As a psychologist, I have always been drawn to helping children manage anxiety and fears. I remember first mentioning my desires to an aunt in my teens, who herself was an elementary school teacher, but could not imagine what worries children might have. I froze for the moment but then wondered how that could be since I lived every day with a host of worries. Do other children like me? Am I a good daughter? Am I smart? Will my parents’ divorce? Will my parents die? For reasons that I may never understand, these worries somehow took a front seat in my life.
I know now that there are children out there with varying degrees of worry and that I was not the only one. I know now that worries, including anxiety and fear, distort our perception of ourselves, where we lose sight of inner strengths, and of our perception of the world, losing sight of the beauty around us. One way to cope when afraid is to remind ourselves of our inner strengths and of the beauty around us – the stars, moon, fields of flowers, the ocean, playing with friends, relaxing after a long day of school, and the like. It has been found that children who imagine a positive experience before taking a test are less anxious during the exam and get higher grades. That’s the power of the positive!
But managing anxiety is not limited to accentuating the positive. Being mindful and living as much as we can in the present takes us away from a pull toward the future. Many of our anxieties are about what might happen or not happen in the days ahead. We do not need to concern ourselves with many of these thoughts. If you stop for a moment and think about how many of your worries have come true, the list is short.
When anxious, take some deep breaths and draw yourself back to the present. It is amazing what deep breathing can do for anxiety. But if it is something pressing about our future, taking action toward our goals is an antidote for anxiety. Set up short-term and long-term goals, and ways to achieve them, always with an eye toward how realistic they are. For children, this can be goals related to school, steps to take to make friends, steps to take to break bad habits, and the like.
Movement is a wonderful anxiety-buster for children; this means sports and dance. Unfortunately, whenever I ask children about their gym classes in school, they are often few and far between. Sitting so many hours, trying to focus and sustain attention, does not serve the anxious mind well. Playing outside is another stress-release, but too limited in the age of technology. From children I have spoken with though, they often find video games relaxing. If you cannot beat them, join them, I guess, but in limited doses. If possible, some of the after-school activities should include some form of movement.
Anxiety and fear are here to stay, and we are hard-wired to experience these emotions as signals to danger. With the experience, try to discover the threat. It may be an emotional fear of rejection or loss. Those are powerful threats, and children need to be reminded that they are real and a natural part of life. More concrete fears may include fear of falling, of being hit by a ball playing sports or being hit by a moving car. But these fears are necessary to learn how to dodge from harm’s way. As children better understand how they are hard-wired, they take an active role in facing their emotions, and this in and of itself gives children a sense of mastery in managing their lives.
June Rousso, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, nutritional consultant, life coach, and writer living and working in New York City. She loves sharing her thoughts on life from the big to everyday situations in blogs, newspaper articles, and more recently a children’s book on managing anxiety and fear- We All Live On This Planet Together (Indigo River Publishing, 2017). For more information about June visit her website.