There is nothing worse than seeing your child experience anxiety and feeling powerless when trying to help them.
Over the years, many families have come to me wanting help with an anxious child, so I want to share with you my 4 step plan so that you can put this plan into action at home and start helping your child immediately.
This is my own system based on psychological techniques, but it’s also based on my personal experience working with kids and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I know that parents (and their kids) want a technique that works right away – and I’m not going to lie – this system will take some time to completely work, but you will see some relief right away.
Did I Make My Kid Anxious?
Let’s be clear: you did NOT make your child anxious.
Some kids are born predisposed to anxiety. Do you or someone else in your family struggle with anxiety? If so, this just means that your child was born a little more anxious that other kids their age. This definitely doesn’t mean that your child’s future is doomed – it just means they need to learn to manage their anxiety (because they will probably struggle with anxiety as adults too).
There are also other reasons why some kids are anxious. Some kids experienced a traumatic situation in the past such as abuse, severe illness, a scary event, etc. Ever heard of wartime soldiers getting PTSD? Well kids can experience full-blown PTSD or some of the symptoms of PTSD if they were exposed to a traumatic event too. Kids, just like our brave soldiers, need help processing and getting through the emotions regarding this event.
No matter the reason why your child might be experiencing anxiety, the good news is that there are some strategies that you can use to teach your child (whether they are young kids or teenagers) to manage their anxiety and not let their emotions rule their lives.
Some Anxiety Is Normal
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. I’ve never met a person who didn’t get anxious about an upcoming test. It’s well known that public speaking is the #1 anxiety-producing trigger for adults. Both kids and adults can also experience mild anxiety due to an environmental trigger, but then this anxiety usually goes away once the event concludes.
In the situations mentioned above (and others like it), anxiety is usually helpful in pushing us to perform at our best. Think about it. If we weren’t worried about performing well on a test or when giving a speech, would we really take the time to study or prepare? Probably not.
So if there’s is a “good” level of anxiety, when is anxiety “bad”? Anxiety stops being useful when it starts interfering with your child’s ability to enjoy life. When they stop engaging in fun activities in order to worry about an upcoming test, that’s bad. When they become too afraid to try new things because they are too worried about “messing up,’ that’s checking out of life.
So now that you know that there’s a fine line between “good” anxiety and “bad” anxiety, let’s get down to business and learn how to help our kids manage their anxiety in a positive way so that they are still engaging with and enjoying life.
Teach Your Child To Rate Their Anxiety
Most young kids don’t like feeling “bad.” Some kids don’t even know how to label the “bad” emotion – all they know is that they don’t like feeling that way and they’ll do anything to feel better. In addition, a lot of kids feel like they were feeling “good” one minute and then “bad” the next instant.
This is why my first step in working with anxious kids is teach teach them to practice slowing down and rating their anxiety from time to time throughout the day. I want kids to realize that they don’t just go from “good” to “bad” instantly – usually they go from good to bad gradually.
I also teach kids to rate their anxiety for 2 other important reasons: 1) different interventions work best at different stages in anxiety and 2) it’s best for the child to handle their anxiety when it’s at a lower level than when it is out of control.
Confused? Let me explain.
Look at this thermometer. It shows that 0-3 is normal anxiety, 4-5 is uncomfortable anxiety, 6-8 is unbearable anxiety, and 9-10 is out-of-control anxiety. If we can teach the child to reduce their anxiety when they are in the 4-5 stage, then they will never hit the more severe stages of anxiety.
It’s important to note that when kids (or adults) get to the 9-10 stage, they experience severe emotional and/or behavioral dyscontrol. This is when the rational brain turns off and all the child wants to do is reduce their “bad” feeling in any way possible. It’s during this stage that kids experience suicidality, self-harming behaviors, severe aggression, numbing the pain with drugs or alcohol, etc.
We don’t want your child – or any child – to get to the 9-10 stage, so handling anxiety before it gets to this extreme stage is ideal.
So how is this done? Let me explain my 4 step system.
The 4 Steps To Reducing Anxiety
Here is the exact system that I use with all of my private clients. It’s important to note, that I use this same system for other worrisome behaviors such as aggression, self-harm, depression, etc.
Step 1: Create a Plan
I give my private clients a handout of this thermometer and tell that that we are going to create a plan to manage their anxiety together. I explain to them that there is a small amount of anxiety that is normal and how this normal amount of anxiety is sometimes helpful (see previous section).
Step 2: Brainstorm Distraction Coping Skills
I explain that we want to address their anxiety when it starts to feel uncomfortable. Have the child describe to you how their anxiety feels at this stage. Have them tell you where they experience it in their body and what they feel like. We want them to understand how their body is giving them cues that it’s starting to not feel ok (kids oftentimes ignore these cues, and don’t understand that they are starting to feel the early stages of anxiety which is why it seems to them like they go from 0-10 with their anxiety so easily).
It is in this stage that we create specific coping skills for them to use that are designed to reduce their anxiety back down to the normal 0-3 stage. I have found that distraction coping skills work best in this stage.
Distraction coping skills are any kind of activity that the child can engage in that 1) takes their mind off of their anxiety and 2) leaves them feeling better that they felt before starting the activity.
Typical activities that work in this stage are: reading, writing, drawing, listening to music (but not angry Scream-O music), watching funny tv or Youtube videos, playing video games (yes, this can be a good activity if done in moderation – remember do what works for YOUR child), painting, playing with the dog, going on a walk, skateboarding, exercising, and any other hobby or pleasurable activity that you can think of.
Step 3: Encourage Social Seeking
If for some reason the child did not do any of the skills in Stage 2, or those skills didn’t work, and their anxiety has now reached the 6-8 stage, it’s best to use Social Seeking Skills. Explain to your child that it’s really important at this stage to seek out people to talk to. They DON’T have to tell these people that they are feeling anxious (a common concern from the kids I work with) but the fact that being around people and talking about ANYTHING usually reduces our anxiety.
Help your child identify at least 3-4 people (both family members and friends) that they can seek out and talk to. Encourage them to just be with these people and practice not thinking about the past or the future, but to just have fun in the moment. Tell your child it’s ok to laugh and be silly or goofy with these people even if they don’t feel like it, because more than likely, they’ll start to feel better after being around other people.
Step 4: Identify A Safety Person
Now if your child’s anxiety has reached this stage, this is pretty serious. It’s at this stage their their rational brains are not working and they might attempt to do something that they might regret later. Teach them that at this stage, they need to reach out to a safety person – no matter what! Identify a family safety person and a school safety person. Make sure they are comfortable with this person and that the person will not be mad or disappointed if the child comes to them at a 9 or 10 anxiety.
The job of this safety person is to assess whether or not the child’s anxiety is so serious that they should take the child to the hospital for evaluation or to just be with the child and assist them in reducing their anxiety.If you feel like the child just needs help in reducing their anxiety in the moment, try to do a distraction activity with the child – this usually helps.
Hopefully once you have read this plan of attack for your child’s anxiety, you feel less helpless and more empowered to help your child.
I’ve created a printable thermometer for you so you can immediately do this activity with your child. Click HERE to get the PDF download and make a plan with your child today.
I also suggest revising the plan from time to time and adding skills to the plan as you and your child discover which skills and activities work best and which ones don’t. It really is ok if some things DON’T work for your child and others do. Remember – do what works for YOUR child.
Finally, I would like to know what activities or skills work for your child so that I can suggest those to other kids too. You can tell me about them in the comment section below or give me a quick update on the Facebook page – I would really appreciate it.
Remember to download the PDF worksheet that accompanies this article.