We all know that children commonly get nervous, at times. This can occur when starting a new school, activity, or meeting new friends. When children are too overrought to focus, listen, and meaningfully interact, however, this level of anxiety can severely impact their lives now and as teens and adults. This is why it is essential that anxiety issues are dealt with at a young age.
Ironically, the worst part of anxiety is having anxiety about the anxiety, itself. The metaphor a snowball being rolled down a hill of is one that I use to illustrate how unchecked anxiety rapidly grows. Children can learn to cope with anxiety by learning two crucial skills: Calming Down and Solving Problems. Below are some of the techniques incorporating both calming down and problem-solving skills that I use with children and their parents to help children manage anxiety:
Teaching basic mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises help children develop concentration, self-awareness, and relax. The more children can learn to focus on comforting images and sensations, the less they will focus on their anxiety. I like to help children learn mindfulness in a fun way. One way I do this, is to have them imagine squeezing the juice out of a lemon. Another calming visualization is to focus on a flickering candle.
Teaching self-compassion. Help children acknowledge mistakes, and how to talk to themselves kindly about them. If they are stuck and say “I don’t know”, then have them share what they would say to a friend. Often compassion is more easily expressed with friends than ourselves Learning self-compassion is an essential skill for reducing anxiety in children. Research shows that self-compassion actually increases chances of success.
Managing transitions. Regular routines give a sense of control to both parent and child. Anxious children do not cope well with a disorganized, spontaneous family life style. Children prone to anxiety generally find transitions difficult, e.g., transitions from home to school. For school phobic children, I recommend driving them to school and simulating going in at least once on the weekend to keep the awareness of the routine strong. Some kids benefit, within reason, from extra “warm-up” time. It really is okay to arrive at appointments early, to have a chance to check things out ahead of time.
Teaching kids to say “Nevertheless” (or “I will do it anyway”). The word, “Nevertheless”, helps combat discouragement and turns potentially disastrous days into productive ones. It's good for your child’s self-esteem. Here’s how to coach your child with it:
• “I am going to fail this test, it is no use studying. Nevertheless, I have a better chance to pass if I try.”
• “I made an error last week in baseball, nevertheless, I'm going to work on my fielding in practice."
It is my hope that these four strategies above will be helpful in coaching your child to lower anxiety. For persistent problems please consult a qualified mental health professional.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over twenty-two years’ experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared twice on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS eyewitness news Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Liking the Child You Love (Perseus Books 2009) and Why Can’t You Read My Mind? (Perseus Books 2003).