10 Ways to Help Reduce Childhood Anxiety and Curb Fear
Capitol insurrection. bombings, terrorist alerts, hurricanes, school shootings, and Pandemics have boosted all our jitters lately, but don’t forget our children. I’ve received dozens of parent emails and media calls these past few days asking for advice on how to help calm kids.
“My Little Miss Sunshine has suddenly become a clinger.”
“My son has become so moody and irritable. He says nothings wrong, but he’s not the same kid.”
“My kids are having horrible nightmares.”
“My child always loved school but is so scared to go back.”
And each parent then asks me, “What can I do to help my child?”
While we all dream that our children will have carefree days, but the truth is our world is unpredictable. Scary things do happen. We can’t protect our kids from uncertain events, and we can’t try to “talk them out of their worry.” The fear is real to the child. If unrealistic fear and anxiety aren’t tempered, they can affect even young children’s learning and development. What does help are giving “tools” to empower the child so he can manage his fears and worries.
Studies show that parenting can make a difference in boosting our children’s potential to thrive. We can reduce our children’s worries if we are calmer ourselves and teach skills that help curb their anxieties. Those habits might be sharing worries, normalizing expectations, practicing relaxation. If we teach those coping strategies now, our children can use them for the rest of their lives to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter.
Tools to Help Kids Manage Fear
What follows are proven ways you can parent for change — like modeling courage, monitoring media input, and teaching step by step acclimation. The tools are chosen because boost kids’ resilience, help them cope with everyday fears in healthier ways and prevent anxiety from shortchanging their lives. Each child responds differently to an anxiety-producing experience, so watch how your child responds. It’s up to us as parents, counselors and educators to help our kids find the technique that works best for them. Here are ten ways to help children manage fear and reduce anxiety from my book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.
1. Teach kids to monitor scary media consumption
Images from movies, video games, music videos, Internet websites, and late-breaking news stories can trigger fears or make them even worse. So monitor your child’s media exposure-especially closer to bedtime.
Better yet, teach your child to use the remote to turn off what he knows if affecting him. “This is scary. I don’t need to watch it” is a great line for kids to learn to say.
Also help your kid learn what to watch that is more relaxing and fear-reducing. Have a couple of DVDs that are “giggle-producers” ready for kids to pop in when anxieties increase. Doing so will help our kids learn how to monitor their own media diets.
2. Share worries as a family
Encourage your child to talk about his fears. Putting a worry into words can make it more manageable. Your goal is to “catch” her worries early before they blow out of proportion and become full-fledge fears so be sure she knows you will listen. You can then not only reassure your child but also clarify any misconceptions and answer questions.
Beware: studies find moms talk more about feelings with daughters than sons. Let’s talk feelings more with our sons! Also talk about your feelings as a family–it will be more natural and kids will know it’s “ok” to open up because you are discussing your concern.
3. Provide calm support
Help your child feel safe, and don’t undermine the power of your words. When your child does confront a fear and hears your comforting voice say,, “It will be okay,” (or gets the same message from Daddy holding her hand) she will feel more secure. Your words of support will become a model your child can use. Our kids copy how we cope with our fears. So be the example of how to handle your own worries that you want your child to copy.
Also, keep yourself strong. Fears are caught by children or passed down, calmness can also be shared. Keep your worries or pessimism in check-especially during a tragedy or following a trauma.
4. Help your child know what to expect
There are some fears that we can’t protect our kids from and just must be endured. Educating your child about the event can clear up misperceptions as well as boost security.
For instance, if your child worries about “catching Corona-19,” share how you are following CDC guidelines. Visit the CDC website and discuss their recommendations and then involve your child. “What can we do at home to make us safe?”
Be calm and matter of fact in your delivery. You may want to first ask: “Would you like to talk about what your school is doing to keep you safe?” Visit your child’s website to assure him that there is a plan in place (after you’ve checked to ensure one is posted).Describe how the whole community-mayor, police, fire department, doctors-know what to do and will help.
But what about an upcoming event that could be anxiety-producing? Here is how you might ease your child’s anxieties about an upcoming hospital stay by helping her know what to expect: You might arrange a hospital tour, read a book such as Franklin Goes to the Hospital to help her talk about her worries, buy a toy doctor’s kit to play with, and suggest she tuck her teddy bear and blanket in her backpack before she leaves.
Knowing what to expect – or realizing there is a safety plan in place that the child practices and rehearses can reduce that fear. Rehearse!
5. Read books that deal with the fear
Telling stories, acting out situations or reading books about a particular scary situation can help kids overcome fears. The strategy is called “Bibliotherapy” or healing with books. It’s helpful because kids often identify with the character who shares the same anxiety: “Oh good! Somebody else feels the same way!” Kids are more likely to open up about their worries to you. And putting the fear into words can help reduce the child’s concern.
A few favorites for younger kids: Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes, Fears, Doubts, Blues and Pouts, by Norman Wright, Gary J. Olver, and Sharon Dahl; What To Do When You Worry Too Much, by Dawn Huebner; What To Do When You’re Scared and Worried, by James J. Christ; Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,; There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer; and Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley.
A trauma-informed strategy for older children is to “put the fear into context.“ If your teen is worried that “the Pandemic will never be over,” then help him reference history. Find a similar past event (Smallpox, polio, Ebola, the Spanish Flu) to study and share the science. “Millions of people died during the Pandemic, but we’re still here today.”
6. Say fear-reducing self-statements
Teach your child to face the fear by helping her learn to say a positive phrase. It’s best to help your child choose only one phrase and help her practice saying the same one several times a day until she can say to herself when feeling anxious. If you calmly and repeatedly say the statement your voice will become your child’s inner voice. A few fear-reducers include: “I can do this.” “I can handle this.” “I will be OK.” “It’s not a big deal.”
7. Practice relaxation strategies
If the fear makes your child tense, learning relaxation strategies could help regain self-control. Practice the one tip over and over until it becomes almost “automatic.” You might need to put a picture reminder on the fridge or next to your child’s bed. The trick is for your child to use that strategy the moment the worry comes before it builds. Here are a few adapted from my book, Thrivers:
~ Imagine you are floating. Tell child that the moment he starts to feel tense, ” Imagine he is floating peacefully on a cloud or lying quietly on a beach.”
~ Take slow deep breaths to reduce anxiety. To maximize relaxation, share how to take a slow deep breath from your abdomen (“like you’re slowly riding up an elevator”), and then hold it and slowly exhale. Navy SEALs have taught me that the exhale must be twice as long as the inhale. So teach your child to breathe 1 – 2. (“Letting your breath out should be twice as long as riding it up.”)
~ Blow up a pretend balloon. Teach your child to pretend that his lungs are balloons filled to the brim and to slowly let the air out of them as his fears go away.
~ Use music. Help your teen fill his MP3 player with more soothing relaxing music that works for him.
8. Ask for hugs
When our kids are troubled one of our natural parenting instincts kick in and we hug them to try to comfort them. Research finds that our instincts are right! Hugs actually help reduce our kids’ worries and calm them. University of Miami studies by renowned researcher, Tiffany M. Fields, found massage, back rubs, and hugs are especially soothing and emotionally benefitting for children in trauma.
Teach your kid to say, “I need a hug!” Better yet, do family back rubs – or shoulder rubs for those teens who feel they’re “too grown up.” Or start Family Hugs!
9. Use imagination
Capitalize on your child’s imagination. if she has one. Instead of fearing the bad man or the monster help her conjure up an image of a knight in shining armor, an angel, or a super hero who comes to the rescue and chasing away the bad guys.
The technique — “Imagining the dream you want to have” — is now used to help our soldiers suffering from PTSD. It’s a great fear-reducer to teach kids.
I’ve also had a mom tell me that she used a similar imagination strategy to help her child ward off fears of a “monster living in the closet” with an empty spray bottle. Mom filled the bottle with water but told her daughter it was “a magic potion that got rid of monsters.” The child kept the magic bottle by her bed and sprayed the closet a few times to scare away the monster. “It worked Mom. The magic got rid of the monster!”
10. Put your kid in the driver seat
Research shows that feeling as if you have some control over a situation helps reduce the worry. So empower your child by helping him develop his own fear-reducing plan. Start by identifying one fear.
Problem: “The weird shadows on my wall make me scared to sleep in the dark.”
Parent: “What might help need you feel safer?” Then brainstorm reasonable options until your child can find at least one thing that might help him feel more in control and then carry it out.
Kid-generated solution: “Tuck a flashlight under my pillow and move the my bed away from the bookcase so I don’t see the shadows on the wall.”
The truth is our world is unpredictable and uncertain. As much as we’d hope, we can’t protect our children from what life offers. But we can help our children learn ways to manage their fears and reduce their anxieties. And we can teach our kids coping strategies to help them develop agency. In fact, children with an “We’ve got this” view of life are more likely to thrive. They will use those coping strategies to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter as well as boosting their resilience for life.
I’m excited to announce the release of my new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine on March 2! For forty years, I’ve wondered why some kids have a strong, We got this! attitude and discovered the science of resilience. Thrivers are made, not born.The book is packed with evidence-grounded strategies we can use to raise mentally and morally strong kids who are prepared to live and thrive in an uncertain world. I hope you like it!