We know that a certain level of worry and stress is required in a child’s life. They face new circumstances, new challenges, and new expectations; these situations come with stress that causes kids to step up to these new experiences. However, we need to be able to identify unhealthy stress levels that may become anxiety. It would be nice to have a checklist to go through and have definitive answers, but all kids are different and all handle stress and anxiety differently.
Anxiety and worry and fear can come from a lot of different places, genetics, environment, personality, and experiences can all play a part in how a child reacts to different situations. Hopefully, that brings you freedom in knowing that your child’s worries are not dependent on you. You are not necessarily the cause for their feelings or the reason they act out of them. However, with that being said, your reaction to them and their worries is going to be instrumental in how they process from here on out. So while that first sentence was hopefully freeing, the second sentence is meant to be empowering.
So how do we equip our kids to fight against worry and for peace?
There are lots of resources out there and we’ve read through some of them and compiled a few practical ways that you can equip your child to handle worry and anxiety. We’ve broken down these tools into two types: “before” and “during”.
The “before” tools focus on preemptively fighting worry for your child and creating the best possible environment for them. The “during” tools are more pointed for when you can see that your child’s “worry-engine” is revving up. Know that not all of these tools will work for every family or every child, test them out, see what your child best responds to, but don’t feel the pressure to put them all into place today.
Tools for “Before”
Space-Allow space in your child’s life and your family’s life. A full schedule is not the best option for every child. All kids need time and space to rest and process, but some kids need more than others and some seasons in your child’s life will require more space than others.
Emotions-Kids feel a lot of emotions, but don’t always have the tools to express those emotions. That’s where we come in! Help kids verbalize and express emotions by putting real names to them, try using a “feelings chart.” Discuss characters’ emotions in books and movies. Validate your kid’s feelings, even if you don’t necessarily understand them. Remember that feelings aren’t a cause for discipline, but inappropriately acting out of those feelings is. We also want to use appropriate words. We want to be careful in using terms like “panic attack” or “depression”—these are real issues that some kids are certainly dealing with, but we don’t want kids to think that they have to use big words to get our attention.
Model-Give them opportunities to watch you fail and then practice encouraging self-talk. Show them how a resolution comes about. This shows them that failure is a normal part of life and not the end of the world. You can also take time to talk through your own emotions in different situations, both good and bad.
Confidence-Build your child’s confidence in themselves, in the people around them, and in God. Celebrate partial successes. Find opportunities for your child to be great at something on a regular basis, like art, music, cooking, or a sport. Give your child age appropriate chores and then let them do it on their own (even if you know you can do it faster or better). Reframe their anxiety to be a positive, for example, if they are scared of new situations, they are also probably very conscientious and careful.
Tools for “During”
Practice-Practice these techniques when your child is calm, before their worries start “revving-up”. That way they can focus solely on what they’re doing, instead of also fighting how their brain and body are making them feel.
Prepare-Anticipate triggers or situations that cause worry in your child’s life. Prepare yourself, think through words or phrases you might say and ways you can react to your child; try to be in the most calm mind space that you can. Take time to prepare your child. If you know that a certain event is a struggle every week, role play with your child when that event isn’t an immediate threat to them.
Grounding Games-These are some ideas to help kids reconnect to reality and their current surroundings and disconnect from the anxiety they are feeling. These ideas can be used with preschoolers through adults, as long as you present them in the right way.
- 5-4-3-2-1-Name 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you smell, 2 things you touch, and 1 thing you taste right now.
- Letters-Choose a letter and find everything in the room that starts with that letter or think of a list of animals or countries that start with that letter.
- Numbers-Count back from 100 by 7s or recite multiplication facts in your head.
- Scripture-Memorize scripture and recite it or write it out. If your child needs a physical component, add motions.
- Square Breathing-Draw a square on your leg. Start with one line and breathe in for four seconds, pause as you draw the next line for four seconds, exhale as you draw the next line for four seconds, and then close the square in and pause for four seconds.
Create a Calm Spot-Some kids save all of their anxiety for home. If that’s the case with your child, help them create a calm spot in your house. Ask for your child’s input, where do they feel comfortable, where will they be out of reach from siblings? It might even be outside! Put tools there to help your child calm down, things like paper and crayons, play-doh, music, a pillow to punch, a photo album of people or places they love, and a poster with stretching prompts can all be good options.
What happens if you feel like your child needs more help?
If you have tried managing your child’s worries and anxiety at home and feel like you keep hitting a dead end, it may be time to bring in a counselor. For some families, it works best for the parents and child to both meet with the counselor, while other parents prefer to meet with a counselor on their own to gain more focused techniques and tactics specific to their child. Either way, incorporating a counselor is yet another tool that can be helpful.
Philippians 4:7 reminds us that the peace of God guards our hearts and minds. Anxiety and worry and stress can all feel overwhelming, but it is important to remember that our God is a God of peace and He wants us and our children to experience that peace. He also wants us to cast our anxieties on Him. Know that you are not fighting alone in this battle and remember that our God is stronger and bigger than any worry we can come up with.