Helping students deal with anxiety.
Note to Parents
By Inger Maier, Ph.D
Children can be expected to have fears and worries during the natural course of their development. For many, the anticipation of new, unfamiliar, or unexpected experiences, no matter how safe, can lead to high levels of anxiety. Some children may also suffer from anxiety about interacting with other people and become tongue tied, hide away, or generally avoid social experiences.
- Listen respectfully to your child’s negative thoughts about a specific activity. Help him label his feelings and describe his physical sensations.
- Delay non-essential activities that are causing intense anxiety for the time being. Alternatively, try changing your goal so that your child needs to do only a small part of the activity, a part that she is most likely to manage.
- Share stories with your child about skills he has already mastered. Encourage him to talk about his past accomplishments, and how he thought and felt during those experiments.
- Briefly explain the how, when, and why of a planned activity. Reassure your child that you are trying to keep the anxiety level low and that the difficulty level can change if she signals anxiety. For example: “I note the 50- piece puzzle is making you want to stop. How about you put the last 5 pieces in place.”
- Never surprise the child by suddenly introducing big challenges.
- Encourage your child to practice short, confidence-building “scripts” that if spoken often enough may become part of this thinking. Examples include: “I can try,” “It will be easier once I begin,” “I sued to be scared about it, but it feels OK now,” “A little bit, and I can do it.”
- Because anxious children may hyperventilate or hold their breath, it’s important to practice relaxed breathing a few times during the day and then while doing the new activity. Say: “Keep your eyes open. Now breathe in s-l-o-w-l-y and catch your breath in your tummy. Slowly breathe out again and feeling your tummy muscles move.” Show your child how.
- Pay attention to the changes that your child makes, and make your praise specific. Thus, instead of using phrases like “Great job” or “Your terrific,” say: “Did you notice you tried something new and it felt OK?” or “I noticed that you didn’t give up and you seemed to be having fun.”
- Your child needs to be confident that you and other significant adults are there to provide safety. It is also reassuring for him to learn the boundaries of an experience, such as what will not be expected initially. For example: “Come into the shallow end of the pool. You won’t be splashed, and I will be next to you. There is no need to put your face in the water.”
- As often as possible, notice and talk about your child’s healthy changed and efforts. This will help her believe that it’s possible to reduce anxiety and unpleasant sensations, and to change the script to “I can,” within realistic limits. Review different coping tools and positive scripts, breathing exercises, evidence collecting, step-by-step efforts, and ways in which she has noticed that trying new things can be fun.
- Play the “evidence game,” in which the child records each instance he has done something new. The change can be small, such as, “I used a comb instead of a brush” or “I made a mistake drawing but I didn’t tear it up.” Record the evidence of his successes by placing a counter of some sort (e.g., penny, game chip_ into a jar whenever you or he notices the effort. Make sure the jar is clear that the child can see the accumulating successes.
- The “evidence game’ can also be adapted for uses as a token reinforcement system. Make a contract with your child, such that she receives a token (stone, bead, penny, etc.) every time she engages in certain specific behaviors, She can then exchange a preset number of tokens for a more tangible, positive consequence or prize. Token systems are frequently used in behavior modification programs to promote learning and change. From a cognitive-behavioral standpoint, a token system may also increase motivation, distract from the anxious feelings, and increase the feelings of success.