon, all their nervous feelings were going inside the balloon. They can let the balloon go when they’re ready an imagine it going up and getting smaller as it gets farther away.
Kids are smarter than we give them credit for a lot of the times so even when they’re young, I begin stressing how powerful their minds are. I ask them to imagine if they were walking down a sidewalk, and kept repeating over and over and over…”don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip” What do they think would eventually happen. Nine out of ten times, they will answer by saying “I know I would trip” This little example is really important because it reminds them that what we think about most is what we end up experiencing.
If your child likes video games or super heroes, ask him how they feel when the good guy wins – they can definitely beat the bad feelings in their belly by concentrating on all the good stuff and making the good feelings bigger and stronger than the yucky ones. I ask them what their bodies look like when they’re nervous, and they often notice that their shoulders are hunched over and they are slouching or looking down, and not smiling. By reminding them of the superhero, I ask them to change their bodies when they feel down: by standing or sitting up straight, looking up, and smiling, they automatically change how they feel.
Gratitude is another great tool. When we say what we are thankful for, we are immediately brought to a calmer, happier place. It is impossible to be negative and grateful at the same time. Remind your child to go over the list of everything they are thankful for when they feel sad or scared, and over time, this will help re-wire their negative thoughts to automatically switch to more positive ones.
Remind your child that missing school is only something parents can only allow here or there, on special occasions because it is the law to make sure all children go to school to learn great things and have fun new experiences. If you allow your child to miss school too often, you will help create a negative habit that will carry on throughout their school years, and it will only get harder to get them to go as they get older. Send them to school with things that provide comfort; a favourite blanket, toy, or teddy bear that smells like a home. I give the kids I work with a special Aromatherapy roll on to carry in their backpacks; scents are powerful and work well for inducing feelings of calm. Children need to know that nothing is wrong with them, and that feeling scared is very normal; bring them to school and celebrate their win when they get home.
Children are watching and listening to you; tune into your own negative self-talk and challenge yourself to put a positive twist on challenges. Work to build your child’s confidence every day; give them opportunities to shine and talk about how good it feels to conquer difficult situations. Create a daily routine of asking your children what they did right today; this practice of positive self-reflection builds a strong foundation of self-worth and good self-esteem. Remind your children that when they learned to ride their own bike without training wheels it was really scary, but the first time they were in full control of the bike, and pedaling on their own, they felt grown up, amazing and free! It’s the same with the yucky, nervous feelings in our bellies, when we learn that we are in control and can make them go away on our own, using the tools in our toolbox, we feel powerful and free!