10 Game-changing Ways to Lessen Anxiety for Kids
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When my son Henry was 2, we went out for Mexican food and a server whisked by with a plate of sizzling, smoking fajitas — food to us, but the scariest thing on earth to him.
“WAAAAAAAAH!” Henry sobbed, burrowing into my shirt. We tried that restaurant again several months later, but no luck. He was still terrified of that molten main course.
Of all the tough stuff you have to navigate as a parent, one of the hardest is seeing your child afraid. Whether it’s their first panicky meltdown as you drop them at daycare, a new phobia (of the dark, dogs, fajitas, etc.), or stress over school and social pressures, anxiety is common and often shapeshifts during childhood.
Kids are, unfortunately, experiencing worry more than ever: Anxiety and depression symptoms in children doubled during the pandemic, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. The CDC reports about 7% of kids between 3 and 17 meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, which means their worry is interfering with their life.
While some worries thankfully just burn out (my son is now A-OK with flaming meats), others are more stubborn. The good — no, make that great — news is you play a key role in helping your child cope with everyday anxiety. “When we help kids learn in childhood how to push back against anxious thoughts, we’re setting them up for success over their entire lives,” Kaiser says. One way is just by listening to them vent (this shows them that tough emotions are perfectly fine to have). “It’s useful to teach kids to become more aware of their feelings,” explains Tamara Hubbard, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago area. “They’ll come to realize they don’t have to control the anxiety — they can positively use it and influence it.”
That means having plenty of conversations about the good and bad parts of their day, echoes psychiatrist Anisha Patel-Dunn, MD, chief medical officer of LifeStance Health. What’s key: “Make sure they know they’re not alone and it’s normal to experience challenging emotions.” (If you’re concerned about your child’s anxiety, it’s a good idea to check in with a school counselor or child therapist.)
Beyond that, you want to arm kids with skills and strategies that will help them feel empowered in the moment. Here, real-world ways parents and therapists do just that.
For general nighttime anxiety …
What helps us: “Blocking out worry time”
Kate Rope, a mom to two girls and author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Happy, Healthy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood, has found nighttime is always when the worries come out for her kids, and it can turn into a never-ending cycle of “what ifs.” So she begins every night with “worry time” — five minutes where her kids can dig into whatever troubled them that day. “As someone who has anxiety myself, I think why this works so well is you know you get a designated time to think about anything that’s on your mind,” says Rope. “Then, if there are concrete things that can be done to help, we write them down, which always makes you feel better.” When worry time is up, Rope finishes the bedtime routine with box breathing to settle everyone in for a restful sleep.
For fretting over bad dreams …
What helps us: “Having a comfort nightlight”
Sometimes the fear of having a nightmare is just as bad as the nightmare itself, as Alice Anderson of Depew, NY, discovered. “My son is 7 and gets worried every night that he’ll have a bad dream,” says Anderson, founder of How She Golfs. “To help ease his fears, I got him a Paw Patrol Pillow Pet Sleeptime Lite (Chase is his favorite cartoon character). He can use it as a stuffed animal or nightlight, and there are different colored stars that shine on the ceiling when you turn it on.” Now every night, the mom and son have a go-to routine, where she tucks him in then lies down next to him for a few minutes, while they both look up at the stars. “We play a game where we take turns naming a happy thought for every star we see,” she says. Not only does this ritual help him doze off more easily, she notes, but “Sometimes I even hear him continuing to tell Chase happy stories after I leave his room!”
For tension and lack of space to breathe …
What helps us: “Escaping to me-time tents”
As the dad of four kids (ages 2 to 11), Don Adams knows sibling tension is only natural. Still, he also knows everyone needs a little peace. “In large families, it’s harder for kids to find some ‘me time.’ They don’t have any real private space where they can shut the door and breathe,” he explains. So Adams got play tents for each of his kids — pop-up ones that are easy to store. “When someone wants time to themselves, they just pop their tent up and they have alone time,” says Adams, who is general manager of Regional Foundation Repair. They all follow a family rule that you can’t bother the person while they’re in their tent. “This really helps reduce tension, especially since we were all constantly together during the pandemic,” he says.
For fear of intruders …
What helps us: “Letting my daughter work the alarm”
Earlier this year, a brand-new anxiety bubbled up for the 5-year-old daughter of Thao Thai, managing editor, Cubby. “She started waking up with a fear of intruders,” Thai shares. “She’d say, ‘What happens if someone comes and cat-naps (kidnap, in kid-speak) me?’ She was clearly feeling anxiety about all the changes in her life, like going to school for the first time and being separated from us.” So the family took a practical approach, showing her how their home alarm system worked, pointing out all the entry sensors, and even purposefully tripping them so she could see how loud the alarm was. “We let her be in charge of turning the alarm on one night, too, so she could reclaim the sense of control she’d lost. Her fears were definitely eased,” Thai says. While she knows other worries will come up, her key tip is to empower kids: “Show them the safeguards you have in place. Let them take an active part in the resolution.”
For school separation anxiety …
What helps us: “Wearing a friendship bracelet”
The psychiatrist Dr. Patel-Dunn has a hack she uses to help her daughter feel less uneasy about being away from her. “When my own daughter was starting school and feeling separation anxiety and stress, she and I both wore matching hair ties on our wrists,” she says. They even put them on the same wrist (the left one). “She touches it/looks at it/plays with it when she gets sad in class,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. Often called a transitional object, the ordinary scrunchie can help bridge the gap between home and school. Her daughter can “look at it and know I’m thinking of her all the time.” There are even high-tech touch bracelets made for sending lights when you’re thinking of a loved ones. But the old-fashioned scrunchie does the trick!
For total overwhelm …
What helps us: “Nestling in under a weighted blanket”
Connecticut mom Sarah Spear runs a community for parents of children with special needs, and a lot of the parents have anxious kids. Among group members, one of the most universally loved strategies for helping ease the stress are noise-canceling headphones, she says: “They’re great when loud sounds like sirens and fireworks scare kids.” With her own daughter, Spear found another tactic that helps counter feelings of anxiety and overwhelm: a weighted blanket. “My daughter uses it to ease her worries and help her feel secure while falling asleep,” she says. There’s also a book they turn to: What to Do When You Worry Too Much. “It’s another great tool parents and kids can work through together, a page or two at a time, to discuss how to refocus attention so worries don’t ‘grow like tomatoes,’” Spear says.
For test stress …
What helps us: “Destressing with adult coloring books”
As everyone who has ever been a student knows, tests suck. You’re jittery before one and annoyed after it (especially if there were unfair questions the teacher so didn’t prep you for.) To help her teen daughter cope with pre-exam jitters, Melinda Jameson stocked up on adult coloring books. “I know, it sounds a bit cliché, but after I bought one for my daughter I noticed she became more focused and less anxious when prepping for her tests,” says Jameson, Brisbane, Australia-based founder of SuperWAHM. Right now, her daughter is hooked on a book with super elaborate mandalas that take ages to finish. “Before coloring books, she used to play mindless games on her phone, so I couldn’t be happier she’s now relaxing in such an analog way!”
For phobias (dogs, bees, etc.) ….
What helps: Exposure — in baby steps
When kids are afraid of something, they try to avoid it (if they’re scared of bees, say, they want to run inside when they see one). “But the best remedy is actually to practice being around that very thing,” says Kaiser, who is also a mom. Sure, it’s hard to make your child do something that’s scary for them, she adds, but it’s the key to helping them overcome the phobia. So if your kid is freaked out by dogs, start by watching YouTube videos of cute puppies. Next step: Invite a friend with a super-gentle, well-trained dog to come over and let your child pet its soft fur while it sits. Or, let’s say your little one is terrified of getting shots. Look together at selfies of family members getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “The more you practice, the more they realize they can tolerate the fear, and that it’s possible to be scared and brave at the same,” Kaiser says.
For bedtime panic …
What helps us: “A soothing white noise machine”
Got a little one who hears the grass grow? Brad Cummins does, too, and a white noise machine was a game-changer. “Our little one had been going through a lot of trouble sleeping and it was starting to become very unpleasant, when my wife’s yoga instructor recommended this product that quite literally changed our child’s life,” he says. “He is so much healthier and active now, given that he is now getting a good and peaceful sleep.” The model they bought has white noise, brown noise, even pink noise! It also gradually lightens in the mornings so kids wake up in a gentle way. Cummins also says they started seeing a therapist for support, and that helped too.
Finally, for easing anxiety every day …
What helps: Encourage them to be curious about the anxiety
Have your child draw a picture of themselves and label where they physically feel the anxiety, therapist Tamara Hubbard recommends. When you help kids name what they’re feeling, you help them feel more in control, she explains. “Once they recognize it in their own mind and body, they’ll be more likely to notice and normalize it by using helpful self-talk such as, ‘There are my anxious feelings showing up again,’” she says.
Another exercise to try: Become an investigator. “Rather than trying to limit, ignore, or control the anxiety, become curious about it,” she says. Ask your anxiety questions like:
- Why are you here?
- What do you want me to think about or do?
- How might my anxious thoughts help me?
- What other feelings do I notice besides anxiety?