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Helping a Child with Stress and Anxiety

It’s easy to forget that children can suffer from stress and anxiety just as much as adults. They might not feel stress about the same things, but the big, scary feelings are no different.

Here are some general tips for helping kids deal with anxiety and stress. Remember: talk to your doctor if you feel your child is suffering from more significant stress or anxiety than is average.

Validate Feelings

It’s crucial that you always allow your child to feel his or her emotions without minimizing them. It’s common for people to say (to other adults as well as to children) things like, “Just don’t worry about it,” or, “It’s not that big of a deal—be happy,” or even, “Relax.”

However, a child’s emotions, whatever they are, should be honored. Instead of trying to brush them off or change them, help your kid name and face them. If you don’t, the child will learn to push away, bottle, or ignore emotions, and that could set him or her up for a lifetime of stress and worsening anxiety.

Alternatively, you can say something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling nervous about something,” or, “What is worrying you?” Once you identify the feeling together, you can share with your child a time when you felt the same way. This technique normalizes the big emotions and makes them seem less overwhelming and scary—more comfortable to handle.

Help Problem Solve

Once you understand what your child is feeling and why, you can work on helping him or her move through the feelings. Your end goal is not to completely remove the worry or concern but to aid your kid in feeling confident that he or she can get through it. You can emphasize that all feelings are okay and that they aren’t permanent. They will subside, and it’s okay to feel them and then let them go.

Avoid telling your child how to solve the issue they are facing. Instead, ask him or her for ideas of what to do. You can provide several options if your child isn’t able to think of any. But allow him or her to choose the one that feels best.

Role-playing can be quite helpful for kids when they are brainstorming how to deal with something. Try doing roleplaying exercises with your child, both acting out what he or she can do in a particular situation and acting out what someone else who’s involved might be doing.

General Stress-Reducing Techniques

It’s never too early to start teaching and implementing general stress relief techniques with your child. Here are some ideas:

  • Prioritize quantity and quality of sleep. A chronically sleep-deprived kid will be far less equipped to handle small daily stressors than a well-rested one. Try avoiding screens for an hour or more before bed and engaging in a bedtime routine that lasts at least thirty minutes. This can help your child learn to transition to sleep time and improve his or her sleep.
  • Teach deep breathing. Even small children can start to learn stress-relieving breathing techniques. You can have them lie on their back and imagine a leaf or feather on their nose. Have them blow to imagine the feather rising, hold it there for a count of three, then inhale, letting the feather drop, for a count of three.
  • Show your child how to use visualization. This technique can be used generally as a way to relax. Teach your child to close his or her eyes and imagine a favorite place. Over time, have your kid focus on developing that image more and more clearly, until they can pull it up quickly whenever they are troubled. Visualization can also be used for specific issues, such as anxiety about a test or performance. Teach the child to envision him or herself performing the task and succeeding. That is a way of practicing and can help the brain follow through and do it that way when the actual moment arrives.

Model Good Stress and Anxiety Management

You are your child’s best teacher, and he or she will mimic what you do. Take time for self-care, model engaging in stress-relieving practices like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, and participate in hobbies.

If you have anxiety, model working through that for your child. It’s okay to tell your kid that you’re anxious about a particular situation. Brainstorm ideas for how you can handle it and then go ahead and do it. Your child will see that it’s okay to be nervous about something, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get through it and do well.

Focus on the Journey

As much as possible, focus on the journey rather than on the end-point. For example, praise your child for studying, persevering, and working hard. Don’t focus as much on the end result of, say, getting an A. That teaches your kid that working hard and learning are the desired results, not the grade, which they may or may not achieve. It allows them to have success while encouraging skills that will propel them forward throughout life.

Point out Positives and Practice Gratitude

It’s easy for anyone who’s suffering from stress and anxiety to begin focusing on the negatives of the situation. When that happens, feeling worse and worse is the norm. Help your child focus on the positives of a situation, which can completely shift their mindset. Try having them keep a gratitude journal or say some things they’re thankful for every night during their bedtime routine.

Mindfulness is a skill that will help your child throughout life, and it’s excellent for you to keep practicing it with them.

Don’t Overreact

It’s important to stay calm yourself when dealing with a child’s big emotions. Kids take their cues from the adults around them, so if you act like something is worthy of anxiety, your child will become anxious about it. As much as possible, stay relaxed and positive in new situations to help your kid do the same.

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