What not to say to an anxious kid

One of the things you can’t say to a kid (or anyone, really) having anxiety is: everything will be all right! That’s exactly what they don’t need to hear, or even worse try to find a way to fix it. At the time the person is feeling anxious, they can’t really calm down at will or change the way they’re reacting to the fear. It takes time to learn how to do it, and practice. An anxious mind usually does one of these:

  • Catastrophize: they think that the worst that can happen will happen (be late, fail de exam, loose her friend, ultimately, die)
  • Fear of fear: no matter what they’re thinking it feels scary (people will laugh at her, nobody will care, etc.)
  • Obsessive thinking: they start playing scenarios in their mind over and over, without being able to get out of the cycle and ultimately shaming themselves for it.

To help them practice a way to calm down before the anxiety gets out of control I will give you some tools. But before moving on the tools let me just give you a tip for when the kid is already anxious and getting the feeling of overwhelm.

  • Hold their hand or give them a hug, if they allow it. If you are calm, the physical touch is very grounding and supporting.
  • Listen to them. If they don’t talk, wait and maybe ask them, what are you feeling right now? What thoughts are spinning in your mind? Don’t push them, give them space to get it out.
  • When they are calmer, you can take three deep breaths with them, making the exhalation (count to 8) longer than the inhalation (count to 4). This breathing calms down the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response.
  • The last thing you can try, after they’ve calmed down, is focus on things they can see, hear, touch, smell: this will anchor the grounding feeling in the present and will allow the prefrontal cortex, rational mind, to reset and gain control again.

While they’re in a calm or positive state, you can help them pin down the moment when the feeling of anxiety starts, which is already in itself hard for the person. A way to start being aware of when the anxiety is triggered, is to notice these things:

  • Does it happen at a specific time of the day?
  • Is it related to a specific event? For example, if your kid starts feeling anxious when someone is visiting the house, that will allow him or her to prepare in advance and then you can apply breathing techniques or relaxation exercises.
  • Has it happened repetitively over the past days? at what time?
  • Is there a specific thought that triggers the reaction? For example, I’m stupid, I never understand anything, I won’t be able to (fill in the blank)

These are some of the questions you can ask your kid to help her understand the cause. The kid needs to notice what, or who, or when the anxiety starts. You can jot them down for them to become aware of the answers and be able to add other times or situations. Then, it’s possible to go a step forward and try some techniques that I’ll describe below.

Preparation in advance is key. Here are two ideas to help them prepare.

  • Journal about things she/he is grateful for: if your kid is old enough, this exercise will help him/her to create the habit of thinking about what she likes and appreciates. After having at least a week or month of journaling, tell her to re read it before bed, or even in the morning to prepare her mind to focus on positive and fun things instead of fears and what is lacking.
  • Visualize your dream spot: when you use visualization, your mind can use all its creativity and in this case to make up a space that is safe, fun, calm, happy. It could be a made up place or somewhere the kid loves, the beach, grandparents house, a farm, riding in the car, etc. The more details he/she can create in her mind, the better. Also ask them to use all their senses: how does the place smell? what do you see? what do you touch? what colours surround you? what do you hear? Practice going to the happy place daily if you can so it will be easy to go there in seconds as soon as they feel the anxious thoughts surfacing in their mind. This way, they will ground themselves and feel joy instantly, taking the focus away from the fear and obsessive thinking

Remember, we can train our minds to live in fear and uncertainty, or in safety and joy. The more you let your mind become fixed on fears and things you can’t control, the more anxiety will be damaging and paralyzing. I would also like to add that what we call anxiety is actually stress that isn’t useful (like reacting with ‘fight or flight’ response because we might get stuck in an elevator when we are walking in the park). Some stress is useful and can appear in moments of great excitement and joy. So training your mind to understand which stress is unwanted can be achieved by putting in place simple habits consistently. And I can’t stress enough that the key here is the consistency and patience.

If you have more question about anxiety or would like more tips to create habits to break the pattern of anxiety, send me a message to valmaurercoach@gmail.com. You can also book a free call with me in my website.

Happy learning!

Coach Val

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