As a child and family therapist, the concern I hear most often is, “I think my child may have anxiety, and I’m not sure how to help.” Quite honestly, I don’t need to travel as far as my office to see the various ways anxiety affects children in today’s world. As a mom of three, I see firsthand how the world we live in today incites excessive stress in our kids.
Our children are encompassed in a culture of fear: fear of health and safety, fear of not being the best, fear of not fitting in, fear of failing a test, fear of not making the team, and the list goes on and on. With one in eight children experiencing anxiety (and many more feeling stressed), it would be difficult to deny that our children are facing an inordinate amount of pressure in their daily lives. Luckily, there are some straightforward, research-based, effective strategies that you can practice with your kids in order to instantly start lowering their anxiety.
- Be a media monitor
Evidence shows that exposure to news programming and fictional media such as video games, movies, and TV shows can cause children to experience fear and anxiety. When children are exposed to violent or aggressive content, their brains process it in the same way as if it were actually happening to them. This means stress hormones are triggered, and the amygdala goes into overdrive, creating an anxious response in the brain. Additionally, if children are exposed to adult content that their maturing brain can’t yet process, it will leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious. With the barrage of media sources out there today, resources such as Common Sense Media are invaluable for assisting parents in setting these essential boundaries.
- Harness the power of helpful thoughts
Positive thinking has become a cliché, but I assure you, it is a powerhouse in terms of lowering anxiety. The thoughts your children have in any given scenario will shape their feelings and behavior. You, as a parent, have the ability to pay attention to your children’s language and alert them to negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety. Good indicators of negative thinking are the use of exaggerations, extremes (I always, I never…) or speculative statements such as “What if…” or “I might…” Assist them in challenging the thoughts that are not based in fact or reason, and collaborate with them to come up with more reasonable and self-affirming statements.
- Become breathing buddies
Odds are, you will be present with your child in a moment during the day where either of you may be feeling stressed. This is a great opportunity to experience the massive power of a few good quality breaths. Sit up straight, draw your breath into your abdomen and count to four during each exhale and inhale. There is no faster way to calm an anxious physiology (lower stress hormones, lower blood pressure and increase oxygenation to the front brain promoting problem solving) than taking good breaths.
- Engage in beginner mindfulness
Practicing gratitude is a practical way to begin sowing seeds of mindfulness with your child. Take a minute to share with each other three things you are feeling thankful for at that moment. When our brains are focusing on gratitude, the part of our brain responsible for maintaining anxiety is forced to shut down. You are also helping draw your child’s thoughts into the present moment as opposed to ruminating in the past or speculating about the future.
- Be a safe haven
Many kids work through tough feelings by talking. Demonstrating that you are available and present will encourage your children to share their thoughts and emotions. When they are sharing, resist the urge to criticize or lecture them. Repeat back to them what they shared and empathize with how they are feeling. Utilize the powerful listening skills of acceptance, validation and empathy, and you will demonstrate to your children that you are a supportive resource to turn to when they are feeling anxious or stressed.
Anxious boy photo available from Shutterstock