Step Off The Bus Gus: Helping Children With Anxiety

Helping Children With AnxietyAs parents, we will do anything to ensure that our kids are feeling well. We check that they are clothed, fed, and, if at all possible, in a good mood to face the day ahead. But, sometimes, in our quest to help our children, we are hurting them instead.

Such is the case when our child presents with anxiety. Even the word, “anxiety,” can cause our own heart-rates to rise. Part of our response stems from the fact that many of us are unaware of the positive benefits of some levels of anxiety.

Anxiety is a natural human response, built in to protect us from harm. You’ve probably heard the term, “fight or flight,” used to describe the two responses that commonly result when we are faced with something scary or dangerous. If we didn’t have any anxiety we wouldn’t do important things, like get out of bed in the morning, or avoid walking off of cliffs. So, some anxiety is normal, and even necessary to live a healthy life. But when we find ourselves avoiding certain people or circumstances, or shying away from activities that we would otherwise like to partake in, we know that anxiety has gotten the upper hand.

In children, anxiety can sometimes look similar to how it presents in adults with symptoms like:

  • sweaty hands
  • shortness of breath
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • avoidance of certain activities
  • trouble sleeping
  • constant worry
  • fear of impending doom

But, children also have unique ways of showing that they are anxious. Some of these include:

  • headaches
  • stomach aches
  • crying fits
  • not wanting to go to school
  • not wanting to be separated from known adults
  • acting “clingy” with caretakers

Knowing what anxiety is constitutes half the battle for parents. But the other half is knowing how to handle this issue when, and if,  it comes up with your children.

Remember earlier, when I said that parents can sometimes make things worse for their children when they are trying to make things better? Well, the second reason for this is because parents sometimes try to eliminate their children’s anxiety for them by saying things like, “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s not a big deal.” Parents say these things with the best of intentions, but, unfortunately it only invalidates how their kids feel, without giving their little ones any positive ways to cope with what’s going on inside of them.

A better approach is to help kids understand that 1) anxiety is a normal response, and 2) that it is both physical and emotional. It’s helpful to tell children, in whatever way that they can understand, that there is a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is shaped like an almond, that is responsible for telling your body that it is time to fight. This is why you experience shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, heart-palpitations, and all of the other scary things that go along with it.

Once you explain what anxiety is, you can teach ways to work with it. Giving anxiety a name, like “Gus,” is extremely helpful, because it helps kids see that their anxiety is just a part of them, but it does not define them. One helpful metaphor is to think of anxiety, or Gus, as just another passenger on the bus of (insert your child’s name here). It’s okay for Gus to ride the bus, but Gus isn’t allowed to be the driver. If Gus tries to drive, because Amygdala told him that he was needed, we just need to let Gus know that we’ve got everything under control, and usher him back to his seat. That way, we can leave the driver’s seat open for Logical Larry, who is clearly a better driver than Gus.

In addition to the bus metaphor, we can teach skills like breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation, all of which have been proven to reduce anxiety and worry.

The main thing to remember if you have a child with anxiety is that anxiety is very treatable! In fact, a diagnosis of anxiety may provide an opportunity to help your child build coping skills that will help her face all of life’s challenges with courage, hope, and resiliency.

If you would like more information on how to handle a child with anxiety, contact us. We are more than happy to help.