When I asked our Facebook parenting group what they’d like to read about in Lifehacker this year, I noticed one theme that kept emerging from the suggestions—anxiety. You’ve got it, I’ve got it, and our kids either have it already or we’re worried they’ll get it at some point. Thinking about their anxiety is making you anxious and you want to have some strategies on hand for dealing with it when the time comes.
Anxiety is a topic we’ve written about often over the years, so I thought creating a roundup of all our favourite anxiety hacks might make life easier for you. More options in one spot, less searching all over for new ideas.
Anxiety in little kids
It is heartbreaking how young our kids can start to show signs of anxiety, but there are some ways we can help them through it. We don’t necessarily need to accommodate their anxiety, though; it’s more important to focus on supporting them. If your child is the type who asks a lot of questions (often repetitively) about how something in the future is going to go, one way to support them is by setting aside a specific time for “worry questions”:
For instance, you might tell an anxious child that she may only ask questions about the event or issue she’s worried about—say, the weekend schedule—for five minutes in the morning and the evening. If an anxiety-induced question arises outside of that designated time slot, remind the child to wait for the next session.
Another little trick—which we can also use for ourselves—is to pretend like the thing they’re anxious about is actually something they’re excited about. So when they start to talk about how they’re nervous to move up to the next swim class where they’ll be required to manage the deep end on their own, say, “That sounds exciting!”
In our bodies, Robbins explains, excitement and fear feel the same. Our brains get to determine which one it is. I’ve used the “I’m excited” technique in my life—before job interviews and as I was handed a microphone to give a toast at my sister’s wedding—and it works. The moment I told my daughter that moving up to a new swim level sounded exciting, her mind went with it. Her voice changed immediately.
Or! If you think that won’t do the trick, you could buy your kid a “worry eater” doll to munch away at whatever is nagging them:
“Worry Eaters” are a modern, monster-y twist on Guatemalan worry dolls, to which children confide their worries before placing them under their pillows at night. Guatemalan worry dolls, it is said, gift sleeping children with the wisdom they need to overcome worries. With these newer zippered-mouth versions, children (or their parents) write down or draw their worries, then stuff the paper in the Worry Eater’s mouth so it can hold onto the worries for the child.
If turning that anxiety into excitement or allowing a stuffed monster to eat the worry away won’t work, you could also try giving a specific fear a cute nickname. Like so:
Walker writes that the nickname should be “lighthearted, and not frightening or negative.” A child who’s afraid of germs might name the fear “Germ Worm,” she explains.
The next idea is one that personally works really well for my son, who loves basically all amusement park rides but occasionally comes down with a strong case of hesitation when it comes to riding something big, fast and unfamiliar. Pull up YouTube and show them what it’s going to be like. Someone before you has already been there, done that:
Jamie, a mum of a four-year-old with an anxiety disorder, tells me this is actually her favourite parenting hack. “I YouTube the shit out of any activity we’re doing,” she says. “I’ll Instagram her new dance teacher. I’ll YouTube Disneyland’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. I show, show, show in advance. It works every time.”
Is your child anxious about going to daycare or preschool or kindergarten or wherever for the first time? Of course they are! That shit is scary! And it might not just be scary the first time, but also the second time, the tenth time and the thirty-fourth time. So before you leave the house, do a little drop-off dress rehearsal. This idea originally came from New York Times reader Julie Wilson DiColo:
She stands in the study while her husband walks their son down the hallway, pretending to be dropping him off at school. DiColo will mimic a teacher, changing her voice and announcing a plan for the day (sometimes as silly as, “Today, we’re going to stand on our heads!”). Before they started practicing for drop-off, teachers would have to pry her clinging son off her husband; now, after a run-through or two in the morning, he’s relatively tear-free.
Anxiety in big kids
For big kids, let’s start with the basics. It may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating: We’ve got to protect their downtime.
We know that kids are over-scheduled and over-worked. We know they have less down time, less time to be bored and less time to play than we did as kids. But what we may not have realised is that all the pressure on students—particularly those in “high-achieving” schools—is causing higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and delinquent behaviours.
Next up: homework. Who doesn’t love a nice, thick pile of homework? Parents of kids who get anxious just thinking about it, that’s who. But there’s often no getting around it, so if your kid starts to stress about how hard the homework will be before they’ve even begun, try to have them predict the difficulty level ahead of time and then compare their prediction to how difficult they actually thought it was once it’s done:
Rating scales are an effective tool to help us articulate and track our distress and progress—we adults use them to access our mental health, rate our pain and review how we handle situations. Children can benefit from the method, too. Having hard data about their abilities to complete assignments can help them make the shift from “I can’t do it!” to “Actually, I can. Here’s proof that I’ve done it before.”
Change of any kind can be scary and anxiety-inducing. But for adolescents, knowing that their personalities and relationships are still in the process of changing can actually have a calming effect:
Teens are acutely aware of relationships and social status, but they don’t yet have the psychological and emotional fortitude to let social struggles roll off their backs. They also don’t have the life experience to know that setbacks or failures are temporary and can overcome.
But psychologist David S. Yeager at the University of Texas has discovered that giving kids information about how they and their peers are still growing and changing has an inoculating effect on stress levels.
And finally, our teens deserved an anxiety deep-dive all their own, so we looked at some bigger strategies for helping our oldest kids manage their anxiety:
Knowing how to help a kid with anxiety is tough: Should you shield the child from all anxiety-inducing circumstances? Release them from school and family obligations? Intervene with teachers and coaches when it all gets to be too much?
Dr. Siqueland offers counsel to caregivers in her parenting workshops, and she told me that she generally gives a few basic suggestions.
Some of those suggestions include identifying avoidance, not doing too much for them, focusing on incremental progress, making a plan (even a half-assed plan will do) and—my personal favourite—“stepping off the craziness.”