It’s not easy being a kid, especially in this day and age. From cyber bullying to global pandemics, keeping your cool has never been more challenging.
Currently, 1 in 10 kids and adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder and they are the most common mental health problem children face.
The truth is that life is stressful and the sooner we learn healthy coping skills which teach us how to deal with its ups and downs, the better. It’s imperative that we not only help our kids identify and express their feelings, but also learn how to manage them. When we teach them coping strategies, they will be better equipped to handle stress and difficult situations.
The good news is that there are lots of different coping strategies they can learn, and many of them are “portable,” so they can be used any time, anywhere. Even better, practicing them regularly can help prevent stress in the first place.
What does anxiety look like?
There’s no shortage of stressful situations for our children to deal with, whether they’re struggling with worries about Coronavirus, separation anxiety, peer pressure, changing schools, or getting good grades.
Kids can often feel anxious when they face new situations and experiences. This is absolutely normal. However, they may need extra help if they’re more anxious than children who are similar in age, their anxiety makes it difficult to participate in social activities or events at school, or their worries seem disproportionate to the issues they’re facing.
Anxiety in kids appears in many different ways and it’s important to be alert so you can identify it and help your child.
There are many different signs of anxiety. They include:
- Nail biting
- Having trouble sleeping or waking up a lot during the night
- Having trouble concentrating
- Fidgeting a lot
- Not eating well
- Crying often
- Being especially clingy
- Quick breathing
- Dizziness or shaking
- Complaining about not feeling well or having tummy aches
We don’t want our children to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. Examples include unhealthy eating, self harm, aggression, social withdrawal and substance abuse. We also want to discourage avoidance coping, where kids avoid stress rather than dealing with it in a positive way.
We also don’t want to remove their stressors. Ultimately, the goal is to teach them how to tolerate their anxiety and function under stress. With time, that anxiety will decline.
Anxiety vs anxiety disorder
It’s important to distinguish between normal anxiety and anxiety disorder as they are very different. The former refers to when a problem either appears unexpectedly or becomes overwhelming and unmanageable.
The latter is a mental health issue. For someone who has an anxiety disorder, their stressful thoughts are often more intense and last longer. The persistent worrying they suffer keeps them from living a normal life.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to look at coping strategies for kids with general anxiety. If you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder, speak to your pediatrician.
Coping strategies for kids
So your child is anxious about something going on in their life or the world right now. There are plenty of ways you can help him or her. Keep reading for 10 strategies to help kids deal with difficult times.
1. Use a weighted blanket
Our favorite strategy is to use a weighted blanket, which is heavier than an average blanket and available in a variety of sizes. The idea with these blankets is to offer a feeling similar to deep pressure stimulation, which can help reduce anxiety, giving them the sensation of being hugged or held. They give proprioceptive input and tactile input, which helps calm and relax the user.
Moreover, the weight from the blanket can help increase the production of serotonin and melatonin, helping your child not only fall asleep faster, but also stay asleep longer.
2. Stay active
Physical activity is another healthy coping strategy and a wonderful way to boost your mood. Take your kids on a walk, a run or a bike ride. Let them play outside with friends or take them to the park. Exercise will help them get rid of excess energy they have if they’re nervous and it helps the body release endorphins. For a longer-term perspective, studies show that regular exercise can actually shield kids from stress.
3. Listen to music
There are several ways that music can help kids improve their outlook.
For some, listening to calming music can help them relax. Even better, music that kids find is familiar, predictable and used routinely can help them feel calmer more quickly. Consider creating a playlist of songs for your child that he or she can listen to on their own.
Making music is another great strategy. If you child plays an instrument, have them practice as it can be very cathartic. Otherwise, sing! When you sing your body may release endorphins and trigger oxytocin production, which helps alleviate stress.
Lastly, dancing to music can improve your child’s outlook. It’s fun and freeing and can help change your state of mind, so organize an impromptu dance party to lift the mood.
4. Practice breathing exercises
If your child is feeling stressed, exercises to slow down their breathing should help them reduce their anxiety. The idea is to get more oxygen back to their brain, which should return their sense of calm and control.
Deep breathing actually has many benefits beyond reducing anxiety. It also promotes happiness, improves concentration, reduces tension and lowers the heart rate.
This is an excellent emotion-focused coping skill and there are many different breathing exercises you can practice with your kids; the general idea is to practice breathing in a deep belly breathe slowly and then exhaling slowly.
Janine Halloran, a well-known licensed mental health counselor who has more than 15 years of experience working with kids with anxiety, has a great video with deep breathing exercises using shapes.
5. Practice progressive muscle relaxation
This is one of our favorite coping skills for anxiety because, once your child feels physically relaxed, it’s very difficult to feel anxious. In this exercise, you’ll have your son or daughter tense up one group of muscles at a time as they breath in, and then relax them when they breath out.
Have your child lie down and do this exercise with him or her. Start at the top of the head and work your way down to the toes. It will take some practice, but it’s extremely effective for calming anxiety, especially during bedtime.
6. Get creative
If your child is feeling overwhelmed by emotions, break out the watercolors, markers, stickers, or any other art supplies you have at home.
Painting, making a collage, sculpting with clay, drawing, doodling, coloring in a coloring book—these are all great activities to help manage child anxiety. If making art turns out to be an effective coping mechanism for your child, then it’s probably a good idea to stock up on supplies.
7. Create a coping skills kit
Help your anxious toddler, school-age child or teen by making a special box they can use as a resource when they’re feeling stressed. Whenever they feel like they need help, they can pick out something from their kit.
What can you put in this special box? All kinds of tools: a weighted blanket, a bottle of bubbles, fidget toys, a stuffed animal, essential oil spray, Play-Doh, yoga cards, a blank notebook and some markers, a jump rope, activity books with mazes and word searches, bubble wrap, or an eye mask. There’s no shortage of items you can use to help your kids when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
8. Speak positively
Oftentimes, kids that suffer from anxiety engage in negative self-talk. They have a lot of negative thoughts, they have a lot of “what if” worries, and they spend a lot of time thinking about the worst case scenario. The goal is to help them change those negative thoughts for positive ones. This is a skill that improves with practice.
You might have your son or daughter come up with a positive affirmation to say while looking in the mirror, or he or she could make a bead necklace and assign an affirmation to each bead.
9. Practice visualization
Just about everyone has a “happy place,” even your kids. Whether it’s the park, the beach, or the ice cream parlor, let your child pick his or her favorite memory or location, close their eyes, and imagine they’re there. Have them describe the place, the smell, and the feeling. Pretend that you’re there with them. Talk about it. Taste it. Describe it.
10. See a doctor
If your child has persistent anxiety and nothing seems to help, speak to your pediatrician. Depending on their age, your doctor might recommend connecting with a therapist, taking medication, and even trying cognitive behavioral therapy.
Tips for teaching coping skills for children
Teaching your son or daughter appropriate coping skills doesn’t have to be difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
First of all, you’ll want to teach your kids multiple strategies, as there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to stress. As everyone is different, different skills work for different children.
Also, although something works today, it might not work tomorrow. For this reason, it’s extremely important to show your kids a variety of approaches so they can find one that makes them feel better in each situation.
Second, find the right moment to share strategies with your child. When they’re in the thick of it and they’re very upset, it will be hard for them to assimilate what you’re telling them. The best time to discuss coping skills is when they are calm and relaxed.
Third, kids learn by copying us, so a great way to help them understand stress management is by modeling the right behavior. They’re always watching us, so show them healthy ways to handle difficult feelings.
Lastly, try to incorporate your strategies into daily life. When these skills become a habit for them, they will be able to use them more easily and they may not even realize they’re doing it.
Teaching your child to manage stress
We can help our anxious children by teaching them a variety of calming activities. It’s up to us as parents to provide them with the emotional management tools they need to crush anxiety.
Developing coping strategies is a life skill, whether your child is anxious or not, because if we prepare them now, they’ll have a series of approaches at their fingertips that they can use to feel better when they’re having a hard time.
Raising kids with the ability to handle stress and anxiety helps them become more resilient and better equipped to handle the challenges that will inevitably come their way.