The last two and a half years have been full of “unknowns.” We have longed for a sense of normalcy that, truth be told, may never return again. Even those who don’t usually experience anxiety, may have found themselves feeling distressed by the uncertainty of it all. Others of us may be crippled by the uncertainty; as our brains become wired to assume the worst.
By the end of 2020, 31.9% of teens (ages 13-18) in America had been diagnosed with an anxiety-related disorder. Sixty-seven percent reported a fear of the unknown about their future. As parents, we want them to be the most prepared for success and hope for their future. Here are some tips for coping with anxiety to help you along the way.
Step 1: Pay attention to your child’s feelings
Help your child to identify and verbalize their feelings, even with a simple emotion word. This decreases stress and survival responses in their brain and body by 50 to 80%. However, identifying what are they feeling in their body during periods of distress can be incredibly helping in anxiety management. Do they get headaches? Does their heart race? Do they become shaky?
Help your child become aware of what their automatic brain and body responses are during periods of anxiety. This guides the development of targeted, personalized plans on how to relax that part of their body. Relaxing their muscles, slowing their breathing, and regulating their heartrate taps into the smarter, problem-solving part of their brain. That will make anxiety management much more effective. So, help them name their emotion, identify their body response, and then work on relaxing and managing their bodies, as a good first step in managing anxiety.
Step 2: What are they thinking?
I ask this question often as a parent, but probably not in the most helpful tone at times. During periods of distress, help your child identify the thoughts they are having.
Every day our brains process an estimated 6,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and many of those are considered “automatic.” They happen quickly and effortlessly. They are based on our past experiences and memories, as well as our beliefs about ourselves and the world. It is estimated that up to 80% of these automatic thoughts are “negative.” As a result, they negatively skew our perceptions about what is happening to us and around us.
Becoming aware of these thoughts, and then challenging their accuracy and helpfulness is an important step in anxiety management. If you ever hear your child make statements like, “Nobody likes me; I never do anything right; I’m going to fail,” take a moment to pause and help them identify, “Is that true, and is that helpful?” Just because you have a thought pop in your head doesn’t mean you have to keep it there.
Step 3: Support them in developing more helpful thoughts
Once your child is able to identify that they are rehearsing negative, untrue or unhelpful thoughts, you may be able to help them follow the trail to see how it leads to unhelpful actions/reactions. From there, it can be easier to guide them to explore and develop more positive, true and helpful thoughts that lead to better outcomes. While you may feel the urge to jump in and rescue those automatic negative thoughts by saying things like, “You do have friends; you do (a million things) really well; you are smart,” it is much more impactful when children are able to develop their own alternative beliefs.
As a parent, it is most helpful to step back, provide flexibility for them to learn from mistakes, provide stability when they fall, and give them opportunities to work through their own problems. One strategy I have found to be effective is providing a simple 3-letter word response: BUT?
“I think nobody likes me… BUT… it’s a new school and it takes time to get to know new people.”
“I think I can never do anything right. I messed up big time… BUT… I can learn from my mistakes.”
“I think I’m going to fail… BUT… I studied really hard and will do my best. It’s just one grade, so it’s not the end of the world.”
Tapping into their own body responses, relaxation skills, language skills, and problem-solving skills, will help them use the smarter executive functioning part of the brain, and limit unnecessary panic and distress.
If your child is struggling to manage their anxiety, therapy may help them development new awareness, relaxation skills and helpful thinking patterns. We encourage you to reach out to Crossnore’s Referrals & Admissions Team if you believe anxiety treatment will be beneficial for your child.