If you are a parent, chances are you know what it’s like to manage a meltdown at the most inconvenient time possible . . .
You’re in the carpool line at school and your child refuses to get out of the car because they don’t feel prepared for their math quiz. You’re late for work, and you attempt to calmly explain that you have a meeting you need to be prepared for and…your child has a meltdown and tearfully lists all of the things they are worried about.
If you are a ministry leader you have probably experienced a few meltdowns too . . . especially at drop-off.
In those moments, it’s just so tempting to tell a child to “get over it.”
You’re not alone.
As adults, we may think children are free of worries as they do not have the same responsibility as we do. However, children can have their number of worries just like adults can. But unlike most adults, they don’t have the skill to know exactly how to cope with those anxious emotions.
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue of childhood and adolescence. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children will have a serious mental health disorder, with the median age of onset of anxiety being as young as six years old. Anxiety in children may present as excessive worries, constant need for reassurance, as well as physical signs like stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue. Some anxious kids are too scared to do many things, while other kids keep their worries to themselves, thus making symptoms easy to miss. Even when you are aware of the signs, knowing how to help an anxiety-ridden child isn’t easy.
Here are five ways to care for an anxious child.
Remember that Anxiety Doesn’t Respond to Logic
When feeling stressed or overwhelmed, our body’s natural alarm system known as the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response takes over – increasing our heart rate, and shifting excessive blood flow from our thinking brain out to our limbs in order to prepare to fight or to escape. When the stress hormone cortisol is coursing through a child’s body, it’s very difficult for them to slow down enough to engage in a conversation about why they shouldn’t be scared—they just are. Here’s the thing, fear and anxiety don’t respond to logic. A child’s ability to think rationally is actually hindered by their biological stress response system.
Validate Their Worries
You may have feel puzzled about how to react to a child when they worry about things that simply don’t make sense to you. This may be especially true if a child is excessively worrying during an inconvenient time. You may be tempted to convince them why they should not feel anxious or maybe offer a suggestion on what they “should” feel instead.
When that happens, consider validating the child’s feelings. Validating a child’s feelings is beneficial because it helps them to develop emotional resilience. Keep in mind that validating a child’s feelings does not mean you agree with them. It just means that you are willing to acknowledge that what they are feeling is real to them and that you are willing to listen and be empathetic. For example, if your child is afraid to go to school let them know you understand what they are feeling. Perhaps share a time when you felt afraid of something. Then, if you are the parent let them know you will be there for them after school, and they can tell you all about their day. If a child is nervous to join an activity, tell them you understand and let them know you will be there to help.
Encourage Facing Their Fears
No one likes to see a child suffer, and it can be tempting to try to eliminate anything that can increase their distress. That’s why many parents let their child sleep in their bed to avoid the monster in their room. However, helping a child avoid their fears can unintentionally validate the potential dangers.
That’s why it’s important to encourage children to face their worries. For example, a child may have a spelling test the next day and even though they’ve studied they may feel too nervous to go to school and take the exam. After some wailing, pleading, and screaming (anxiety can show up as extreme anger or irritation, by the way), if you are a parent, you may be tempted to tell your child they can skip the test or school in general. But, don’t. They need to learn how to cope with their anxiety so they can take the test even while feeling a little nervous.
It is important to teach children that while things may feel scary in the moment, they can make a decision to face their fears. Help build a child’s resilience by assisting them as they confront their fears the first few times, then encourage them to be brave on their own.
Manage Your Urges to Overprotect
If you are a parent, one of your important roles is to protect your child. However, we can’t nor should protect them from everything. As difficult as it is, resist the instinct to shield your child from all obstacles. Overprotecting can make a child’s anxiety worse by giving them more reasons to be afraid. Sometimes, the things we fear rarely end up happening or not in the way we think.
While this practice is more applicable for parents than leaders, if you are a leader, this could look like encouraging a child to play a game even if they are nervous or encouraging them to try out for a team at school even if they are afraid.
We all have our moments of anxiety. And even when we try to hide it, kids can pick up on our distress. It is all about giving a child the tools they need to brave this unpredictable–and yes–sometimes scary world. Teach a child what you do when you feel the most anxious. Let kids see you take deep breaths when you get nervous.
Teach Simple Anxiety Coping Skills
Trying to eliminate a child’s anxiety by telling them why they should not be anxious, unfortunately, will not help. Instead, teach a child emotional resilience by encouraging them to practice anxiety coping tools. One coping technique I like to teach kids and adults is deep breathing.
Teach your child specific practices to channel their breathing. The Five-Finger Breath is a fun way to switch off the body’s “fight or flight” stress response.
Use the instructions below as a guide to teach a child.
Five-Finger Breath Exercise
- Spread your hand and stretch your fingers out like a star.
- Start at the bottom of your thumb and while inhaling through your nose, slide your finger up your thumb. Pause at the top for three seconds, and then slide your finger down the other side, while exhaling.
- Keep going until you have finished tracing your fifth finger (pinky).
- Remember to inhale through your nose and out from your mouth. Keep it slow and steady.
- Ask your child, “How does you feel now? Do you feel calmer or would you like to take another five?
As you keep working with children, their anxiety may lessen as they grow older. If you are still struggling to help your own child with their anxiety, consult their pediatrician or a mental health specialist for your child to learn other helpful strategies to better control their anxiety. If you are a leader and notice a child experiencing significant anxiety, talk to their parent or caregiver, and if possible point them to resources that can help. You can also share this with the parents in your ministry if they have a child experiencing anxiety.
As the next generation continues to experience anxiety and despair at alarming rates, it has never been more important for us as leaders to keep learning practical ways to help them and give them hope. That’s why we hope you will join us at Orange Conference as we continue the conversation on mental health and how we can keep faith alive. Be sure to join my workshop called Hope for Tomorrow: How to Lead Through Today’s Mental Health Crisis for more helpful information.