Lessons from Stephanie’s clinical practice
In today’s modern life, anxiety in children and teens is escalating, now affecting upwards of 20% of children and adolescents over the lifespan. Our child/youth specialist, Stephanie Slater, illustrates three highly effective techniques that parents can use to help their children not only overcome anxiety, but prevent it. When these practices are implemented as a daily ritual, like brushing teeth, your child will be more likely to develop healthy coping strategies for managing their anxiety going forward.
Just like adults, children are going to have intense, bodily responses to anxiety. Because it’s impossible to be physically calm and anxious at same time, it’s important to teach children how to calm their bodies from a young age. One of the quickest ways to calm the body is to practice belly breathing. Get your child to pretend they are filling a balloon in their belly: inhale slowly and inflate the belly like a balloon, hold the balloon full for one second, and then exhale slowly deflating the balloon. In just 3-5 breaths, your child will begin to calm down.
It’s important for the child to get used to this feeling of calm, and visit it often. Practice belly breathing with your child regularly throughout the day and before bed. If they can practice belly breathing for 30 seconds to a minute before bed, your child will begin to learn that this state of calm is within them and accessible at any time.
Help your child develop mind-body awareness using the following activity. First, acknowledge and validate the feelings your child is reporting or exhibiting. Next, help them draw a connection between what’s happening in their bodies and the feelings of being “scared” or “anxious.” Find a picture of a body (or an outline of a body) on the internet, sit down with your child, and map out exactly what is happening inside their body when they feel anxious. Get them to point to the different parts of the image (or their own body) and speak to what is going on for them when they feel anxious. This practice helps your child develop self-awareness, and helps normalize the feelings and sensations that come along with anxiety.
3) Brainstorm and Externalize
We can often be baffled, along with our children, as to what is really bothering them. Don’t be afraid to sit down with your child and collaboratively brainstorm what might be triggering anxiety: Are they worried about going to grandma’s house, where there’s a dog, and they are afraid of dogs? Are they anxious about going to school because there’s a mean kid there they haven’t told you about?
Once you’ve discovered some of the factors in your child’s anxiety, you can externalize the anxiety using the beauty of children’s imaginations! Perhaps your child thinks of anxiety as a worry monster. If you have a teenager, they may describe it as a cloud. Pay attention to whatever metaphor or image your child gravitates to, and use that image to externalize anxiety as a certain character or entity. Ask them what it looks like, what is says, what tricks is plays on them, and what super powers they have that might help them resist the worry monster. Externalizing anxiety allows children to realize that it’s “not them” that’s the problem. This recovers a sense of agency and empowerment.
We hope these techniques serve your children well. If you want more support in the process of helping your child or teenager cope with anxiety or fear, feel free to contact Stephanie Slater, MA, CCC, or any of the other therapists at Kerry Moller & Associates, and we would be happy to help you. Helping your child learn these practices while they are young can set them up for a lifetime of being able effectively manage their anxiety and fear, so that it doesn’t negatively impact them!
photo: Kristin Horsman