#93: 6 Steps to Calm Your Anxious Child
In today's episode, we'll explore how you can support your child through moments of heightened anxiety and help them build resilience for the future. Anxiety is a natural part of life, it isn't something to be feared or avoided. It's a natural and necessary human emotion that helps us navigate the world safely. However with anxiety disorders on the rise among children and adolescents, it's more important than ever for parents to understand how to support their children through this challenging emotion and provide a sense of safety. Today, I'll be giving you practical tools to help you do just that.
Here's what you'll learn in this episode:
- The significance of building a securely attached relationship with your child, which serves as your most parenting powerful tool in guiding them through difficult emotions, like anxiety.
- Understanding co-regulation and how it empowers you to help your child manage overwhelming emotions by utilizing your own regulated emotional state.
- A proactive strategy called "Name It to Tame It," which involves personifying your child's anxiety to help them separate it from their core identity and regain control over this powerful emotion.
- Six practical steps to effectively co-regulate with your anxious child, including selecting suitable stress and anxiety regulation tools, reassessing their anxiety level, and repeating the co-regulation process as needed.
Now, if you're looking for more insights into anxiety and parenting, be sure to check out episode 50 of "The 3D Parent" podcast, where I cover a range of tips and perspectives on parenting an anxious child. It's a great companion to today's episode and can provide you with even more valuable information.
Thank you for tuning in to today's episode of The 3D Parent Podcast. If you found this content helpful, be sure to share it with fellow parents and caregivers. And don't forget to subscribe for our weekly episodes and more insightful episodes on parenting!
Hey there, fellow parents! Today's episode is going to be a bit different than our usual discussions because we're diving deep into a topic that's close to many of our hearts: anxiety in children. If you've ever found yourself wondering, "What do I do when my child is experiencing anxiety," then stick around because I've got some specific strategies to share with you.
Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty, I want to give a shoutout to a previous episode where we covered the broader topic of parenting an anxious child. If you haven't listened to Episode 50 yet, titled "Parenting an Anxious Child," I highly recommend giving it a listen. It's a great companion to today's episode and covers some essential do's and don'ts, along with practical tips and perspectives for navigating anxiety in your child.
It's important to recognize that anxiety itself is not inherently negative. In fact, it's a fundamental human emotion that serves a valuable purpose. However, when a child experiences overwhelming or frequent anxiety, it can be cause for concern. With children and adolescents facing anxiety at unprecedented rates, it's more important than ever for parents to understand how to support their children through these challenges.
Anxiety can be a tough nut to crack because it's not always driven by rational thoughts and it certainly doesn't come with an easy fix. But as parents, our role is to provide a sense of safety and support so our kids can weather the storm of anxious feelings and emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side.
Before we delve into the strategies, I want to emphasize the importance of seeking professional help if you feel your child's anxiety is worsening or significantly impacting their daily life. While this podcast episode offers valuable insights, it's not a substitute for the expertise of healthcare professionals.
Throughout this episode, I'll be sharing practical strategies to help you support your child through their anxiety journey. From creating a safe space for open communication to teaching coping skills, each strategy is designed to empower both you and your child.
Anxiety can manifest in various ways, affecting not only the child but also their family dynamics. If you observe changes in your child's behavior, such as reluctance to participate in activities they once enjoyed or difficulty coping with daily tasks, it's essential to address these concerns promptly.
Untreated anxiety can escalate over time and may lead to other mental health issues or behavioral disorders. Therefore, early intervention is key. Start by consulting your child's pediatrician, who can provide valuable insights and recommendations for further evaluation or treatment.
In the show notes, you'll find a link to an article titled "When to Seek Additional Support for Your Child's Anxiety," which offers detailed guidance on assessing your child's needs and approaching the topic with them in an age-appropriate manner.
Even if your child receives outside help, your role as a parent remains crucial. Therapy sessions typically occur for a limited time each week, leaving ample opportunity for you to provide ongoing support and guidance at home. Your deep connection with your child serves as the foundation for effective parenting, especially when addressing difficult emotions like anxiety.
Now, let's take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Before addressing specific strategies, it's essential to nurture a deeply connected relationship with your child. As I discussed in Episode 87, "Parenting with Deep Connection," your relationship with your child is your most powerful tool. Building a secure, deeply connected bond lays the foundation for providing effective support, especially during challenging times like anxiety.
A secure attachment with at least one significant caregiver is essential for a child's emotional well-being and development. This connection enables you to come alongside your child, understanding their emotions and providing the support they need. By nurturing this deep connection, you create a safe space for your child to express their feelings and navigate difficult emotions like anxiety.
So, what exactly is co-regulation? Simply put, it's the ability for a parent or caregiver to use their own regulated emotional state to help a child regulate their difficult or overwhelming emotions, like anxiety.
Now, let's talk about why co-regulation is so important, especially for children who may not yet have developed the skills to regulate their emotions independently. This could be due to their age, temperament, or the nature of their current circumstances. For example, younger children or those with highly sensitive temperaments may need to rely on their parents for a longer period of time to help them manage feelings of anxiety.
The beauty of co-regulation is that it enables a parent to not only help to regulate their child, but also to model coping skills that children can carry with them into adulthood. By modeling healthy ways of managing emotions, parents are laying the foundation for their children to become emotionally resilient individuals who can eventually face life's challenges independently and with confidence.
Understanding a proactive tool called "Name it to Tame it"
Now, let's dive into some strategies, starting with a proactive tool called, "Name it to Tame it.”
This strategy involves helping your child name and personify their anxiety. By giving your child’s anxiety a name like, “Spike” or “Sheila,” you're helping them separate their anxiety from their core identity. This can empower them to feel a sense of control over their emotions, reducing feelings of overwhelm. Naming their anxiety allows children to acknowledge it as a part of themselves, but not all of who they are. This strategy draws from therapeutic approaches that focus on understanding and managing different parts of oneself.
To implement this strategy, have a conversation with your child about anxiety or their worries and its physical manifestations, such as feeling panicked or experiencing an upset stomach. Help them understand that these feelings are normal and can be managed. Then, encourage them to come up with a name for their anxiety. Make it a fun and creative activity to help them feel more comfortable with the concept. Remember to reinforce the importance of using this name when discussing their anxiety in the future.
Now, I’ll walk you through the Six Steps to Co-regulate with your Anxious Child:
Step 1: Center Yourself
Imagine it's the day of your child's first karate class, something they've been eagerly anticipating. But when the moment arrives, they're overwhelmed with anxiety and refuse to go. As a parent, your first instinct might be to feel anxious too. Step one reminds us to center ourselves before attempting to co-regulate with our child.
For example, Take a few deep breaths and place your hand over your heart. Say to yourself something like, "I am safe. This is not an emergency. This is just a moment and will pass." Before you can effectively support your child, it's essential to regulate your own emotions. Children often pick up on their parents' anxiety which up-regulates and increases their anxiety, so taking a moment to center yourself is crucial.
Step 2: Acknowledge Your Child's Anxiety by Name
Remember when you helped your child name their anxiety? Now's the time to acknowledge it.
Say something like "Hey, buddy, I see Spike's here today. That's okay. We'll work through this together."
By referring to your child's anxiety by its chosen name, you help them recognize that it's a separate part of them, not their entire identity.
Next, ask your child where they feel Spike in their body. Are they feeling Spike's presence as butterflies in their stomach, tightness in their chest, or tension in their throat? By pinpointing the physical sensations associated with Spike's visit, your child becomes more aware of how their body responds to anxiety.
This awareness is crucial because it helps your child recognize that anxiety is not an overwhelming force but rather a temporary state that can be managed. For instance, they might realize, "Whenever Spike shows up, I feel a knot in my stomach," or "Spike is hanging out in my chest, making it hard to breathe."
By identifying where Spike resides in their body, your child gains insight into their emotional and physical experiences. This self-awareness forms the basis for managing anxiety more effectively in the future. It's like shedding light on the dark corners of their mind, enabling them to confront their fears directly.
Moreover, as your child learns to recognize the physical manifestations of their anxiety, they become better equipped to cope with it. This newfound awareness empowers your child to take control of their emotions and navigate through moments of heightened anxiety with confidence and resilience.
Step 3: Rate the Anxiety
Let's explore step three of helping your child manage anxiety. Here, we're diving into the crucial task of gauging the intensity of your child's feelings. Asking your child to rate their anxiety level on a scale of 1 to 10 might seem simple, but it's a powerful tool for building emotional awareness. It's like taking a temperature check of their emotions. Picture this: you sit down with your child and gently ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how big is Spike right now?"
This simple question opens up a dialogue about their feelings. Maybe Spike is feeling like a 10, ready to burst out of their skin, or perhaps Spike is a more manageable 7, but still making their presence known. Whatever the number, it provides a starting point for understanding and addressing their anxiety.
Asking your child to rate their anxiety not only increases their self-awareness but also activates their thinking brain. When we focus on numbers and bodily sensations, we move away from the primal fight-flight-freeze response and into a space where rational thought can prevail. It's like flipping a switch from panic mode to problem-solving mode.
Imagine your child says, "My anxiety feels like an eight." That's a significant number, signaling a high level of distress. Now, armed with this information, you're ready to move on to step four – choosing an emotional regulation tool.
Step 4: Choosing an emotional regulation tool
Step four invites you to select from a range of tools designed to help your child manage their anxiety. From deep breathing exercises to mindfulness techniques, there's a wealth of options to choose from. Let's delve into ten of these tools to give you a starting point:
- 1. Box Breathing:
- This technique involves breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and then holding again for four counts. It's like guiding your child through a calming breathing exercise, akin to creating a pattern of relaxation.
- You repeat this cycle four times, which helps slow down their heart rate and reduces stress hormones, giving them a sense of control over their emotions.
- 2. Short Inhale/Long Exhale Breathing:
- With this method, your child quickly inhales for one count, then exhales slowly for eight counts. It's like teaching them to take a deep breath to let go of tension, like releasing a balloon slowly into the air.
- Doing this helps regulate their heart rate and reduces stress hormones, providing a sense of calm amidst chaos.
- 3. Five Senses Mindfulness Technique:
- Encourage your child to notice five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can touch, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. It's like inviting them to a sensory scavenger hunt, grounding them in the present moment.
- Engaging in this activity reduces their sense of alarm and activates their thinking brain, helping them focus on the here and now.
- 4. Visualization:
- Guide your child to close their eyes and imagine their overwhelming feelings as a heavy coat on a hot day. Then, have them visualize taking off this coat, feeling the relief wash over them. It's like helping them paint a mental picture of letting go of burdens.
- This exercise encourages them to connect with their emotions, providing a sense of relief and empowerment as they release their stress.
- 5. Vagus Nerve Massage:
- Use your fingers to massage the bones behind and in front of your child's ears with medium-firm pressure. It's like giving their nervous system a gentle massage, soothing any discomfort or upset.
- This technique is particularly helpful for calming anxiety-related stomach issues, easing nausea, and reducing overall anxiety levels.
- 6. Big Belly Laughter:
- Share a joke, funny story, or watch a humorous video together to trigger laughter. It's like sprinkling a bit of joy into their day, lifting their spirits and easing tension.
- Laughter releases stress and tension, helping your child feel lighter and more relaxed.
- 7. Crying:
- Create a safe space for your child to express their emotions through crying. It's like offering them a release valve for their feelings, allowing them to let go of pent-up stress and sadness.
- Crying is a natural and healthy emotional release, helping them process their emotions and move forward with a sense of relief.
- 8. Quick Exertion of Energy:
- Engage in brief physical activities like jumping jacks, walking, or dancing to release pent-up energy. It's like hitting the reset button on their mood, boosting their spirits and reducing stress hormones.
- Physical activity helps your child feel more grounded and centered, promoting a sense of well-being and calm.
- 9. Creative Expression:
- Encourage your child to express themselves creatively through drawing, writing, or playing an instrument. It's like giving them a blank canvas to explore their emotions, providing an outlet for self-expression.
- Creative activities help your child process their feelings and gain insight into their inner world, fostering emotional growth and resilience.
- 10. Give a 20-Second Hug:
- Share a sustained hug with your child for 20 seconds or more to decrease stress hormones and increase bonding hormones. It's like wrapping them in a warm embrace, comforting and reassuring them.
- This physical connection helps regulate their emotions, strengthening your bond and providing a sense of security and support.
Step 5: Reassess Anxiety Level
Once you've guided your child through the emotional regulation tool of your choosing, it's time to check in and see how they're feeling. This step is crucial for understanding the effectiveness of the tool and determining if further support is needed.
Reassessing your child's anxiety level involves asking them to rate their current level of anxiety. Encourage them to express how big their feelings of anxiety are now compared to before using the regulation tool.
Start by asking your child to rate their anxiety level again. You might say something like, "Let's see how big Spike feels now. Can you give me a number?" Ideally, you'll notice a decrease in their anxiety level. From my experience, when using these strategies with my own children, anxiety levels almost always decrease, albeit not always completely.
If their anxiety has decreased to a comfortable level, that's fantastic! You've successfully helped them manage their emotions. But if it hasn't decreased enough, don't worry. That's where step 6 comes in.
Step 6: Repeat if Necessary
Here's where you circle back to step four and repeat the same regulation tool. Repeating allows your child to become more familiar with it, potentially enhancing its effectiveness with each repetition. Encourage your child to engage in several more rounds of the chosen technique, aiming to further reduce their anxiety level. If they seem tired of the same technique or you feel another strategy might be a better fit, feel free to mix it up a little until the desired lessoned state of anxiety is achieved.
The goal here isn't to eliminate anxiety entirely. Instead, the focus is on empowering your child to recognize that they have tools at their disposal to cope with anxiety.
In wrapping up, I sincerely hope that the strategy we've delved into today leaves you feeling more empowered as a parent of an anxious child. Building a strong foundation of connection and attachment with your child serves as a cornerstone for numerous aspects of their well-being, especially when it comes to co-regulation.
These steps aren't just theoretical; they've been tried and tested in the trenches of real-life parenting. I've witnessed firsthand how they've made a difference in my own children's lives. Take, for example, my child who struggled with stomach issues due to anxiety. The vagus nerve massage became her go-to technique, offering relief even in school without drawing attention to herself.
Then there's my other child who found solace in box breathing during times of stress at a new school. Not only did she use it for herself, but she also taught it to her peers, spreading calmness in her surroundings.
What's remarkable about these strategies is their portability. While initially introduced with your guidance, children often internalize them, using them independently when you're not around. They become the tools your child carries with them, empowering them to navigate and endure their experiences with anxiety in the future.
I want to express my gratitude for joining me on this episode of the 3D Parent Podcast. As you embark on implementing the Six-steps to Co-regulate with your Anxious Child, I encourage you to share your experiences with me. Let me know which strategies resonate most with your family and any additional techniques you've found effective. Together, we can continue to learn and grow in our journey of supporting children experiencing anxiety!
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