How can you help your child with anxiety?
Anxiety is an adaptive emotion. Anxiety is an alarm system in our body that anticipates threats.
But anxiety becomes a problem when our body alarm is triggered too often, responds to harmless everyday situations or when the response is so intense that it affects how we function.
There are a good number of strategies and activities that will help our kids with anxiety. Most of the tips and activities below will work well for both smaller children and teens.
40+ TIPS & ACTIVITIES TO HELP A CHILD WITH ANXIETY
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1. Your first step will always need to be an appointment with your doctor
You are about to read a lot of very useful tips on how to help your anxious child, BUT, you will need professional help to:
- rule out other reasons for the physiological symptoms that we often see associated with anxiety in children (e.g. headaches, tummy aches)
- assess if you need support from a psychologist to help your child through some of the techniques that you will read below.
2. Empathize with your child
You really need your child to feel comfortable sharing with you their feelings and worries. By showing your empathy and understanding you will make sure your child doesn´t hide fears because they have been labeled as “silly” or “absurd”
3. Teach your child about anxiety
Anxiety is a common reaction to situations we anticipate as threats. Explain how we are “wired” to deal with threats in one of these three ways: flight, fight or freeze. And how our whole body moves its resources to be able to do this.
A few examples for your kid:
The teacher asks a question in class and you get so anxious that our mind goes blank – what has been your reaction? Freeze?
Or instead, you put your head down and pray for her not to pick you to answer her question. Could that be flight?
4. Teach your child to identify the worry signs
Feeling tense, heart racing, sweating, stomach ache or headaches are some common signs are body sends us when we are feeling anxious.
The best explanation for kids of common anxiety body clues I’ve ever read is in:
- “The Anxiety Workbook for Kids” (chapter 3).
The book itself is a must-have if you have kids struggling with anxiety. It is a book written for them, easy to read and understand. And it covers everything about anxiety, from its role as an alarm body system to a complete set of strategies to help them cope or overcome their worries.
5. Explain how being a little worried is good and useful
You can share an example that will be really easy for them to understand.
“Being a bit worried about having to sit for a test tomorrow is ok. It will probably help you stop watching T.V. It will motivate you to go to your room and do a bit of extra studying to make sure you pass your exam”
6. Let them understand that everybody has worries or anxieties
Share with them an example of something that has worried you, how it made you feel and what you did to deal with that worry.
7. Explain the risks of avoidance behaviors
One of the most common coping strategies for anxiety is avoiding all those experiences that make us feel anxious.
Is that a problem?
Well, actually it is. Because by avoiding those places or events that make us anxious we also:
- fail to assess if there is a real need to feel anxious (we don´t challenge our anxious thoughts)
- fail to build appropriate coping skills
- may end up limiting our activities and missing out on potentially rewarding moments.
Understanding Your Child’s Worries: Let´s Write Them Down!
8. Help your child write down his worries on a paper
This will serve two purposes:
- it will help you better understand what your child’s worries are
- it will be a working material for both of you to start differentiating two types of worry:
- worries you can do something about
- worries you can´t do anything about, so you will just need to learn how to cope with those worries.
There is a very nice book for small kids that takes them through this exact process. Wilma Jean the Worry Machine is a school girl who worries about everything. But her very helpful teacher help her organize her worries in two groups: “worries I can control” and “worries I can´t control”.
I always find that reading these type of short story goes a long way into kids understanding and accepting everyday life situations.
9. Keep a Worry Journal / Thought Diary
Journaling is another useful way for both of you to be able to gather information so that you can work on those worries.
10. Help your Child Challenge Worry Thoughts
As you have been able to gather information about your child´s worries, you will now be able to help your child reflect on those worries:
- Ask your child for evidence that supports those beliefs.
What makes you feel people will make fun of you if you if you don´t know the answer?
- Help them identify how anxiety is tricking them into thinking so
Do other kids in class fail to know answers to the teacher’s questions? Do you make fun of them? Do other kids make fun of them? Or is it just normal?
- Help them find an alternative thought that would be more accurate and helpful
We all sometimes don´t know the answer to the teacher’s questions. Maybe it is a great way to find out some things that we didn´t realize we needed to work on.
What Happens If We Are Constantly Worrying?
11. Establish a “Worry Time”
If your kid is worrying all the time, you may find useful to introduce the concept of “Worry Time”. It is a time in the day you allocate to think and talk about worries.
The rest of the time, they need to think about something different. It is obviously easier said than done, and you may have already realized that they may even focus on the worries until they get to talk about them, either because it is an “unfinished business” or because they are worried they will forget the worry.
So, the tip here is to write down the worry on a piece of paper or in their worry journal so that they can relax and not worry about forgetting it.
Connected with this line of thought is the next tip:
12. Create a “Worry Box”
A “Worry Box” is a place to store away worries until you are ready to deal with them.
When a worry thought strikes, you write it down in a piece of paper and you store it away in your worry box.
You may then decide how you are going to tackle that problem, or you may just need to talk to somebody about it.
Worries You Can Do Something About
13. Teach Problem-Solving Abilities
Sometimes, anxiety may be caused by a real problem. In those cases, developing good problem-solving abilities may be the best help.
You could work on developing your kid´s problem-solving abilities by helping him:
- Identify a problem and describe it
- Generate alternatives
- Predict consequences for those alternatives
- Choose the alternative that best solves the problem
- Action it.
14. Teach Your Child How to Be Assertive
Sometimes anxiety in a social context may derive from the inability to stand up for ourselves.
15. Approach Problems & Fears One Step at a Time
The best way for our children is to take small steps and move to the next level only when their anxiety levels allow them and they feel confident enough.
In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) terms this would be called “gradual exposure”. Systematically confronting your fears going through a list of situations that have been ranked according to their ability to elicit your anxiety. You would only move up the hierarchy once your anxiety levels for a certain situation feel tolerable.
So, if your child is afraid of speaking in front of the class, you may be able to approach that situation in an increasingly complex way where she will practice in different situations:
- does a speech alone in her room
- does a speech in front of Mom
- does a speech with all the family
- we invite a friend to join and she practices with all of us
Calming Strategies When You Can´t Control a Worry
Breathing Exercises for Kids
There are a number of really good breathing exercises. And they can even be adjusted to that they become really fun activities for kids:
16. Lazy 8 Breathing
I highly recommend this technique. If you want to learn how to practice this really simple technique and why I think it works so well you can read:
17. Belly Breathing (diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing)
In diaphragmatic breathing, the breathing is done by contracting the diaphragm. The air enters the lungs, the chest does not rise but the belly pushes outwards.
It is really easy to teach when you ask your child to put one hand on their belly and the other one on their chest so that they can track how the former comes out when they breathe in, while the latter does not move.
18. Yoga Breathing Techniques
There are a number of breathing techniques that we can learn through yoga.
I always try to make things fun, to make sure my kids engage in the activities I plan. I found a great resource to practice yoga breathing techniques:
A charming and very fun story that teaches kids four yoga breathing techniques in order to help them deal with anger, anxiety, and tension:
- Crocodile breathing
- Lion breathing
- Humming bee breathing
- Woodchopper breathing
It is a great book that is not just about telling a story but that makes the kids participate in the story. I especially recommend it for a classroom setting.
Teaching breathing techniques using “animal breathing” is a really cool and fun way to around an exercise that could otherwise feel a bit “boring”.
19. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This technique teaches us how to tense and relax muscle groups (fists, arms, legs, face, whole body) to achieve relaxation.
The video below by TherapYi reproduces a script for progressive muscle relaxation for kids that you can also find in Play Therapy Techniques by Dr. Charles E. Schaefer and Donna Cangelosi.
Charles E. Schaefer is the American psychologist considered to be the “Father of Play Therapy”.
20. Stress balls
The principle behind stress relief toys is the same as I mentioned above. By tensing and relaxing your hand muscles you relieve stress and muscle tension.
Mindfulness is about focusing on the present. Thinking about here and now, and not the past or the future.
Acceptance and awareness of what is happening to you in the present moment. We become aware of the present moment, by focusing our attention on our five senses. We notice what we see, smell, hear, touch and taste. The thoughts in your mind are accepted, without judgment, but they must be allowed to flow away so that you can stay in the present.
Mindfulness can help us feel calmer and in control, as a consequence of accepting our thought and letting them go.
You can find several mindfulness exercises in:
You can start with this simple but effective mindfulness exercise: 5 4 3 2 1 Grounding Exercise
22. Practice Yoga for Kids
If you want to explore benefits, beginner’s tips, books and other resources you can read about this topic in my post Yoga for Kids.
Medical research has shown that the benefits of massage include pain relief, reduced trait anxiety, and depression, and temporarily reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and state of anxiety. Source: APA PsycNET
But even if you don´t know anything about massage, lots of kids find it really soothing to have a soft foot, hand, back or head massage.
Using Their Imagination as an Anxiety Coping Tool
24. Ask your child to write down his/her worries on a piece of paper and dispose of them
In the past, we have flushed worries down the toilet or thrown them in the rubbish bin.
Our latest addition to this technique has been the “Worry Eater”.
These super cute monsters have a zip on their mouth. After you write down your worry thought you put it inside the monster´s mouth and zip it closed. That way you dispose of your worry or bad thoughts
25. Change worry thoughts into happy thoughts
Ask your kid to think about places or memories that make them feel happy. In order to help your child visualize those happy thoughts or memories, you can prepare a visual board (we have prepared at home a “Wall of Happiness” that both our kids have up on the wall in their bedrooms- we use visual boards to help develop coping skills).
Another way to keep happy thoughts at hand can be a Happy Memories album.
When the worry thoughts show up, ask your kid to talk about one of those happy memories and switch the worry thought into a happy one.
Breaking the Cycle of Worrying Thoughts
Distract your kid from his worries by keeping him busy. These are just a few examples of activities that may work well
26. Exercise (go for a scooter or bike ride)
27. Play a board game with a sibling
28. Read an interesting book
Sensory Strategies to Calm Down an Anxious Child
29. Listen to music
30. Listen to a relaxation audio
31. Sit your kid in your lap and give her soothing cuddle time
32. Warm bath /Shower
33. Using a weighted blanket
A weighted blanket is a therapeutic product that has often been used with kids with special needs. It is a great product for anxiety and sleep issues. You can check weighted blankets here.
34. Using a weighted vest
A weighted vest can also provide soothing sensory input and calming benefits. You can check weighted vests here.
35. Looking at a Sensory Bottle or Calming Jar
If you would like to prepare your own sensory bottle you can check out this extremely easy hand wash recipe:
And if you feel really lazy, it is as easy as getting one of these.
36. Essential Oils
37. Sensory Swin
Let them soothe themselves in a cocooning therapy swing.
Final Calm Down Tips for Kids with Anxiety
38. Prepare a “Calm Down Kit”
Prepare a “calm down kit” with all the things that work for your kid (music, calm down cards, sensory bottle, squeeze ball)
39. Have a calm down plan ready
A paper where you have identified all the techniques that may help with worries.
40. Create a relaxation ritual that works for your kids
Do you remember how you used to train your baby to sleep with a relaxation technique? Why not try it also with your big baby? How about a bath, soft music, putting pyjamas on and reading a book with a glass of milk?
41. Create a Calm Down Space/ Room
42. Encourage Positive Self-Talk
Work on boosting your child self-esteem and confidence. It will also help your kid believe that he will be able to overcome his worries.
This article will give you lots of ideas on self-esteem activities for kids that you can easily implement.
43. General health tips
Remember that it is also important to keep your child´s body happy by
- eating healthy
- getting enough sleep and
- exercising to burn energy!
Related Children Anxiety Articles
For additional tips that will be especially useful for teenagers I recommend the following post (it was written after an Autism Parents workshop, but, the tips are very useful for any teenager struggling with social anxiety, stress or worry):
- Anxiety & Autism: Triggers & Strategies
And, if you would like to add a bit of fun to such a serious topic, don’t miss:
How to Help a Child with Anxiety