Coping skills for children
Have you ever experienced this scenario....your child's anxiety or anger is increasing, and you are trying to support and provide guidance, so you suggest that they take some deep breaths, only to hear "NO! IT DOESN'T WORK!" You might be wondering why these coping strategies are suggested if kids don't use them? I hear this a lot and it's a common frustration for both parents and children. I'll tell you a little about what's going on and then I'll tell you what you can do about it.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that gets stimulated when one is faced with a perceived threat, you might know the term 'fight or flight?' It's the amygdala that sends messages to our brains and bodies to either fight, flee or freeze in a dangerous situation. In these instances, the amygdala can override the more rational parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which is useful, it keeps us alive. I'll give you an example, one doesn't need to use reason and logic to determine if it's a good idea to jump back onto the sidewalk if a car suddenly appears as your crossing the road. To tell someone to take a deep breath in that moment would be futile; the amygdala is in charge and the only thing to do is run!
So, what can you do about it? Practice the coping strategies regularly. This can help in many ways; it helps to create more moments of calm in your child's life, it helps build self-awareness, it builds confidence in children and their ability to deal with various situations, and it becomes easier to remember and use the skills when needed. Practicing coping strategies may seem like another thing to add to your long list of things to do, but there are creative ways that you can incorporate this into your day. You can practice at bedtime, in the car, walking to school, at the dinner table or while doing other daily routines. Doing this as a family can help to normalize emotions and coping for children. It's also important to model positive coping as a parent; children are watching and learning from you and if you are using the strategies that you're teaching they will be more inclined use them.
1. Calm Breathing; Slow and steady breathing. Breathe in and fill the lungs while counting to 5, then slowly breathe out through the mouth until the lungs are empty, counting to 8. Repeat this for several minutes.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation; tensing and releasing the muscles. Start from the feet and work your way up the body. Curl up the toes and tighten the muscles in the feet, then release; squeeze the muscles in the legs and release, and move up the body (stomach, arms, shoulders, face). Notice the difference between tension and relaxation and notice where you hold the tension. A short version of this for children is pretending you're a robot (squeeze all the muscles in the body and hold for a 10 seconds) then pretend you're a ragdoll (let it all go and flop on the couch or bed). Combine this strategy with calm breathing.
3. Grounding/mindfulness; staying present in the moment. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Combine this strategy with calm breathing.
4. Listen to calming music; play calm music and slow your breathing down.
Responding to big emotions
A few things that parents can do to help in the moment when your child's emotions are high are; stay calm, slow your breathing down, don't talk too much (the brain isn't good at taking in the information when the emotion is high), empathize and validate their feelings, use hugs (if that's calming for your child), encourage them to go somewhere quiet or away from the problem and stay with them and remind them of the coping strategies you've been practicing. Don't get frustrated if they resist doing the strategies, it's the amygdala talking, give them some time.
If your child is in crisis please contact your local crisis line, call 911 or go to the local hospital emergency room for help.
Should you and your child need more support managing emotions it might be helpful to contact a local mental health professional for help.
I'm a registered psychotherapist and I'm available for free consultation and on-going therapy for children and teens. Feel free to contact me for more details firstname.lastname@example.org (905) 464-1029 or use the contact form below.
School avoidance or refusal
Many children and teenagers struggle to get back into the school routine after a long break. They struggle with the change in bedtime routine, the long hours in the classroom and the workload can cause some stress and getting used to. Most children can handle the discomfort and get used to this change in a few days or up to a few weeks, but for some youth the emotional distress can be overwhelming. To relieve this distress, a child or teen may begin to avoid school, in other cases they attend school but with much resistance and stress for the whole family during the morning routines, other youth skips classes, and small children may cry or become clingy when they arrive at school. Anxiety and stress can cause unexplained headaches, stomachaches, and other ailments which may make it hard for children to get to school on time in the morning or make it feel necessary to leave early.
Why is this happening?
Avoiding or trying to avoid school happens because children and teens don't want to feel the distressing emotions. When we avoid situations that cause the distress, we have immediate short-term relief. Some common reasons for school refusal are:
What can you do?
First and foremost, if your child or teen is complaining of aches, pains, stomach issues, heart issues etc. have them seen by a medical professional. If there are no medical causes for the symptoms it might be time to talk to your child. Ask them questions about their day, their thoughts, their feelings about school. Questions like
Speak to the school if there are things they can do to help.
Finally, introduce coping skills like breathing exercises, mindfulness, movement/exercise, spending time in nature, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, challenging thoughts, problem solving to name a few.
If you are doing everything you can to manage this problem and are not finding a lot of progress, reaching out to a local mental health professional for help might be the next step. If you would like to consult with me, feel free to call (905) 464-1029, email email@example.com or use the contact form below.
Symptoms of anxiety in teens
Teens have different worries than children; they become more concerned about their performance in school/sports/the arts, how they are perceived by others, changes in their bodies/health and about the future. Adolescence is a time when individuals are moving towards independence which means that they might be working hard to deal with the anxiety on their own or with the help of their friends. This might mean that a parent misses the signs that the anxiety is a problem or mistakes the symptoms as 'typical teenage behaviour.'
The following is a list of some of the symptoms that you might see in your anxious teen:
Some anxiety is normal, but when it disrupts one's life (school, work, family, socializing, activities, or health -sleeping, eating, pain, illness) a mental health professional can help. Please look into local mental health professionals in your community, or if you'd like to consult with me, please use the contact form below, or call me at (905)-464-1029.
Symptoms of anxiety in children
Sometimes children exhibit anxiety symptoms in a different way than adults do and it may not even look like anxiety. Parents work so hard to help their children in every area of their lives so it's beneficial to know what you're dealing with.
First of all, some typical symptoms of anxiety that you might see are:
If you are looking for mental health support feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, (905) 464-1029 or use the contact form below.
What are normal school jitters and what might be more of a problem?
Being nervous about starting a new school year or doing certain school tasks is normal. You might notice that your child or teen might be talking more about school as it get's closer to the end of a long break, they might be asking you more questions and they might have trouble sleeping right before the event (i.e. first day of school, having to do a presentation or performing in a play). A little anxiety is good, it helps us to prepare for big events (i.e. tests or performances) or helps us to be more alert and stay safe (i.e. looking both ways before we cross the street).
Anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with our lives. Some examples of how school anxiety can affect children and teens are:
These are just some of the signs and symptoms you might see, but everyone is different and might react differently to their anxiety. It's important to talk to your child or teen and find out what's going on for them. If their anxiety interferes with their enjoyment of school, social interactions or other activities, it might be time to reach out for help.
How can parents help?
As a parent, often your first instinct is to make your child or teen's big feelings go away. As a result we quickly move into problem solving/fixing the problem or trying convince them that they don't need to worry. So my first piece of advice is to resist the instinct to fix and spend more time on empathy and understanding. Children and teens will talk about the problem more if they feel they are understood; and once they feel understood they might be open to problem solving with you. Other things to keep in mind; are they getting enough sleep and eating well, do they have enough quiet time/calm time in their day, how much exercise or fresh air are they getting and do they have some valuable bonding time with family or important adults in their lives? Another consideration would be routine and structure; is there a consistent routine in your home and do your children know what to expect? Consistency and structure can support children to feel more safe and secure.
If you are doing everything you can to support your child or teen and they are still struggling with their anxiety around school reaching out to the school for advice and resources would be a great place to start, you can also reach out to a local mental health specialist.
I am currently taking on new clients both in-person and virtually. Feel free to contact me at (905) 464-1029, email@example.com or through the contact form below.