The realization dawned on me as my husband was driving (because with four kids, it seems we can only have complete conversations when we leave the house alone). I had been rattling off some of the behaviors I’d been observing in one of our sons. Behaviors that were really getting under my skin.
He was worrying. Not just normal day-to-day worrying, but taking those little worries and blowing them out of proportion, then adding a few more unrealistic worries on top of them for good measure. He was tying himself in knots over situations he couldn’t control or change, situations that would likely never come to fruition anyway.
Why was he doing this? It was totally stressing me out.
That’s when the realization came.
He was showing some of the same types of anxieties that I am prone to myself. And that’s when I also realized that THIS was why my husband was better at connecting to him in those moments than I was. He had plenty of practice dealing with ME.
He knew how to bring his own brand of calm. But for me, our son’s worries hit right in my Achille’s Heel.
Based on the fact that there’s always a surge of interest when I share resources for supporting children with anxiety, it’s safe to say I’m not the only one who needs some pointers when it comes to handling childhood anxiety.
Here are a few practices that have helped in my family, and are widely agreed on by experts:
Recent studies (like this one) show a link between time spent in nature and improvement in mood and mental health. Whether it’s the fresh air, the Vitamin D, the movement, or the scenery, getting outside as a family has benefits for everyone!
The body is meant to move. Not just for the body’s sake, but for the sake of the brain as well. Getting active floods the brain with healthy blood flow, oxygen, and happy endorphins. All this makes for a healthier, happier brain. And a healthy, happy brain is better protected against anxiety. On top of that, kids (and adults) dealing with pent up anxiety often get a sense of relief by “working them out” through movement and exercise. I know for me personally, my problems and worries often feel much more manageable after I come in from a good run. For kids, movement might just be free play. (Play outside for combined benefits!) It could be running, swimming, dancing — any big movement that your child enjoys.
Mental health relies on healthy brains. Make sure that you and your child are getting enough water, enough nutrient-dense food (particularly fatty acids and vitamin D), and are avoiding unhealthy foods high in sugar, additives, or other triggers unique to the individual. Similarly, plan ahead for meals and snacks to keep from hitting peaks and valleys with blood sugar. For some children (and adults!) emotional overload could be charted right in sync with hunger. (We refer to this in our home with the highly technical term, “hangry”.)
I’ve seen a consistent pattern in myself and in my children that worries get bigger when our hours of sleep are smaller. If you or your child struggles with anxiety, make sleep a higher priority. Adequate rest will give you both the extra capacity for making smart choices about handling big emotions.
When big worries start playing on repeat , it helps to get really honest and clear. For me, that starts with, “What’s on your mind?” What is it that they’re really worried about? Sometimes we jump to conclusions or fan the flames with our own assumptions. Just give your child a chance to articulate what’s really weighing him/her down. Maybe that’s verbally, maybe it’s with art. Whatever your child’s favorite method of communicating is, go with that.
When all those worries come spilling out, the most helpful follow-up is, “What do you know?” Worries are often composed of all the things we don’t know. The what-ifs. So I try to focus on what we DO know. If I’m asking my son what he knows about these worries, he may not come up with much more than additional spiraling worries. But then I might add, “What I know, is that you’ve done everything you could do to prepare. You’ve got this.” Or, “What I know is that if you aren’t sure what to do next, you can always ask your teacher and she will be happy to help you out.” Or even, “What I know is that even if all of these worse-case things happen, you’ll still be OK/you’ll still be loved/you’ll still be my boy.”
Know your child’s limits and help him/her learn to cope. That may mean being more aware of new routines or loud environments so that you can prepare ahead of time and give space for warming up slowly. Find out what real techniques help your child. It may be deep breaths. Maybe it’s a reassuring mantra. For some, it’s yoga and other mindfulness practices. Find a coping strategy that helps your child when those big emotions come and help him/her learn to eventually practice that independently.
Dealing with big emotions is a big job. Don’t hesitate to get more help on your team. This may be in the form of mental health professionals, supportive friends and family members, and/or in adding to your own skills as a parent. The challenges of parenting aren’t ones you are meant to solve in isolation.
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My friend, Dayna, is a National Board Certified early childhood teacher and mom of three with over 15 years of experience with children’s behaviors both in and out of the classroom.
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Ellen Cassidy says
Helpful advice. The only thing I think would improve this would be adding “disconnect from social media and electronic devices.” I believe it’s a huge source of anxiety for everyone. My kids are grown, but as a former preschool teacher, i enjoy your blog and links. Keep up the good work!
Great tip to add to the list, Ellen! I totally agree! (And thank you for your kind words! It’s wonderful to have you here!)
Just as effective for people who are older! I used some of them myself to be honest.