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Simple Strategies to Cope with Anxiety for Kids

It’s Monday morning. We have to be out the door by 8:00am. It’s the usual frenzy of packing up lunches, helping the preschooler get dressed and start breakfast, and making sure the older kids are in the process of getting ready. Everything is humming along in a sort of controlled chaos fashion.

But I pause and look around. Where is the eight-year-old?

She’s curled up in a blanket on the couch. “I don’t want to go!”

I patiently encourage her to get dressed. I tell her that breakfast is on the table and that we leave in 30 minutes. Then I get back to getting everything else (including myself) ready.

Before I know it ten minutes have gone by, and she’s still not making progress. But now instead of just sitting there she’s loudly singing random songs, annoying her sister. The stress level is rising.

With ten minutes left until we need to be on the road I frustratingly make a final demand that she gets some clothes on. Then come the tears and the overwhelm. I have to drop what I’m doing and help her get her breakfast packed up, get her backpack ready, and grab a hair brush so we can get on the road.

girl wrapped in blanket

Strategies to Help Kids Cope with Anxiety

Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you. Or maybe this only happens once in a while in your house. Around here, it’s pretty much every morning that requires us to be out the door early (thankfully that’s not every day since we homeschool).

It’s the same routine every time. Lay around for a while, not willing to do anything. Then play and bother people intentionally, still not willing to make any progress towards getting ready. Then completely breakdown because now there is so much to do and so little time.

It’s a learned trauma response.

And while I wish she could just decide to not do it, the nervous system does not work that way.

My daughter had some pretty significant trauma when she was little that caused her to equate eating with pain. So she learned to find ways to avoid eating, especially in the morning. These coping strategies also help her numb the anxious feelings, whether she’s wrapped up in a blanket trying to feel safe or she’s in the high energy sympathetic state being loud and obnoxious to others.

And while these strategies kept her safe when she was little and was unable to verbalize what she was feeling, they are no longer serving her. Instead they are hindering her and those around her.

Children dealing with anxiety often develop coping strategies. They may look like typical kid behavior or even defiance or being inconsiderate of others. But your child is really just trying as hard as possible to feel safe.

child pulling on tablet

How to Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety

I went over some common symptoms of anxiety in kids in a previous post. It’s important to be familiar with the symptoms so you know what to look for.

Anxiety is typically a high energy state. This is the sympathetic state of the nervous system.

However, you might notice your child oscillating between active, high energy (anger, louds noises, bothering others, getting into trouble) and very still low energy (fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to make decisions, collapsing).

This means your child is feeling anxious but can’t handle that strong emotion for very long. So he or she shuts down and goes into overwhelm. Once your child has had time to rest and get some energy reserves, he or she jumps right back into anxiety. It’s like a ping-pong match.

The goal is to stop this pattern. Believe it or not, the high energy anxious state is preferable over the overwhelm. While it may be less bothersome to the family, overwhelm is a much harder state to get out of.

If your child is exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, such as picking fights, being destructive, being really loud, or even escaping into books or video games, that is where you can break the cycle.

kid playing with a top

Strategies to Reduce Anxiety in Kids

Diet and lifestyle both play roles in the health of a child’s nervous sytem. Simple strategies to reduce anxiety include:

  • Eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats for blood sugar regulation
  • Eat specific nutrients that reduce anxiety
  • Sunlight on the eyes and skin, especially in the morning
  • Reduce exposure to toxins (heavy metals, pesticides/glyphosate, GMO foods, chemicals, parabens)
  • Get regular movement (sports, helping around the house, playing)
  • Get adequate sleep (this is when the body processes the day’s events and works through anxiety safely)
  • Regulated parents or caregivers (a child mimics what he or she sees adults do)
  • Balance minerals (HTMA is a great tool to help with this)

There are also some simple supportive natural remedies to help with anxiety management. These include:

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Anxiety-Reducing Exercises for Kids

At the heart of anxiety and coping strategies is a child’s need to feel safe and supported. There are many methods for reducing anxiety, including tapping (EFT) and parts work. But my favorite method of dealing with anxiety is to stop it before it even starts using somatic exercises.

Somatic simply means that you feel it in your body, instead of trying to think your way through an emotion. This is where change happens.

I mentioned that I wish my daughter could simply decide to get ready instead of repeating the same behaviors. Especially since she and I both know the outcome. But to her body the behavior feels safe. So no amount of explaining or logic will work. That’s the way it is with the nervous system. You have to feel or experience an emotion in your body. And that is exactly what somatic exercises do.

There are many somatic exercises. I’ll explain three simple, yet effective exercises here.

It is important to both learn and practice these exercises when in a calm state. Then they will be second nature when a threat does arise. It’s also essential for parents to help children learn the exercises. Doing it together really solidifies the felt sense of safety and support.

child looking through magnifying glass

The Silent Observer

Some people call this exercise orienting. I like to call it the silent observer. All you have to do is look around! That’s it. It’s like people watching, but instead you’re taking in everything.

Take a minute or two to really observe your surroundings. Look at the ceiling, the floor, behind you – everywhere. Is there anything that scares you? Is there anything that could actually harm you? Chances are the answer is no. But if there is, you can move the object or yourself until you are in a safe environment.

Once you have observed and are confident that there is no harm, your body will feel safe and relax.

The great thing about the silent observer is that you can do it anywhere! At school, at the dentist, at a friend’s house…anywhere. And nobody has to know. But your body sure will.

This is the exercise I use when one of my children is really upset or overwhelmed. I don’t tell them to stop crying. I don’t tell them to get over it.

I simply sit next to them and tell them to look around. We start observing together and say what we see. It’s pretty amazing how quickly things shift.

The Superhero

Do you ever wish you had super human strength? With this exercise you can! The superhero is a way to push away all the bad stuff, sort of like pushing away a heavy bolder.

Start with your hands near your shoulders. Start pushing away from your body in any direction, as if you are actually pushing something very heavy. Use all your strength.

Once your arms are fully extended, bring your hands to your lap and notice how you feel. Do your shoulders relax? Does your breathing slow? What else do you feel in your body?

The superhero is a great way to help a child feel safe by pushing away any fears, anxieties, worries, or whatever is bothering him or her.

My kids and I do this almost every night before bed. My preschooler leads us! He loves to hold up a heavy boulder and throw it just like Superman. This also works well before an anxiety-inducing event because your child will feel empowered to do hard things.

Here’s a demonstration of the Superhero:

The Hug

The hug is one of my favorite somatic exercises because of it’s simplicity and effectiveness. Have you ever been upset and just feel like you need a hug? That’s exactly what this is!

Giving yourself a hug helps you feel supported and secure. It works very well to calm high energy anxiety. It’s a way to contain all the nervous energy.

Simply find a way that feels good to hug yourself. Maybe you prefer a gentle hug across the chest. Maybe you like a really tight squeeze around the neck. Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. And it can change from situation to situation. You can get a similar effect from wrapping yourself tightly in a blanket. The goal is to help your body feel contained since anxiety feels wild and unbounded.

For very young children it’s helpful to have a parent or caregiver hug them at the same time they hug themselves. This helps them really feel secure.

I use this method when one of my children is really upset and crying. I hold them tightly until their breathing slows and their body relaxes.

How to Put an End to Anxiety

Now that you understand a bit more about anxiety and the nervous system, you can probably see what I see when my daughter can’t get ready. She starts the day in a low energy state, just waking up, wanting to curl up on the couch to maintain her feeling of safety as long as possible.

Once she has oriented to the environment (by being a silent observer) she moves into a high energy state. This is a good thing! She feels safe enough to move out of freeze and into sympathetic.

This is the leverage point. This is where she needs some support (superhero, hug) to move into the calm, parasympathetic state where she can think clearly, make decisions, and even feel safe enough to eat.

However, I am not usually available to walk her through that process. So she gets stuck in the fight (high energy) state. But with no food in her belly and a ticking clock to ramp up the anxiety, she runs out of energy and goes straight to overwhelm. Can you see it?

daughter and mother hugging

The solution?

  • I’m teaching my daughter to recognize what’s happening.
  • I’m empowering her with the tools to feel safe and supported, even if there isn’t a parent nearby to help.
  • I’m making sure I am regulated so that I can be a safe person for her.
  • I am doing my best to step in at the leverage point until she is able to do it herself.

Whether child or adult, nobody can think his or her way out of anxiety or overwhelm. But you can learn to help your body feel safe and supported so you can quickly get back to a sate of calm.

Which somatic exercise are you going to try first?

Simple strategies to help kids cope with anxiety
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2 thoughts on “Simple Strategies to Cope with Anxiety for Kids”

  1. This is really interesting. I had never heard of somatic exercises before but I think it makes sense. My husband just went through about two years of some major health issues (severe unexplained pain, back and leg muscles in a constant state of spams, unable to do anything on his own, which led to depression). After going to all the doctors, specialists, nutritional therapists, a couple people had talked to him about something called tension myositis syndrome (TMS) and he finally looked into it, and it’s what seemed to have been the issue. It sounds very similar to what you described in your post … When we don’t process things, our brain distracts us with pain or tension.

    It might not be exactly the same but I’ve wondered if one of my sons deals with this and how to help him. I’ll be trying out some of these strategies. Thanks for the info!

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