How to help children with anxiety

Play therapist Lenka and I have shared many ideas about how to help children with anxiety in our children's book What if worries weren't wild / Hoe om kommer-goggas mak te maak. We have woven some wonderful ideas and exercises into the story itself. But did you know that we've also included a guidance section for parents at the back of the book?

Here are some of Lenka's helpful ideas about helping children with anxiety, taken from our book.

Anxiety – what parents need to know

All children, like adults, experience anxiety from time to time. Especially in today’s fast-paced living conditions, it has become an unavoidable part of our day to day experiences. While it can feel frightening, it is normal for children to experience anxiety when faced with new or stressful situations. Anxiety can be useful when it is channeled in such a way that it inspires action in order to resolve a problem or challenge.

However, anxiety is no longer helpful when:

  • it starts to influence a child’s daily functioning in a negative way
  • it leads to paralyzed, dis-empowered thinking

When to seek help:

If your child displays sudden changes in mood and activity - such as:

  • nervousness around bedtime
  • difficulty with meal- and/or bedtime
  • psychosomatic symptoms like stomach- or headaches, or nausea
  • not wanting to go to school
  • separation anxiety
  • or acting out

It could be worth seeking professional help for your child.

8 ways for caregivers to help children with anxiety:

1. Co-regulation

Young children experiencing anxiety can benefit immensely from parents or caregivers who help to co-regulate them. In other words, caregivers who are able to

  • reflect the feelings they see in their child
  • help their child to put words to those feelings
  • and calm their child with their tone of voice, facial expressions and body language

2. Support networks

Raise awareness in children of their support networks. Gently remind them of the people they can turn to for help when they are feeling anxious and struggling to regulate themselves. 

3. Express emotion

Help children to express their anxiety via creative activities, such as drawing the things that bother them, or making it out of play dough. This helps children to get a grip on what they are feeling, especially when they are too young to have the vocabulary to express their feelings. These kinds of activities can also help children to experience a sense of control over their anxiety. 

4. Normalize the feeling

Teach children that anxiety is a normal feeling, and that it can be protective, in that it can inspire us to find solutions to problems. Re-framing anxiety as a ‘helper’ emotion can make it much easier for children to cope with. 

5. Explain the physical sensations

Help children with the physical aspects of anxiety, as the feeling often goes hand in hand with overwhelming physical sensations, and a host of neuro-chemicals and hormones being released in the body. Explain to children that one’s body does this to protect itself from possible danger, and that deep belly-breathing will help their bodies to calm down again, and connect parts of the brain that disconnect during fight and flight reactions. Physical activity, such as stretches, progressive muscle relaxation, or gentle yoga, could also assist in the body regaining its equilibrium. 

6. Talk it through

Gently help children through an anxiety provoking challenge or situation by talking them through it, and by correcting any misconceptions they may have. Help them to ‘make plans’ and find alternative solutions, so that they experience a sense of control and mastery. 

7. Model positive coping strategies

Parents or caregivers who model positive coping strategies, such as deep breathing during stressful situations, will help children to learn and internalise these simple, yet important ways of coping. 

8. Practice mindfulness

Lastly, cultivate an atmosphere of peace, calm and mindfulness in the home, providing plenty of downtime for children. Research has indicated that mindfulness practices, such as meditation or spending quiet time in nature, can act as a powerful buffer against anxiety and stress. Include simple mindfulness exercises in your child’s daily routine to strengthen this helpful habit.

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