Coping Skills for Anxious Children

Coping Skills for Anxious Children

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When children are experiencing strong emotions, dealing with an uncomfortable situation, or worrying about the unknown, they may react in an unhelpful way.  This is because they do not have the knowledge or ability to use coping skills to calm down and work through the situation or event.

Mom and Daughter meditating

What are Coping Skills

In the simplest terms, coping skills are strategies used to get through a difficult situation successfully.  These skills can be used to work through emotions, thoughts, or real-life situations. 

Just as children are unique, so are coping skills.  Coping skills can focus on relaxation, movement, humor, support, or knowledge.  The idea is to use one of the suggested strategies to bring the anxiety level down in order to move through the situation or feelings successfully.  

How to Teach Coping Skills

Children must be taught coping skills while they are calm, rather than in the moment.  The idea is to explain to a child that there will be times when they feel anxious and uncomfortable. 

Times like this happen to everyone, and while it may feel scary or overwhelming, it is important to remain calm and be able to work through the discomfort.  

Using the list provided below, have your child practice a few of the coping skills several times throughout the day when he or she is calm.  Does your child appear to relax when doing this skill?

Does the skill seem like a natural fit for his or personality? Is the skill something he or she can do with little supplies or preparation?  If so, this may be a coping skill that should be remembered and used when anxiety creeps in.  

In the beginning, you, as the parent, will have to remind your child to use the coping skills when you notice their anxiety heightening.  Over time, the idea is that your child will know what coping skill to engage in when needed.  

Mom and Daughter with Dog

Coping Skills 

The coping skills shared below may be useful to some children but not others.  Likewise, certain coping skills will work for certain anxiety-inducing situations, while others may not be as useful. 

It is important that your child gives several coping skills a try before deciding what skills are most successful for him or her.  Your child’s age will have a huge impact on both the independence level of these skills and their success rate.  

Importance of Deep Breathing

Deep breathing should always be done as soon as the anxious thoughts or feelings begin.  The breathing center of the brain is directly tied to higher-order brain functions. When anxiety is coursing through the body, the brain has entered the “fight or flight” mode, allowing only survival skills to be accessible. 

By breathing slowly and focusing on the senses, anxious thoughts are calmed and the rational part of the brain begins to re-engage. Click To Tweet

There is no rational thinking occurring during this state of mind. Breathing is not intended to make the anxious feelings go away, rather it allows the mind to re-engage. And move into the skills needed to stay and work through the anxiety in a productive way. 

This is often the first skill to use, as it slows the heart rate and breathing and allows rational thought to return. It can be used to prepare for, or throughout, the anxiety-inducing situation.

It does take some practice to breathe effectively. Deep breathing should be practiced many times throughout the day when a child is not anxious.  

Mom and Daughter yoga

Engaging the Five Senses 

Similar to deep breathing, this skill is used to slow the heart rate and breathing and re-engage the mind.  This can be done along with deep, focused breathing or independently.

As the child engages their 5 senses, thoughts and feelings are brought into the present, as a form of mindfulness. 

The idea is to take slow deep breaths while naming 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste (when applicable). 

By breathing slowly and focusing on the senses, anxious thoughts are calmed and the rational part of the brain begins to re-engage.

As with the breathing technique, having reminders to use the 5 senses calming technique is critical to children learning to cope with anxiety.  

Additional Coping Thoughts

Re-frame thinking- This involves working to change the negative thought into a more positive, realistic thought.  For example, a child may feel like they are going to fail a test.

They can re-frame that thought into the idea that trying their best is more important than worrying about the grade. 

  • Acknowledge and accept the feeling –  Feelings are natural and should not be considered “good” or “bad”.  They need to be acknowledged and accepted as part of who you are. There should be no shame in having certain feelings.  
  • Externalize the anxiety – Remind the child that anxiety is causing these feelings, therefore, the child can respond to the anxiety by letting it know that the child is in charge and will make decisions without listening to anxiety.
  • Normalize anxiety – Remind children that everyone experiences anxiety at times and there is nothing unusual about feeling anxious.
  • Worst case scenario –  Imagine the worst-case scenario, the likelihood of that happening, and how you would handle that.  It puts the fear into perspective.  
  • Physical activity – Physical activity can help release the anxiety that is coursing through the body and help the mind think more rationally.
  • Petting/playing with an animal – Animals can lower anxiety levels in the body and calm the mind.

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Coping Skills for Anxious Children

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