Calming Anxious Kids: Six Ways to Ease Upsets
by Elisa Bosley
Kids today are no strangers to stress. In a media-saturated world, children face scary stuff every day, from wars and natural disasters to divorce and peer pressure. In addition to the mental toll, anxiety affects kids’ bodies, too: A study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that family stress directly compromises immune function and increases the likelihood of illness in children. As a parent, how can we help?
First, take a deep breath. “Childhood anxiety is not a new problem in our society,” says Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, a Los Angeles physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry. She notes that all children go through stages of normal fears and worries, and anxieties can show up as stomach aches, headaches, potty accidents, aggression and sleep problems. Here, experts offer tips to discern normal versus unhealthy stress levels and to help a child develop coping skills for life’s inevitable hardships.
Start by simply listening to your child. “When my children are upset, my immediate instinct is to ask ‘How can I fix this?’” says Dr. Natalie Geary, an integrative pediatrician and mother of three in New York City. “But you need to step back, listen and empathize, without trying to problem-solve right away. If you allow the child to express his or her discomfort, and if you step back and try to gain some perspective, you may start to discern the triggers for his or her anxiety.” Trying to solve the problem immediately can backfire, she advises. Create a consistent time, such as a snack break after school, to allow a child to download her day. You’ll learn more about what causes her stress and she’ll gain confidence in your care and her own ability to face fears.
For many school-age kids, performance anxiety becomes an overriding constant. Unfortunately, parents often play a role by projecting their own ambitions onto their kids, notes Geary. Carl HonorÃ©, author of Under Pressure, cites parents’ good intentions, but blames modern forces—including a perfectionist culture, a volatile and hypercompetitive economy and older, first-time parents that bring a workplace ethos to child rearing—for conspiring to pressure kids. “What we’re squeezing out is the simple, soaring human pleasure and joy of being a child,” says HonorÃ©. So find ways to lighten up on expectations.
“Children are expected to visit a pediatrician for preventive health, and we should adopt the same principle for mental health,” counsels Narasimhan. “If anxiety is impacting a child’s functioning—such as causing him to want to avoid school or public places, showing extreme difficulty separating from caretakers, or complaining of frequent pains for which the pediatrician doesn’t see a medical explanation—take the child to a therapist or psychiatrist [to screen for anxiety].”
When appropriate, Narasimhan recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, in which a therapist teaches the child strategies to combat fears and address certain feelings and behaviors. “This may include deep-breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and alternative coping thoughts,” she says. A meta-analysis of clinical trials first published in School Psychology Review concludes that such therapy can play a key role in alleviating childhood anxiety.
Speed breeds stress. “Don’t be in such a rush,” advises Geary. “Whatever you can take out of the day, take out.”
Work out a looser schedule, whether that means limiting kids to one musical instrument or sport or instituting a weekly day of rest, when playtime replaces all homework and chores. Says Geary, “I see a lot of kids coming in with stomach pains or school issues, or they’re hitting others. Nine times out of 10, I feel like saying to the parents, ‘Just take your kids to the playground, sit in the park with them and get really dirty digging in the mud.’ If they did that for a month, they’d be fine.”
Pay attention to food
“If blood sugar drops, it’s a very anxiety- and irritability-producing sensation,” observes Geary. “Try to feed children snacks that provide slow-release nutrition, meaning they’re not getting a jolt of hard-to-digest fat, protein or sugar.” Her favored choices include low-fat cheese and hummus, or whole-grain bread, spread with nut butter, an easy-to-digest protein.
Children often reflect their parents’ moods, so create calm. “Massage, maybe with calendula oil or something that smells nice for the child, is wonderful,” says Geary. The key is the interaction of the touch and the stillness. Just before bedtime, enjoy a cup of herbal tea together. “It’s more the ritual of sharing a warm drink at the end of the day than actually what you’re drinking,” she says. “They will absorb the fact that you’re spending time with them.”
Elisa Bosley is a senior editor at Delicious Living magazine.