Anxiety, worries, and fears are often a part of childhood. As adults, we may wish we could take those worries away from the children in our lives. Watching them struggle can be painful to witness, but having a few tools up your sleeve can really make a big impact. The following are some tried-and-true strategies for coping with anxiety. As a Child Mental Health Specialist, I have used these approaches in my practice. As a parent, I’ve used many of these at home, and have seen the impact that playful interventions can have on coping with, reducing and even resolving anxious thoughts and feelings.
Preparing for Something New: Some anxiety for children is caused by not knowing what comes next or how things will be when they try something new. Whether it’s a trip to the doctor, or starting a new school-year, children often fear the unknown. Learning more about how things will be, and what to expect, helps children feel more in control. Here are some playful activities for helping children prepare for what to expect when they try something new.
Play Pretend: Whether it’s with stuffed animals, or full-on dress-up, kids love to interact and learn through pretend play. If you are preparing for a trip to the doctor, try getting some pretend medical supplies and walking through the steps of what will happen. This playful engagement can help children feel more prepared. Remember to let the child take the lead in play too—this helps them feel more in control of the situation.
Read a Story: It can also be helpful to read stories that are similar to the event. There are lots of great stories out there that offer positive skills and solutions to common problems. “Sloth’s First Day of School” is a great example of a story that helps children prepare for an upcoming event.
- Draw a Picture: If you can’t find an already-written story to help address a specific need, remember that you can always create your own! It doesn’t have to be complicated. Using a whiteboard and drawing stick figures can get a lot of information across as you visually walk through the steps of what happens. Remember that this visual element is often really important for children to be able to picture and process what is going to happen.
Expressing Worries: Sometimes putting words to worries can be hard for young children. They may not be able to describe what is bothering them, or they may feel shy or embarrassed to share. Luckily, there are other great ways for kids to share their feelings.
Draw the Worry: Sometimes children struggle to put words to their worry and find it easier to draw or write their worry. This tool can be especially helpful when children have bad dreams. Describing dreams can be complicated even for adults, but drawing it can help. Encourage the child to draw a picture of their worry. You can even ask them to add themselves to the page so you can see how big the worry is compared to them and how much it seems to be bothering them. Our free Alpaca activities offer activity sheets with prompts that encourage children to express their worries through pictures or words.
*Another good tip if your child draws a picture of the worry: See if they can draw a picture of a solution to the worry. Even if it’s pretend, it can help children feel empowered to imagine defeating their worries.
- Play Out the Worry: Playing pretend is another way to help children express their worries. This usually works best if you simply engage the child in play, perhaps offering small prompts that would encourage them to play out the worry (ie., if they are worried about having a new baby sibling, try offering to play house with them). Children not only express fears through play, but they can resolve them that way too. Allow them time and space to play out worries, and join them for the process.
- Ask Creative Questions: Sometimes children can benefit from talking about their worries, but may need help expressing themselves. This is where playful questions can help. No one likes feeling interrogated, so try thinking of interesting ways to ask your child about their worry. Some of my favorite questions are:
Soothing Anxiety: Sometimes a child’s worries are big enough that they just need a bit of comfort. Although words of reassurance can be helpful, with younger children, physical and concrete interventions tend to have a bigger impact on their feelings of safety and security. Here are a few ideas of activities to try at home.
A Soothing Toolkit: Include the child in gathering supplies that feel soothing and comforting. These items can be used when they feel anxious or worried. You can try using the Slumberkins Otter Heart to remind them of the ones who love them, or perhaps a calm down jar, or a comforting blanket, maybe something that smells nice. Put these items together in a bag or a box and label it for times of need. Let your child know that they can access these things whenever they want to feel soothed.
Build a Pillow Nest or Fort: Children often feel safe and comforted in small, cozy spaces. Help your child make a nest of pillows or a fort they can snuggle into on days they feel especially anxious. Maybe they want to invite their Slumberkins friends to join them or perhaps they want to invite you in too.
- Try a Worry Doll or Creature: Our Alpaca creature supports Stress Relief and is designed to be a worry doll that children can whisper their worries to and Alpaca will “hold” them. Having an imaginary “container” for worries is a useful tool. There are many forms of this activity to try, including having your child whisper their worries to you, and you can hold them in your pocket until they want them back.
Most children will experience worries from time to time. These activities can be helpful for children with little worries and even children who struggle with significant anxiety. If your child is showing signs of anxiety or stress that are not resolving, or if the worries appear to be impeding their life in any way, we recommend trying these activities in combination with professional support. For more information about how to determine the difference between small worries, and when to be concerned, you can check out this post for more information.
We’d love to hear from you: Have you found success with any of the ideas above? Perhaps there’s a strategy that your family uses already? We invite you to share in the comments below!