In Practice

Putting social psychology to work for you

Anxiety in Children: 10 Ways Parents Can Help

How to help an anxious child.

Practical strategies for reducing anxiety in children.
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1. Teach your child physiological strategies.

For example, teach them to run 1-2 fingers lightly over their lips when they're distressed. Parasympathetic fibers are spread throughout the lips, so touching them stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (This tip is from PT blogger Toni Bernhard. For more, see #3 in this post).

2. Teach basic mindfulness.

For example, listening to the sounds of the birds for one minute before getting up each morning.

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3. Manage transitions.

Children generally find transitions difficult e.g., transitions from one caregiver to the another.

Develop predictable routines for transitions. Help your child reduce their activity and arousal level when a transition is coming up.

4. Teach the value of positive emotions.

People flourish when they have at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions.

Make strategies to increase positive emotions part of your family culture.

Examples: - playful and fun activities (fun based on what your child likes), expressing gratitude, cultivating awe (of plants and trees, nature, space, the moon etc).

Increasing positive emotions can help reduce anxiety in children.

5. Ask your child to share "one thing that went right" at the end of the school day.

This will help them develop an optimistic cognitive style.

6. Respect your child's innate temperament.

Examples

- They're an introvert (and perhaps school is already more social contact than their preferred level. They might need alone time after school)

- They have passionate interests or they prefer sameness to variety. (Obviously with issues like their diet, their nutrition needs to be considered too).

- They have a high or low activity level.

7. Build exercise into your child's day.

Regular exercise (such as taking a dog for a walk) is important for reducing anxiety in children.

8. Understand your child's brain.


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Some of the very bright anxious adults I see have subtle (or not so subtle) cognitive issues. For example, their brain may not be very good at keeping multiple instructions in mind, planning, initiating, sequencing, or not "blurting" in tricky social situations. 

When you understand the way your child's unique brain works, you can help them develop skills that will prevent problems in their education and social relationships . A cognitive assessment may be necessary, and psychologists can advise on the types of strategies likely to help your child.

9. Teach your child how to cope with making mistakes. 

Teach your child how to acknowledge finding something difficult or having made a mistake, and how to talk to themselves kindly about it. Learning self-compassion is an essential skill for reducing anxiety in children.

10. Cuddle them lots.

Long cuddles stimulate oxytocin and soothe the anxiety system. 

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You can read my prior articles for Psychology Today here.

 

photo credit: Jenn Durfey (1st), Pink Sherbet Photography (2nd), via photopin cc 

Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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