We all know that telling a stressed-out child to calm down now simply doesn’t work. And ineffectiveness is the best-case scenario. Often, an order to calm down will make whatever stressful situation a person is in that much worse. So when you’re faced with an anxious child, you need strategies that create and inspire calm, instead of trying to command it.
If your child is prone to anxious feelings, it helps to introduce soothing strategies at a time when he’s not already amped up. “Some kids are fine with an explicit conversation—so you could say, for example, ‘I know that school’s been hard for you,' or 'I agree, making friends can be difficult, but there are ways to solve this that are a lot of fun if you want to try,’” says life coach Renee Jain, who founded the New York City-based GoZen to help children manage anxiety. Another effective approach: talk about a time you felt anxious, and how you coped.
You also can integrate some calming practices into your family’s regular routine. You might try a short meditation before you sleep, or this “bubble meditation” from Jain: In a bubble bath, imagine that every bubble is a thought. Ask your child, “Can we find the ones that bother us?” Eventually, they float away or pop. By the end of the bath, all of the bubbles will disappear; just like thoughts, they come and go.
Depending on your child’s temperament and the environment you’re in, you also can choose from this menu of calming techniques, Jain says. Adapt the wording to fit your child’s age and experience, and keep trying until you hit on a phrase that does it. It might be different from what worked before.
Think Positive: Use Affirmations
Encourage your child to repeat a positive mantra several times, taking a healing breath in between each repetition. She might try:
- I can do this.
- I am strong.
- This will pass.
If she can’t or won’t speak, be her voice. Repeat your own soothing words, such as:
- I love you.
- You are safe.
- You are brave.
- We are a team.
- We’ll get through this.
Think About Something Else: Use Distractions
Sometimes, diverting your child from whatever is worrying him is enough to head off anxiety. If the situation allows, try an activity such as listening to a song, walking or running around the block, jumping in place, or playing with your pet. Jain recommends suggesting, “Let’s put your worry on the shelf while we…” When the activity is over, your child may want to talk about his fears—or he may be ready to move on to something else.
If it’s not a good time for such a diversion (say, you’re trying to get your child to bed), try a verbal distraction. Ask your child to help you make a list of people or places he loves. Help him conjure up a happy memory of a time he succeeded at something important. Or help him look forward to an upcoming event: “I can’t wait until Thanksgiving, can you? Aunt Maggie makes the best pumpkin pie.” You can even walk him through a calming visualization. Help him think of a happy and peaceful place and envision being there. What are the sights, sounds, smells, and textures?
When anxiety creeps up in a public place, try the Let’s Count game. Ask your child, “How many kids are in the room? How many people are wearing glasses? How many light switches can you find?” Take turns issuing challenges, and use the power of observation to keep stressful feelings at bay.
Think Through It: Face the Fear
Sometimes kids want to work through their anxiety. They just need a little prompt to get started. When worry or anxiety take over, try saying: “What do you think will happen next?” or “What is the first thing we need to think about?” Offer reassurance with questions such as “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me?” Remind your child that you sometimes get scared or nervous too, and suggest that you learn more about whatever is worrying her together.
Many kids find arts and crafts soothing. Use drawing, painting, sculpting, sewing, or even writing in a journal—whatever your child enjoys—to help her work through her racing thoughts, or to keep her mind off them. She might like the idea of creating a vision board that showcases her dreams and passions. The act of creating the board (cutting out pictures, gluing them to a background) is calming, and so is the chance to focus on things she loves.
Think Strong: Use Physical Activity
Just as the act of drawing or writing can reduce stress, so can other physical movements and activities. Try:
- Blowing up a balloon or blowing on a pinwheel
- Jumping rope
- Bouncing on a yoga ball
- Squeezing a stress ball, play dough, or bread dough
- Hugging a family member or a pet
- Pushing on a wall
- Going upside-down: Do a handstand or a downward-facing dog
- Singing (or yelling!)
- Taking a hot bath
- Getting a massage: roll a tennis ball on your child’s back, neck, and shoulders, or use a golf ball to stimulate the pressure points on the bottom of his feet.