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.

  1. With your mouth closed, breathe in very slowly through your nose.
  2. Imagine you are trying to blow up a balloon that is in the lower part of your belly.
  3. Feel your belly rise as you breathe in.
  4. Keep inhaling until you can’t anymore. Hold your breath for one or two seconds.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Reference List

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

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