Anxiety-related disorders are the most widespread psychiatric conditions affecting children and adults. For many kids with ADHD and LD, the added burden of high anxiety can make getting through the day seem like an overwhelming struggle. How can parents help their kids overcome the debilitating emotions associated with intense fear and worry? Following is a menu of options:
Regulate; Relate; Reason. When your child’s brain is hijacked by anxiety and emotion and he can’t think rationally, intervene using this 3-step sequence:
- Help him calm his fight/flight/freeze responses (regulate).
- Connect with him by being attuned and sensitive to what he’s feeling (relate).
- Support him in being able to reflect, learn, remember, articulate, and become self-assured (reason).
Normalize anxiety and model calm behaviors. Some level of anxiety is expected as part of life. Be a composed, reassuring, and confident presence for your child: “Anxiety is part of life. We all deal with our anxiety in different ways. I can see you’re upset; what can we do?”
Recognize and praise small accomplishments. Don’t wait for your child to complete a project perfectly or ace an exam before praising him. For kids who struggle with anxiety in addition to their other learning disorders, things are harder and success takes longer. Commend effort and offer encouragement along the way. Be flexible and modify expectations during stressful periods.
Anticipate changes. Kids—especially those with special needs—often struggle with changes in routines, substitute teachers, fire drills, driving a different route to a known destination, delays in school start times, etc. To the degree you can, anticipate changes in routine, schedule, or environment and discuss deviations in advance to avoid surprises. If, for example, you’re going to visit grandma for the weekend, announce it ahead of time: “We’re going to grandma’s for the weekend”; “Don’t forget, we’re going to grandma’s in three days”; “in two days”; “Tomorrow’s the day we’re going to grandma’s.”
Maintain predictable routines such as regular meal times and bedtimes with evening ‘wind-down’ time and bedtime rituals. If homework is anxiety provoking, make a safe, calm plan for regularly scheduled homework time and give helpful and caring feedback.
Plan for transitions, which are demanding. For example, if waking up, and getting ready for school is challenging, allow extra, supervised time in the morning to encourage calmness. When changing grades or schools, prepare her for the new teacher and new classroom by walking through the school, meeting with the teachers and visiting the classrooms, gym, and outdoor play areas.
Use age-appropriate language and explanations. Kids under 10 are generally concrete (as opposed to abstract) thinkers and may become easily anxious when they don’t understand something. Concrete thinking can lead to anxiety when kids jump to conclusions about things they hear. For example, after a terrible storm, if families constantly talk about the damage, the wind, and people who were hurt, younger children may assume a terrible storm can come at any time, instead of it being a rare event. Limit your child’s exposure to media reports of negative events, such as earthquakes or diseases that occur far away, so they don’t over-react. If children do hear about these occurrences, make sure to reassure them that they will not get Ebola or that strong earthquakes do not happen in Connecticut, etc.
Provide vocabulary for a range of emotions. It is important for kids to understand their spectrum of emotions and to be able to explain their feelings. If they don’t have a way to express themselves, they will become even more anxious and act out. Provide your child with the language of emotional regulation in a way that can be fun and understandable. For example, “zones of emotional vocabulary” may be based on colors: “I’m feeling blue” can indicate feeling sad, sick, tired or bored; “green” can refer to feeling happy, calm, focused and ready to learn; “yellow” can mean they are frustrated, worried, excited, or silly/wiggly; and “I see you’re in the red zone right now” can signify that they are angry, scared, elated, or on the verge of yelling or hitting.
Encourage mindfulness from an early age. It’s never too soon to teach kids how to self-regulate. Whether it is by counting breaths or frog jumps, there are numerous apps for children and adolescents that teach skills of self-control, problem-solving, planning, and task persistence, in addition to guided meditation, visualization, and how to identify and process emotions.
Promote adequate sleep, healthy eating, and daily exercise. Sleep deprivation worsens all mental-health conditions. Maintain good sleep hygiene and a calming positive sleep routine. Don’t let sleep or mealtimes turn into power struggles because of anxiety. Instead of asking your child an open-ended and potentially anxiety-provoking question, such as, “What do you want for dinner?” offer two healthy choices.
This article is based on Understanding & Addressing Anxiety in Your Child: Methods That Really Work, by Liz Driscoll Jorgensen, CADC and Mary Murphy, PhD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, in New York City, is a co-founder of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.