Ask a Counselor: How can I help my anxious child through transition?

by Kay Bruner on August 6, 2017

Letter of the day:

“I’m coming to you at this moment as a desperate mom in need of a resource, like, today for my 10 year old son. Briefly: After 5 years living in _____, we’re packing up and heading back to the states in 3 1/2 weeks. My anxiety prone son, who is very much looking forward to the move at this point, has shown major mental health deterioration over the last week or two leading up to this move. He’s now literally roller coaster riding through multiple panic attacks each day, and cannot make a single decision or handle anything requested of him. It’s breaking our hearts, and honestly, it’s to the point where we’re very concerned for him.”

For all the parents facing transition with anxious children this season, I’ve got two immediate interventions that should help right away, and then some ideas for longer-term brain and body care.

IMMEDIATE INTERVENTION #1:  BREATHE

We’ve probably all had the experience of being with an anxious person, and feeling our own anxiety ratchet up as well–especially when it’s our child who’s panicking!  Well, the opposite is true as well: when we calm ourselves, others calm with us.

Deep, deliberate breathing is one of the very best things we can do for anxiety.  We can do it for ourselves, and coach our children to do it with us.

Research shows that just two or three minutes of deliberate breathing each day is enough to produce positive brain changes.  (Source)

One of the best breathing techniques I know is Alternate Nostril Breathing.  I have clients who use this technique to help manage major anxiety symptoms like agoraphobia and panic attacks.  It may look strange, but it’s amazingly and immediately, helpful.  Here’s a brief Alternate Nostril Breathing tutorial.

Cool life hack: almost every song is 3 or 4 minutes long.  If you put on a favorite calming song and alternate nostril breathe all the way through, you’ve done something great for your brain.

I think a 10-year-old should be able to learn alternate nostril breathing pretty quickly.  Let them choose a song they like, and breathe through it together.  (With a younger child, we might have them blow bubbles through a bubble wand, coaching them to “make bubbles for as long as you can,” which encourages slower breathing.)

If you’re out in public, alternate nostril breathing can look like you’re picking your nose, so the Calm app (Apple and Android versions both available) is a great resource to have on hand.  Calm has a beautiful front screen with nature sounds that I instantly fell in love with, plus it’s got a breathing coach that teaches you to breathe in slowly, hold, and breathe out slowly.

Since it’s perfectly socially acceptable to be on your phone in public, Calm is perfect for traveling.  Show your child how the Calm breathing coach works ahead of time, practice a bit together so you both have the hang of it, and let your child know that he can put in headphones and breathe with the screen anywhere, any time.

IMMEDIATE INTERVENTION #2:  GROUNDING

If breathing is too difficult in the moment, trying a grounding exercise first.

When our bodies are overtaken with anxiety, that anxiety becomes our whole focus.  Anything that involves focusing on the five senses and the outside world  will help “ground” us in the moment and bring calm to our brains.

One of the most common grounding techniques is the “5-4-3-2-1 Game.”  Coach your child through the following:

  • Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
  • Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping on keyboard” or “tv”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of)
  • Name 1 good thing about yourself  (Source)

When your child is feeling calmer, you can continue to engage their senses with the outside world by transitioning to the old “I Spy” game.  Take turns choosing objects in the room, while the other person guesses what the spy sees: “I spy with my little eye, something that is blue (green, red, orange, etc).”

Here are some longer-term strategies you can use to help lower anxiety in general, and help everyone be prepared for future episodes.

EDUCATE

The more your child understands what’s happening in his body and brain, the more he can decide how to handle that anxiety when it comes.  Help him understand that what’s happening to his body is pretty common, and there are many strategies that can help.

Pick up a copy of The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel, and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by Dr. John Gottman to thoroughly educate yourself, and share freely with your child about what you’re learning.

Meanwhile, watch this video of Dr. Siegel’s hand model of the brain.  Here’s an article that uses Lego figures to explain the same “upstairs brain, downstairs brain” concepts to kids.  Share either the hand model or the Lego model with your child.

We want our kids to understand that the “downstairs brain” gets full of feelings, and sometimes the “downstairs brain” doesn’t know what to do with all those feelings, so we “flip our lids.”  If we understand what’s happening in our brain, our “upstairs brain” can help by knowing about things that will help “downstairs brain” feel calm again.  We might even learn to recognize the signs of an overwhelmed downstairs brain, and then we can calm ourselves before we flip our lids.

When your child is not in the middle of a panic attack, have a gentle conversation about the anxiety they’re experiencing.

  • Talk about the symptoms you’ve noticed.
  • Ask what symptoms they’ve noticed.
  • Ask how their body feels when they’re feeling anxious.
  • Does the anxiety sit in their chest, on their shoulders, in the middle of their forehead, in their stomach?
  • Tell your child that these are important signals from the body, and we’re going to learn to listen to those signals, pay attention to what our bodies need, and try to help our bodies to manage our feelings.

With conversations like this, we’re helping to put the “upstairs brain” back in charge of the “downstairs brain” and the rest of the body.

And then there are even more techniques we can use, like:

YOGA

Yoga is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety, even severe types like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It’s a great, regular, daily way to pay attention to our bodies and to care for them gently and effectively.

Find a yoga practice that works for you as a parent, first of all.  The calmer you are, the more space you will have to help your child cope with his anxiety.  Plus, it’s just good parenting practice to model healthy behaviors, right?  

My favorite teacher is Adriene, on YouTube.  Her channel is free and has a wealth of material available.

Here’s my favorite Adriene practice for anxiety.  If you’ve never done yoga, don’t worry.  This one is low and slow, lots of stretching and breathing.  There’s no weird woo-woo spiritual stuff, and she doesn’t try to twist you into a pretzel or make you stand on your head.  It’s just 20 minutes of great, immediate anxiety help.

Your child might like Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube (here’s the Cosmic Kids “relaxation” page), or he might just want to practice along with you and Adriene.

LAUGH AND HAVE FUN, EVERY DAY

Laugh every day.  It is physically impossible to be anxious when you’re laughing.  A funny movie or TV show, a silly joke book, baby goats in pajamas or that hamster that does backflips on YouTube (Yup, still funny after I’ve watched it 400 times.  I just checked.)—whatever it is that makes you and your child laugh, find it and keep it on hand.  (I think that hamster video would be a great use of a cell phone and free Wi-Fi while waiting in airport lines.)

Take time every single day for scheduled laugh breaks.  It’s just like taking your vitamins: don’t wait to get sick; just do it because it’s good for you.  

When I work with anxious young clients, I always give the parents this homework, with the children present:  Have fun together every day.  When the family returns each session, I’ll ask the child how the parents did with their homework.  If the parents struggle to have fun, we’ll sometimes do a sticker reward chart to help the parents remember their homework.  So, if you need a sticker chart, make one for yourself.  Just remember: have fun together every day.  It’s great for everybody’s anxiety levels!

Of course we don’t want to misuse laughter and fun to completely avoid our pain; however, we also need the daily reminder that life is still good, even when it’s hard.  Sometimes letting ourselves laugh is a great act of faith and hope.

MUSIC

Find music that’s emotionally intelligent, and keep it going as the soundtrack to life.  Here are a few favorites of mine.  I’d love to hear yours, too!

Blue Healer, Birdtalker

Beautiful Things, Gungor

Night Has Passed, The Brilliance

Be Kind to Yourself, Andrew Peterson

What helps you and your child manage anxiety in healthy ways during transition times?  

Give us your ideas in the comments!

photo credit

 

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • These are excellent tips. Thanks Kay!

    We love Cosmic Kids – Jamie also does ‘Zen Den’ where she explains stuff like the upstairs and downstairs brain.

    We also use music from ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ with our 5yo and have done for a couple of years. Songs like ‘It’s OK to feel sad sometimes’, ‘There are so many feelings’, ‘Grownups come back’. There are a couple about breathing as well, and several about verbalising feelings.

    My go-to strategy is to make a countdown chart. It makes everything a bit more concrete and gives my little guy some small sense of control and knowing what’s going on even as his whole world is turning upside down.

    • Thanks, Tamie! Great tips! Daniel Tiger is just the best, and that sense of control is SO important.

  • Viola Montgomery-Palmer

    Try having them breath in and out slowly and as they breath out say, “Lord, I give you my anxiety.” I make the motion of taking something from my self and giving it away. Then as I breathe in I say, “Lord, I receive your peace and calm.” while making the hand motions of receiving something.

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