Oftentimes children who are experiencing anxiety will have trouble keeping their emotions in check. Feeling scared, panicked, upset, sad, or all of the above are common symptoms of anxiety disorders. Children can benefit from physical activities, such as deep breathing or large muscle movement, to help them calm down when anxiety strikes.
Read on for some basic exercises that you can do with your child when he or she is feeling anxious.
Banish Fight or Flight
All humans—both children and adults—experience the fight or flight response when they’re in distress. Fight or flight is an innate response to threats that readies the body to either actively resist the situation (fight) or run away (flight). It’s essentially your mind telling your body to prepare for an immediate emergency, which results in a rapid heart rate, sweating, nausea, and more. For children, this can be particularly scary since they haven’t yet learned to recognize that this is a common physical response.
Teaching your child controlled, deep breathing when he or she is in a scary (or perceived to be scary) situation can help ease these physical symptoms. Practice this deep breathing technique together at a time when your child is feeling calm so that they can use it when you are not around.
- With your mouth closed, breathe in very slowly through your nose.
- Imagine you are trying to blow up a balloon that is in the lower part of your belly.
- Feel your belly rise as you breathe in.
- Keep inhaling until you can’t anymore. Hold your breath for one or two seconds.
- Very slowly, let the air out through your lips as though you were breathing through a straw. Keep exhaling until it feels like there is no air left in your body.
- Repeat the breathing exercise five or 10 times.
© Spike Gerrell from Max Archer, Kid Detective: The Case of the Recurring Stomachaches
Get Energized in the Morning
Dance. Play a round of Simon Says. Or simply do some easy toe touches. All of these large muscle movements will help to energize your child and get the blood flowing. While this approach might seem counterintuitive to staying calm, research has shown that getting the wiggles out actually helps focus the mind and gets your child ready to learn. Creating a playful, energetic environment for even a few minutes in the morning (or after school before homework time) will create a sense of fun and help keep your child calm. And, if weather permits, taking your child outside to run, jump, and bounce around also goes a long way toward conquering an anxious mind.
Need some ideas on how to move? Move Your Mood by Brenda S. Miles, PhD, and Colleen A. Patterson, MA, is a great companion book as you create a regular practice of movement with your child.
Talk Through Emotions
Children will often have a hard time conveying their feelings of anxiety because they don’t yet know how to identify complex emotions. For example, a child who is frustrated may tell you he is mad. Work with your child to identify both positive and negative emotions so that he or she is better able to deal with them. For example, you can teach a frustrated child how to ask for help. On the flip side, if your child gets a good grade on a test, use that as an opportunity to go beyond the word “happy” and teach him or her what it means to be proud. A richer emotional vocabulary leads to a deeper understanding of how to process feelings.
Remember, these are basic exercises and activities to help your child manage her anxiety. If the anxiety continues for an extended period of time and negatively impacts daily life, connecting with a child psychologist is an important next step. There are a number of resources to help you find the right psychologist, including the APA’s Psychologist Locator.
Move Your Mood, by Brenda S. Miles, PhD, and Colleen A. Patterson, MA
Max Archer, Kid Detective: The Case of the Recurring Stomachaches, by Howard J. Bennett, MD
Related Books from Magination Press
1-2-3 A Calmer Me: Helping Children Cope When Emotions Get Out of Control
It’s okay to feel mad.
This is what I do to help me feel better.
I stop and say a rhyme.
Let’s try it together.
1-2-3 A Calmer Me introduces children to a simple rhyme they can use to slow down their bodies and stop mad feelings from spinning out of control.
Includes a “Note to Parents, Teachers, and Other Grown-Ups” with more information about the steps of the “1-2-3” rhyme, and advice for working through the steps with your child. (picture book, ages 4-8)
Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings
What is the point of guilt? Or anxiety? Or hope? Just what are these emotions trying to tell you? Everything!
Emotions are a powerful and extraordinary part of being human. Your emotions serve as an instant cueing system to inform you about situations and motivate you to take actions.
Anxiety can sharpen your focus and direct your attentions.Pride can lead you to take on something new and challenging.Guilt can motivate you to correct situations that interfere with your relationships.
All of your emotions are valuable — they inform you, affect the decisions you make, and can motivate you to reach your goals.
Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings will help you gain powerful insight into a significant part of who you are. While your emotional life may feel tumultuous, your emotions are priceless. It’s time to figure out just what your emotions are telling you! (ages 15-18)
How to Feel Good: 20 Things Teens Can Do
Being a teenager can be tough. It can be really hard sometimes to feel good about yourself and your abilities. New relationships and experiences are happening all around you, and that can make you insecure, overwhelmed, or stressed out.
How to Feel Good will help you slow down and pay attention to how you feel and what you think about yourself.
This book presents 20 simple, mind-healthy skills to guide you toward self-awareness and to teach you to stay calm and self-confident. You will also find additional strategies, self-reflection questions, and easy-to-do tools to help end frustration and develop patience so that you can achieve your goals.
Are you ready? Do 1 or learn all 20 skills and take charge of you. You are just a step away from feeling more confident, secure, and GREAT! (ages 13-18)
Max Archer, Kid Detective: The Case of the Recurring Stomachaches
Meet Max. Max Archer, Kid Detective. Max helps kids solve problems.
Max’s friend Emily has stomachaches. A lot of them! So, Max and Emily investigate the big three causes of stomachaches — lactose intolerance, constipation, and stress — and determine what causes Emily’s stomach to hurt. Without even realizing it, Emily has been under stress, so much that her tummy feels it! Using kid-friendly stress-busting strategies, Emily learns how to get back on track and feel better.
Come on! You too can join Max and learn to bust your stress and get rid of your stomachaches. Be sure to check out the extra fun activities at the end of the book, and show your parents the Q&A written just for them. (picture book, ages 6-10)
Mind Over Basketball: Coach Yourself to Handle Stress
Tuck is stressed out. His parents are divorced, he misses his father, and he has moved to a new house and school. When he decides to try out for the basketball team, the neighborhood boys won’t let him use “their” court to practice.
With so many problems, Tuck is having a hard time feeling confident and dealing with his upsets. Then Walton shows up. Taking on the role of coach, Walton teaches Tuck not only how to play better basketball but also how to manage his anxiety and self-doubt. Soon Tuck is feeling in control of his life and focusing his energy on what he loves most…basketball!
Using a positive, interactive, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction approach, this book combines a high-interest chapter book and informative coaching guides with skills-training exercises for readers ages 8 to 14. (picture book, ages 8-14)
Move Your Mood
Feeling blah? Here’s what to do. Move your body and your mood moves too!
Move Your Mood! invites kids and adults to twist, wiggle, shake, hop…and smile! Reading this book with your child is an active and fun way to teach your child about emotions, and introduce the idea that moving our bodies affects the way we feel inside.
Ready to start feeling better? Move and groove your way into a better mood!
Includes a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers with suggestions for how to use the book with your child, and additional ideas for teaching your child about emotions. (picture book, ages 4-8)