It’s hard being an anxious kid. You already have to worry about making friends and doing well in school, and then you add anxiety? It doesn’t seem fair. Kids spend all day in school being judged on their intelligence, but when you are stressed, you can literally lose IQ points. You start overthinking and overanalyzing why Jack was mean to you at recess or in the hallway and you can’t pay attention to your teacher. Or your mind goes blank and you can’t think about anything.
Sometimes it’s obvious your child is anxious – she’s nervous because it’s the first day of school or she has a big test. Sometimes, anxiety looks like other things, like a headache, upset stomach, perfectionism, or even anger, disruptive behavior, ADHD, or a learning disorder. If your child’s anxiety is affecting their grades, hindering them from going to school, or otherwise seriously hurting them, do seek professional help.
There are also some things you can do to help your anxious child:
Kids need to know that what they are feeling is real and valid. Once you validate their feelings and convince them you understand, you can then help them figure out how to calm down. To validate your child’s feelings, you can say:
- I’m so sorry you are feeling so stressed.
- What can I do to help?
- Tell me about how you are feeling.
- What do you need from me?
Avoid saying “Calm down.” Even though the situation would be made better if your child would calm down and you have your child’s best interests at heart when you say, “Calm down”, the phrase naturally invalidates your child’s feelings and typically results in an even less calm child.
Talk about Anxiety
Talk to your child about the science behind the anxiety. Even very young children can understand the basics of stress and kids love learning about their own brains. Talk to your child about the tension that builds up and how it can affect them. Help them notice the signs that they are becoming anxious – heart pounding, getting sweaty, feeling flushed. Then give them the strategies they can use to calm down, namely: BREATHE!
For a good video on anxiety and the brain, check out: Why Do We Lose Control of Our Emotions? By Kids Want to Know, on YouTube.
Practice Being Calm
We need to practice calming down so that when we get anxious, we can effectively calm down in that stressful moment. So make working on self-calming techniques a daily habit, so that when your child is anxious, she can self-soothe.
Here are a few ways to practice being calm:
- Meditation (use an app like Calm or Headspace) or Belly Breathing for younger kids. Use a stuffed animal and have them place it on their stomach. Watch it go up and down as you breathe.
- Exercise. While meditation and yoga calm our racing bodies, exercise uses up that energy to calm us down.
- Create a Relaxation Corner. When your child comes home after school, before starting homework, have a relaxation session. Read a book. Do a sudoku. Snuggle with a parent or a stuffed animal. Drink some hot chocolate or tea. Use the relaxation corner to reset after your long day.
- Release Emotions: Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg suggests releasing emotions by “Blanking it out”: dance it out, cry it out, laugh it out, draw it out, rap it out, write it out, sing it out, drum it out – the possibilities go on. Use that abundance of energy to do something productive. Once you are able to release your emotions, you can move on because you start to deal with your feelings.
Provide Predictability and Reduce Uncertainty
Anxious children are often scared of uncertainty or change. They need predictability to feel safe and calm.
For instance, if your child gets anxious about school work, she may be worried about not being smart enough to complete the homework, so she goes blank and can’t answer any of the questions, even though you know she knows the answer. Help her avoid this stress by previewing the homework together first, then taking a break, giving her mind time to think about how to answer the questions without any pressure, and then going back to the homework. This technique takes away the scary, uncertainty of what the homework will entail and reduces the pressure.
The number one way that kids learn is by watching their parents and mimicking their behavior. So start practicing those daily self-calming rituals yourself. Be the calm person you want your child to be to help show them how they can overcome obstacles and stress more easily when they are calm and collected.
About Katherine Firestone
Katherine had a hard time in school because she suffered from undiagnosed ADHD till her junior year of high school. What made her successful during this time was the support system she had around her. After college, she worked as a teacher, and saw that parents wanted to help their kids at home, but didn’t know what to do. She started the Fireborn Institute to give parents ideas on how to help because success at school is enhanced at home.
About Fireborn Institute
Fireborn Institute is a non-profit that provides parents with practical and easy-to-remember strategies to help their children in school. Through our lectures, podcasts & handouts, we coach parents on topics such as helping with homework or conquering a messy backpack. Our ultimate goal is to help parents help their kids thrive at school.
Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Ehmke, R. (n.d.) Anxiety in the Classroom. Child Mind Institute.
Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.
Minahan, J. (2015). Between a Rock and a Calm Place. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.