Help for the Anxious Child, Anxious Teen, and Anxious Parent

03 Jan

Kids and teens have worries and experience stress and anxiety just like their parents. Indeed, we can feel anxious, worried, overwhelmed or stressed at any age – young and old alike.

Sometimes anxiety may seem to run in the family. Ever notice that your child or teen is anxious just like you? That is because children are very perceptive and attuned to their parents, almost like they have antennae where they can essentially pick up and sense your moods and signals. Children watch closely your actions and behaviours and they listen carefully to what you say (even though they are busy playing or doing other things).

The upside of this is that children learn not only from what you teach them but also from observing you. You can help your child or teen, both directly and indirectly, manage and cope with stress and anxiety. I know it is a cliche, but it is very important that you practice what you preach.

Where to begin? Build your toolkit, build your child’s or teenager’s toolkit.

The first and most important tool is to change your breathing. When we are anxious, worried, or stressed, we use shallow breathing. We breathe in and out quickly and from the upper chest. I will expand on why in a future post but basically, it is because of the fight-or-flight response and to prepare our bodies for action. Instead, we want to engage the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing down our breathing. We want to take deep and relaxing breaths using the diaphragm. That is, try to breathe in slowly through the nose, filling up your abdomen and then chest. Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, emptying out your stomach first and then your chest. It can help to close your eyes and think to yourself soothing words, like “calm” and “relax” as you breathe in slowly and out slowly. Repeat this type of rhythmic breathing for several minutes. Of course, there are many variations of breathing skills so you may need to find the best one for you.

How do I teach my child this breathing technique?

cutegirlyarztsamuiOne of my favourite ways to teach young children about deep breathing is to blow bubbles together! Children love to blow bubbles and it is a special treat to let them do this inside the house! Try this fun activity with your child. Blowing bubbles really demonstrates how to slow down the breath because the only way to make multiple bubbles from the wand is to breathe out slowly. Once your child has practiced for some time, you can use an imaginary bubble wand (or even create one) to remind them how to breathe slowly.

For older children or teenagers, a helpful tip is to practice the breathing technique by putting one hand on the chest and one hand just below the ribcage (at least initially until they get the hang of it). As your child breathes in, watch to make sure the lower hand moves up first followed by the hand on the chest. As your child breathes out, the hand on the chest should go down first, then the hand near the abdomen. Using a count of 4 on both the inhalation and exhalation may also help. Sometimes I teach children and teenagers to imagine the air on the inhalation is coming in through the soles of their feet, filling up the abdomen and then the chest like a balloon. On the exhalation, the air is emptying from the chest and then the abdomen and out through the bottoms of the feet.

Remember to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. The only way to get the most benefit for you and your child or teenager is to practice the skills regularly.

In an upcoming post and on my resources page, I will soon be highlighting some great books that I recommend to children and parents to help cope with anxiety.

a-spot-of-blue-small

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A little plug I want to mention is that I recently collaborated and wrote the foreword to a book about anxiety for young children called A Spot of Blue, with author Elaheh Bos. You may want to check out the book and her terrific website.

Please feel free to write your comments or questions below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes,
Dr. Stephanie

Image courtesy of arztsamui / freedigitalphotos.net

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