Anxiety is a natural part of our survival instinct, and we’ve all experienced it. Our bodies and brains kick into ‘fight or flight’ mode when we’re faced with a threatening situation, which was useful back when we were fighting off sabre tooth tigers, but is less relevant nowadays. The trouble is, sometimes we see the “tiger” when there is none, and we may feel a sense of overwhelming worry that doesn’t match the danger level of the situation. When this happens, our systems can set off false alarms that make us feel anxious even without a viable threat that could actually hurt us.
When kids experience anxiety, parents may try to solve their problems, avoiding triggers or trying to engineer a worry-free life. But rather than trying to shield our kids from anxiety, the more useful approach is to help kids learn how to manage these feelings, and give them a coping kit so they can build resilience.
We’re continuing our 5-part article series on how your little ones can tackle big emotions, and this week we’re focusing on anxiety. We spoke to children’s author Avril McDonald, who has some useful tips on strategies for anxious kids.
We’ll be doing a 5-part article series with Avril to address real-life situations kids may face, and the simple coping strategies to deal with them. This week we’re focusing on self-confidence.
4 Top Techniques for Handling Anxiety
- Reframe – turn fear into fun
- Change the channel – self regulate your emotions
- Learn about your brain – the ‘cheeky monkey’/ ‘wise old owl’
- Role play situations – create an action plan
The reframing technique is about teaching kids that they possess the power to control their fears by creating their own interpretation of a scary situation. “Kids are wired for story,” says Avril. “If you incorporate a story and encourage them to use their creativity, they’ll respond much more.” You can tame fear by imagining something different and bringing in humour.
For example, if your child has a nightmare about a monster, ask them to visualise it getting smaller and smaller until it’s the size of a mouse. Then make it wear a sparkly tutu. Or visualise throwing slime all over the monster. The more wacky and inventive, the better. Make sure to add details. What colour is the slime? Does it make a squishy sound? This is a good strategy kids can use anywhere, at any time. The power of their imagination gives them a sense of authority over their fears. They get to be in charge of the story.
2. Change the Channel
Sometimes when we feel anxious about something, we can become fixated on it, which makes it difficult to focus on anything else. It’s a good idea to help your little one decide if what they’re worried about is something that can be solved, or if it’s beyond their control. For example, if they’re worried about a spelling test, then practicing the words makes sense, and could help. But if they’re worried that it might rain tomorrow and ruin a sports event, that’s not a problem anyone can solve. Talk to your kids about how sometimes things are out of our hands, but we do have the power to control how we respond.
When kids are feeling “stuck” in their anxiety, let them know they are in control of “changing the channel”, just like they would on TV, to shift their mood. Giving kids a sense of autonomy over their feelings can help them to regain control and switch to a happier/calmer station, so to speak.
One of the best ways to help kids change the channel is to get active. Throw on some tunes and dance! Or run around outside. Or distract their mind by playing a game or drawing a picture or building something. Do something new!
3. Learn About Your Brain
“You’re never too young to learn about your brain,” says Avril. She believes that if children are introduced to some of the ways our brains work from an early age, they can start on their journey of understanding themselves, why they might feel and/or do the things they do, and how to self regulate their emotions. Although our brains are very complex, kids as young as three can understand the simple concept that we actually have two key different ways that our brains function.
The Cheeky Monkey and Wise Old Owl
You can explain this to kids by telling them that one part of our brain is a bit like a cheeky monkey. It’s where all of our feelings come from, like love, joy, happiness, fear and anger. Sometimes the cheeky monkey part of our brain can get a bit too excited. If it feels scared or angry, it might want to scream and run away, or say unkind words. The cheeky monkey part of our brain is like a puppy that needs training. We can train our cheeky monkey to make sure that if it gets too excited, we know how to let it rest and calm down.
Another part of our brain is like a wise old owl. It’s clever and calm and can make rational decisions. The wise old owl can train your cheeky monkey so that when a feeling comes up (even if it’s a negative one), you can do something really good with it.
Ask your kids to talk about a time when their cheeky monkeys did something that was not very nice, and ask them to brainstorm what their wise old owl would have done instead? Share stories of your own with your kids, about times when your cheeky monkey took over. Let your children know that our wise old owls can help us ‘change the channel’ when we feel anxious.
The main idea here is that when we know why anxiety happens, it’s easier for us to manage it. If you’re looking for a more in-depth description for older kids, check out this article from Dr. Hazel Harrison.
4. Role Play
One way to help kids cope with anxiety is by preparing for the event they’re feeling anxious about. It’s important to wait until your little one is calm so that you can role play at a neutral time. Act out the situation they might be concerned about (like the first day of school, a sleep-over at a friend’s house, etc) and ask your kiddo to participate in practicing how to appropriately calm down. Role-playing can also include practicing worst-case scenarios so your kiddo feels ready to act when in the moment. It will arm your child with an action plan so they feel more in control when an anxiety-inducing situation strikes.
Help your kid come up with a script of what to do. For example, if they’re anxious about meeting new friends on the first day of school, you could act out the scene. Rehearse an opening line your child might say to another child. By previewing an activity that scares them, kids may not be as easily overwhelmed when it comes time for the real thing. You can’t predict absolutely everything, but getting a general sense can help kids feel more comfortable overall.
For a great way to introduce your kids to the Reframing technique, watch Avril’s storytelling of “The Wolf and the Shadow Monster” below. For more strategies on how to handle big emotions, check out the range of Feel Brave videos and songs on the Azoomee app.
Speaking to Avril reminded us that in this hectic and overstimulated world, we could all use a bit more calm. Hopefully these strategies will help both you and your child to build a coping kit for anxious times. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how your kiddos have used their cheeky monkeys and wise old owls!
Avril McDonald is the best-selling, award-winning author of the Feel Brave series of books and founder of www.feelbrave.com which aims to give all children access to tools that help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential. Avril resides in Australia with her partner and their two children, three cats, and one very large dog.