Calming Kids: Ways to Turn Anxiety AroundJun 30, 2020 06:30AM ● By Ronica O’Hara
As the situation improves, so should children’s emotional well-being, but if anxiety lingers, parents can take heart in new research from the center that shows how childhood anxiety can be reversed before it becomes a crippling adult condition. The study of 124 children aged 7 to 14 with anxiety disorders found that when parents made simple behavior changes, their kids’ symptoms sharply decreased 87.5 percent of the time and disappeared completely 60 percent of the time. Parents drew closer to their children and felt less stressed themselves, and the kids continued to improve even after the study ended.
According to Lebowitz, lead author of the study, the key is to reduce parental accommodation—actions that parents take to soothe and protect their anxious children, like texting to provide constant reassurances, speaking for a child with social fears or staying with a child that fears separation until they fall asleep. These actions may not be a problem in the short term or in tough times, but when used repeatedly, the child often becomes more fearful, less confident and unable to function in a normal manner.
In a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, parents learned in 12 weekly sessions how to slowly pull back from accommodating actions while validating the child’s emotions and conveying confidence in their ability to handle challenges. Notably, a parent-focused program, Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions, produced better results than the control group, in which the children underwent 12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. More information on this program for parents and therapists can be found on their website.
Here are some other straightforward strategies that can lower childhood anxiety.
Getting outdoors. Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D and mood-boosting serotonin, and studies show that even brief nature walks can lower anxiety and improve focus in kids.
Breathing deep. “Parents can teach children coping skills such as relaxing their body or taking slow deep breaths to help them regulate their anxiety,” says Lebowitz. For example, a child can lie on their back and pretend to blow up a balloon. Or using a fresh flower, a child can breathe in the scent through the nose for a count of four, hold the breath for the same amount of time and then breathe out slowly through the mouth.
Playing it out. “Parents can help a child role-play what they could do in a situation that they’re nervous about,” says Leigh Ellen Watts Magness, a clinical social worker and play therapist, in Athens, Georgia. “They can create a puppet show where the characters have a similar problem, create a poster about some strategies they might use to relax or have their figurines talk to other toys about how they feel. All of these things help kids process feelings of anxiety.”