3 strategies to help your anxious child or teen

October 19, 2018 | by Laura Koehler, Psy.D.

Kids and teens can be anxious about a variety of things. They may feel anxious in a social setting or when separated from a parent. Some kids have general anxiety about grades, family issues, relationships with friends, and so on. This past year, COVID-19 pandemic has been anxiety-producing for children, teens and adults.

Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and it’s often short-lived. But for 1 in 8 children, it’s something more. A child with an anxiety disorder experiences persistent fear, nervousness, shyness, or avoidance of places and activities. Some suffer from panic attacks. Oftentimes, reassurance and comfort aren’t enough to help your child get past his or her fears and worries.

If you have an anxious child, the first thing to do is to speak to your child’s pediatrician or primary care doctor. An anxiety disorder is a common, treatable medical condition. Your doctor may recommend a mental health professional to help.

In the meantime, here are three strategies parents can use when anxiety arises at home:

  1. Change the focus. Use distraction techniques to help your child move his or her attention from upsetting emotions to something more pleasant. Encourage your child to:

    • Get involved in an activity (e.g., exercise, games, sports, dance, jumping jacks, bike riding, jump rope, walking the dog, yoga, swimming, music lessons, theater)
    • Volunteer (e.g., donate to a food pantry, participate in a fundraising walk, clean up litter in the community)
    • Make a gift for someone
    • Cook or bake
    • Read a book, write his/her worries in a journal
    • Do something creative (e.g., painting, coloring, pottery)
    • Play a game (e.g., puzzle, crosswords, hidden pictures, word searches)
    • Use silly putty or fidget toys
    • Listen to music or watch a funny movie

  2. Practice relaxation techniques. Kids need to learn how to regulate their responses (both emotional and physical) when they go into fight-or-flight mode. Create a relaxation center somewhere in your home and practice these relaxation techniques when your child is calm so he/she can draw on them when in an anxious state:

    • Take a few slow, deep breaths (do it with your child)
    • Imagine being somewhere relaxing: in nature, a happy memory, favorite vacation spot, etc.
    • Practice yoga

  3. Use the five senses. Self-soothing allows children to manage their own emotions by focusing on sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures that encourage calmness. This helps distract from anxious thoughts. Here are some ways to incorporate all five senses:
  1. Vision. Look at a candle flame, flowers, food, art, pictures of family/friends/pets, YouTube videos, dance performances, television, movies, or nature.

  2. Hearing. Listen to soothing music, sounds of nature (e.g., waves, birds, rainfall, leaves rustling), sing favorite songs, play a musical instrument, or enjoy audio books.

  3. Smell. Smell a favorite perfume or cologne, lotion, scented candles, home fragrances, wax melts or potpourri. Bake cookies/bread/cupcakes, cook a favorite meal, or mindfully walk in nature.

  4. Taste. Enjoy the tastes of a favorite meal, soothing drinks (e.g., herbal tea, hot cocoa, chocolate milk), dessert, mints, gum, water, or chocolate. Remember to eat and/or drink mindfully.

  5. Touch. Try tactile sensations like taking a bubble bath or cold shower, petting a dog/cat, wearing fresh clothes from the dryer, getting a massage, soaking feet, putting on lotion, placing a cold compress on the forehead or back of neck, touching soft material, brushing hair, hugging family members or friends, or using a fidget toy, stress ball or soft stuffed animal.

Each child is different and what works well for one child might not work for another. A mental health professional can work with you and your child to find ways to manage anxiety.

Need help for an anxious child? The Linden Oaks mental health professionals provide expert care for adolescents with school refusal or avoidance issues, generalized anxiety disorders, panic disorders, social and specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Related blogs: 

7 ways to make friends with your worries

What does having OCD really mean?


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