I once had a patient named Jerry (a fake name to protect his identity, but with permission to share his story from Jerry and his family). Jerry was in high school and was very anxious anytime he went out in public.
His mother reported concerns that they were not able to live a life they wanted because of Jerry’s anxiety. They couldn’t go to the mall, eat out at a restaurant, or go out to stores because he just felt too overwhelmed. And when he did go out, he would wear earplugs AND headphones to avoid his anxiety, neither of which helped. Needless to say, he and his family were ready for change!
I can tell you that after some therapy and LOTS of hard work, I received an email filled with pictures of Jerry at prom, which was attended by over 1,000 people. Now when Jerry goes places, he states, “I’m gonna Lori Long this sh**!”
As much as I love that Jerry made my name into a verb, I can’t take the credit. The techniques we used were from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). And today, I’m going to share with you five secret ingredients that you can use to help your child overcome anxiety.
What is Anxiety and How To Tell If Your Child Has It
Before we jump into strategies, let’s first define anxiety. Anxiety is the emotion we feel when we are faced with PERCEIVED danger. This occurs when we overestimate the dangers of a potential situation while underestimating our ability to cope with it.
This means that your child’s body reacts to seemingly harmless situations because your child expects that there is a real threat of danger. For instance, for some of our kids, just going to school or walking into a dark room produces the same fear response that Carole Baskin might have opening a piece of mail from Joe Exotic—complete and total terror.
Your child’s body will sound the alarms that danger is present. This causes them to experience a shot of adrenaline to either fight the danger, run from the danger, or just freeze in sheer terror.
Sometimes it can be very hard to tell if our children are feeling anxious. Not all of our children can put words to their emotions. You might be able to tell your child has anxiety if they:
- Ask lots of questions entering new or unfamiliar situations
- Express “what if” scenarios of something bad happening
- Have frequent unexplained stomach or head aches
- Complain of pain
- Are irritable or angry
- Cry or withdrawal
- Kick, throw things, scream
Now that you have some of the basics on anxiety, let’s dive into some strategies.
1) Teach Your Child How Worries Get Stuck
To start, let your child know that anxiety is normal and validate their emotions. Tell them, “I see you’re worried or afraid right now. It’s ok, all kids feel afraid at different times too.” For instance, most children are afraid to get shots, sleep over at a friend’s house for the first time, or be in a dark room alone. Fears can help protect us, and we need them. However, sometimes our worries get stuck in our brain, and they just don’t want to go away.
In CBT, we teach kids the chain reaction that occurs with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In my example with Jerry, we found that one of the main underlying issues with going out to restaurants was the music that was being played. Jerry did not like music and often shut it off in the car. He had negative thoughts about the music and the unexpected nature of when it was played.
This would cause him anxiety (feeling), and he would ask to turn it off or leave (behavior). For Jerry, he tried to escape his feelings by avoiding the music and wearing headphones, earplugs, and leaving these situations. Though this avoidance gave him short-term relief, it helped his anxiety to grow bigger in his life.
To help your child, have them identify the thoughts they are having in a situation that might trigger anxiety. Then, identify the behavior that follows. For all children, their anxiety is so scary to them, that they immediately engage in behaviors to escape the situation. It is important for us to let our kids know that anxiety grows bigger in their lives through avoidance. Why? Because each time they avoid, they are saying to anxiety, I believe you. The more they listen to it, the more it takes control.
2) Teach Your Child to Relax and Unplug their Alarms
“Anxiety can jump out in an instant, like a bogeyman in a Halloween haunted house. In just a few seconds, it is all systems go,” Ellen Hendricksen, Ph.D. in “How to Be Yourself.” For our kids (and us!), that feeling of anxiety can come out of nowhere and be terrifying. Their bodies sound the alarm that danger is near, and then comes the adrenaline. In turn, your child might feel faint, cry, sweat, tremble, feel dizzy, or have fast heartbeats. Let your child know that what they are experiencing is real and the feelings are very uncomfortable.
You can help your child by giving them different techniques to counteract this fear response in their body. You can teach them relaxation tools that they can use to tell their body, “Nope, I’m safe here. I got this.” Some relaxation strategies that we love are belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery. If you would like more specific strategies, click here to get our Free Relaxation Tools for Kids.
3) Give Worry a Silly Name and Talk Back to It!
Sometimes anxiety can feel like it is who we are and a part of us. We want our kids to feel like anxiety is something that is NOT a part of them. To do this, we like to have kids give their anxiety a name—the sillier the better! The Stinky Bully, The Grouchy Monster, The Overreactor, Mr. Nag, etc. It’s not only fun to make it silly, but it also lightens the mood when talking about a subject that can feel scary. It’s hard to feel worried when you are laughing, so have fun with this!
Rather than reassuring your child, when they are anxious you might ask, “What is Stinky Bully telling you will happen if we go in the restaurant? Do you believe Stinky Bully? Are there things that might tell you Stinky Bully is wrong?” Try communicating to your child that worry is not to be trusted.
4) Use a Worry Thermometer
To learn more about Jerry’s worry, we used a worry thermometer. Some children like a 0-10 scale and some prefer 0-5. Jerry preferred a simpler 0-5 scale. On a scale of 0 (totally calm no worry) to 5 (the worst anxiety he could imagine), Jerry used the thermometer to identify his fear in situations.
- Listening to music at home (Worry = 4)
- Listening to music on car radio (Worry = 4)
- Listening to music on iPad (Worry = 3)
- Haircut at barber (Worry = 1-2)
- Going to the gym (Worry = 1-2)
- Waiting at McDonald’s for food (Worry = 5)
- Eating at a sit-down restaurant (Worry = 5)
5) Create A Worry Ladder and Start Climbing It!
Jerry, his mother, and I then created a worry ladder and put the easiest situations on the bottom and the hardest ones at the top. Based on that information, we all planned to create a series of worry challenges throughout the week.
He and his mother selected some of the outings that caused him the least amount of stress. He was then encouraged to try using breathing exercises rather than earplugs or headphones when he was in these situations. When he and his mother started, they often would do very short periods of time in each of these situations. She then gradually increased the time. She also gave Jerry jobs to do to help keep him focused on a task while he was in these situations rather than being focused on his internal feelings.
When you have your child take small steps and do challenges, the goal should be to stay in those challenges until your child’s anxiety goes back down (e.g., worry = 5 to worry = 1 or 2). If your child does the challenge and then leaves right away, your child will only remember that heightened feeling of anxiety. When doing a challenge, remember that anxiety spikes quickly, but it always goes back down.
In most cases, the anxiety should start to lessen over the course of several minutes as your child adjusts and realized they can cope with the situation. In therapy, Jerry and I also practiced listening to music together.
Initially, he would ask to stop it right away. Instead, we tried making it less scary by dancing to the music, joking about it, and trying to think of funny things about the songs. After a few sessions, Jerry actually started liking the music and began choosing to listen to it on his own at home and in the car!
Remember, as you start to do challenges with your child there will be setbacks. Try to be understanding and put it aside for the day. Most importantly, make sure you provide lots of praise and rewards when your child makes the effort to start facing fears. This takes amazing courage and your child should receive lots of positive feedback along with tangible rewards. Talk to your child about things they would like to earn as they take small steps up their worry ladder.
If you want to learn a few more relaxation strategies to teach your child, head to our Creating Calm page to check out our free lesson from the course.
Have an amazing week!