How to Help Kids with Anxiety

When working with kids with anxiety, our goal shouldn't be to get rid of it altogether, but we definitely want to give kids tools to help them channel it. Keep reading...

By Andrea Kirby, M.S. Post-Doctoral Fellow | Feb 22, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

We all experience anxiety from time to time. In fact, if I’m being totally honest, I feel a little anxiety about contributing my first blog post. But that anxiety is helpful for me – I want to make sure I do a good job, so a little anxiety will prevent me from doing sloppy work.

When working with kids with anxiety, our goal shouldn’t be to get rid of it altogether, just like we haven’t managed to get rid of it for ourselves. But we definitely want to give kids tools to help them channel it so that it doesn’t become all-consuming.

If you’re reading this post because you’re looking for tips on how to help your child with anxiety, I want to first say – kudos for noticing! Anxiety can look different in different kids, so it often slips under the radar. Sometimes it looks like a headache or a tummy ache, or sometimes a kid who doesn’t want to participate in a group activity or school assignment. But when we’re able to notice that what’s really going on is anxiety, that’s a huge first step.

As adults, we can understand our different emotions and place them in context. We can usually pinpoint the source of anxiety (or frustration, or anger, or joy). That’s because our brains are more developed and we have more experience with identifying various emotions. Kids often need help with this. So the first thing I recommend is that you teach kids how to label their emotions. Research shows that the act of labeling a “negative” emotion can reduce its intensity. (Lieberman et al., 2007).

A good way to label an emotion is to just mirror it back to a child when you see him having a strong reaction to something. “You seem really frustrated!” or “I can tell you’re so excited right now!” With a strong feeling like anxiety, it can be good to externalize the emotion. (Here’s a post on the topic of externalizing.) In short, this means taking the emotion outside of the child and giving it some distance. This allows you and your child to talk about “the anxiety” instead of talking about the child’s own identity. You and your child can name the anxiety whatever name sounds right – like The Shakes, or Nervous Nancy. Once you’ve given Nervous Nancy a name, she has her own identity and isn’t intricately linked with the child.

When I work with kids who have anxiety, I love to talk about a feelings thermometer. (Here’s a whole post on it.) I let kids know that there are different levels to our feelings. I ask them what it feels like in their body when the anxiety is all the way at the top versus somewhere in the middle or the very bottom. Then we talk about what it takes to come down the thermometer.

There are tons of strategies that you can use to help a child with anxiety. Most successful strategies involve grounding of some kind. For example, we’ll talk about the feeling of our feet on the ground. I ask the child to really feel what the pressure feels like on the bottom of their shoes. We might take a few steps and notice how our feet feel as we’re walking slowly. Another one I love for low levels of anxiety is bubble breathing. That’s when we blow bubbles and watch them fall all the way down until they pop on the floor. The purpose of both of these is simply to step outside of the anxiety and come back to present in the room. There are a ton more great strategies on this blog, like Clouds and Emotions Change, The Hoberman Sphere, Bunny Breath, and Tell Me a Story.

It’s important that we don’t try to make Nervous Nancy go away. We can name her and keep her around, as long as we also keep her in check. This is called scaffolding – that’s when we provide the optimal level of support to let kids do just enough that it’s challenging, but not enough that it’s crippling. With anxiety, this might look like letting your child enroll in an activity where he doesn’t know anyone, but also practicing conversation starters or positive self-talk like, “I’m good at making new friends.” It might mean taking your nervous swimmer to the pool on your own, before his friend’s pool party, so he can get comfortable with swimming – but then still encouraging him to RSVP yes even though he’s nervous. So I’m not advocating that we just push kids out into scary environments, but we also want to prevent against letting anxiety take over and get in the way of having fun. In the case of the pool party, you might say something like, “Nervous Nancy doesn’t want to go to the party! But I think you will have so much fun if you go. So let’s go teach Nervous Nancy how to swim so she doesn’t get in the way of having a great time!”

Like I said before, some anxiety is good. Our end goal needs to be to help kids build up more and more confidence and resilience so they can face new challenges without crumbling to anxiety. Regulating the amount of anxiety that they face each time (through providing supportive scaffolding and incorporating grounding strategies such as breathing) can help give them the practice they need to overcome the next anxiety-producing experience.

Of course, one final note: if the anxiety seems to be unmanageable more often than not, or if some of these strategies seem to intensify the anxiety rather than lessen it, that could be a sign your child needs more help in the form of a trained therapist who specializes in working with kids with anxiety.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N.I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., and Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala reactivity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x