Pax woke up each morning to his father calling his name from the hall. Pax often woke breathless, unsure about what. They had visited the family physician, who could not find a cause for Pax waking this way. Pax would sit in bed paralyzed and could not move, despite wanting to. He knew his parents would be upset with him in a few short minutes.
Each morning his father would repeatedly call to him and, exasperated, would call Pax’s mother to go into his room and get him ready for school. His mother was also consistently frustrated and would plead with him to get up, or try to bribe him out of bed.
Pax could not contain his tears at the mention of getting out of bed to get ready for school. He tried every excuse to get out of it: strep throat, headaches, and stomachaches. Pax tried to explain the dread to his mother, and how his heart seemed to thump so loudly that all the other children looked at him.
Each morning, Pax’s mother felt her palms get sweaty and her mind begin to race as she contemplated how to get him out of bed. She thought she had failed him and was not fulfilling her roles as mother and wife. She felt powerless about how to help her little boy. It seemed that each morning, as she became more frustrated with him, he cried harder, making her feel worse and more confused.
Children experience anxiety in a number of different ways. A child might explain it as a feeling of dread, panic, sadness, or fear. They might talk about it in terms of physical symptoms like sweaty palms, trembling, butterflies in their tummy, or a fast heartbeat.
Children’s anxiety can manifest as a limitation in their ability to concentrate, experiencing “clamming up” or “going blank.” Some children may get caught in worry, or say the same thing over and over. Other children may experience somatic complaints such as a headache or stomachache.
Some children will have no language to describe their symptoms, and their anxiety may show up through refusing to go to school or not wanting to play with their friends. They may follow the parent around like a shadow, watch too much television or use electronics to excess.
Here are some strategies to help children who are facing anxiety:
1. Manage Your Own Anxiety First
Anxiety is almost contagious. If you are anxious and supporting an anxious child, your lack of anxiety regulation can influence the child’s anxiety, making it worse. It is important to work on your own ability to calm down.
2. Create Emotional Safety with the Child
Emotional safety in a child’s brain is the foundation for emotional regulation. When a child feels safe with the person supporting them, they create a story in their brain that tells them they can feel good about themselves, they can connect with others, and their needs will be met.
To do this, the supporter needs to make the child feel seen, safe, and soothed. Emotional safety needs to start with the supporter being predictable and consistent in the child’s life. It is critical that the child knows what to expect from the supporter, as this predictability makes the world increasingly secure. Another thing the supporter can do is engage the child in affectionate and nurturing play.
3. Give Anxiety a Language
When we recognize our feelings, we can develop the ability to accept them, learn about them, and conquer them. When we do not understand a problem, we cannot solve it.
Therefore, we need to help the child understand the problem. We could say, “When you are feeling your heart thud quickly in your chest and your hands are shaking, this is called anxiety,” or “Oh, you blanked out on your math test? Anxiety must have hijacked your memory.”
Often the act of giving anxiety a name can calm anxiety down.
4. Acknowledge the Struggle
Validate the difficulty the child is having. Do not pretend the problem does not exist. When we ignore the anxiety in hopes it will go away, this usually fuels the anxiety and makes it stronger.
You could say things like, “I know it’s overwhelming to go to dance today,” “You are trembling; come here, I’ll hug you,” or “Going to birthday parties with new kids can be really scary. You can do it, I believe in you.”
5. Practice Coping
Practice, practice, practice. The person supporting the child with anxiety is like the coach in anxiety regulation. It is the coach’s job to practice, practice, practice with the child. The more times you practice a coping technique with a child, the more you are reinforcing a new brain pathway. Be a broken record and practice over and over again.
Some practical strategies involve deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, wrapping yourself in a blanket, or hugging a loved one.
It is possible to help a child overcome their anxious patterns. With patience, practice, and persistence, change is possible.
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