Starting Kindergarten is an adjustment for every child, but when you have an anxious child it can be particularly stressful. We’ve been working very hard to build Max’s confidence and give him some tools he can use himself when he feels anxious. As school has been progressing we have seen an uptick in his anxiety attacks and I thought I’d share with you some of the things we have been using in case your child is also suffering from anxiety.
Try not to get frustrated with them:
This can be really hard when it’s bedtime and suddenly they are panicked. I have gotten frustrated a time or two (or three) and this really does nothing but make Max feel unheard and more uneasy. He is coming to me because he knows I can and will make him feel safe. When I discount that, it makes his anxiety worse. It also ends up taking a lot longer to go through the attack and come out the other side than if I had just stopped and gone through it with him. Trust me, even when the timing couldn’t be worse, using a kind voice and reassuring them that you are there with them really helps. They’re not manipulating us or lying, they are in distress and even when it really is frustrating taking the time to honor their experience is the best path.
Deep breathing can reset the central nervous system:
We practice deep breathing together. This helps settle his nervous system and keeps him from hyperventilating. Sometimes we add a phrase to it like “good thoughts in, bad thoughts out” as we breathe.
Focus on the present:
I talk him through what’s happening right now. For instance “right now we are sitting together on the couch, we are cuddled up and your brother is playing play doh, your sister is napping and everything is okay.” This can also be helpful if you have other children. I have a three year old and a baby still nursing, so sometimes I have to deal with more than one child crisis at a time. This can be a good thing because he learns the world keeps going even while he is panicking. I can say “I’m nursing Piper right now, come snuggle me and let’s breathe.” Then we can go right into what is happening, we are snuggling while Piper eats and Huck is drinking milk…etc.
There is no rhyme or reason to the triggers and they frequently have nothing to do with anything:
My son can sometimes see something really scary on the news and it doesn’t affect him at all (I try to change the channel or turn the tv off so he doesn’t see it, but sometimes things happen) but then last night he had a big panic attack because he thought we sold an old guitar at our yard sale last summer. Last summer as in 2013 summer. Sometimes the triggers are clear and easily handled and sometimes it seems like they are out of left field and in a foreign language, and this can be frustrating (see my first tip) just know that whatever it is, however it is exhibiting itself it is very real to our children. Even if it makes no sense to us at all.
Listen to them:
Sometimes Max can verbalize exactly what is happening with him, what set him off and how he is feeling. If I listen and acknowledge and validate his feelings -not by assuring him that the laundry was indeed a monster but by saying “I understand, sometimes things look different in different lights and that can be scary” that goes a long way.
Tell them they are not alone:
At some point in our lives we have felt anxious about something. Use that. We forget sometimes how small their worlds are. I remember the first time I told Max that I had felt that way too. It blew his mind. He truly thought he was the only person in the world suffering and that made him feel very alone. Now he knows I have felt that way, and Daddy and Grandma too.
Celebrate their victories:
After a particularly rough bedtime he woke in the morning full of pride that he had made it through the night. So we celebrated that. Good Job Max!
If they are old enough, explain the physiology:
Towards the end of his anxiety attack last night he said his heart felt jumpy and that scared him. I explained in very simple terms adrenaline and how it works. Then I used an example of when it works in his favor, for instance on the baseball field. When the ball comes to him his body releases a jolt of adrenaline and that lets him hit, run or catch the ball quickly without even thinking about it. But it’s no good when you’re feeling anxious and your body reacts to what your mind is thinking. He really liked knowing how that worked and his heart racing was a little less scary.
We talk about happy things. We are going to the zoo this week with his friends and he can’t wait. We had a great time at a petting zoo this weekend and that was cool, we go over how he fielded that ball in the game last week. Things like that. We talk about Christmas or birthdays or whether we think his friend is getting a new sister or brother. We talk about whatever cute thing Huck or Piper did that day. You get the point.
Listen when they tell you what they need:
Max is getting very good at asking for what he needs, whether it is snuggles, to breathe, to go over happy things whatever it is. Sometimes if he has an attack during the day he will come to me and say he is having trouble and he needs a snuggle or to do “the thing” The thing is simply breathing and I talk him through calming down.
Make sure they get enough sleep and eat right:
If Max doesn’t get enough sleep or has too much sugar his anxiety goes up. He is now old enough to know that one affects the other and sometimes when I say “Okay you’ve already had a popsicle so no more” he accepts it easier because he knows if he has too much sugar it’s harder for him. On the other hand there have been times when this exact thing can cause panic. For instance he doesn’t want cake at a birthday party because he is afraid of having a panic attack. I reassured him that it was okay to have the cake and we would have a good dinner with a lot of protein to balance it out. He was then able to have the cake happily and let go of that worry.
Find a bedtime routine that reassures them and helps them sleep:
This can take a great deal of trial and error, but finding a way to send them off to dreamland feeling secure and cared for is important for all children, but especially those with anxiety.
We have created ‘The thing” and he asks every night if we can do it. It’s a bit of a guided relaxation we have developed together. We start with breathing, then go over the happy things from the day, then breathe and thinking about what’s happening at this exact moment and then we take a deep breath in and blow out and then we sing a song. Sometimes it’s Here Comes The Sun but mostly it’s Baby Mine and then we go to sleep.
Work on something they can do by themselves out in the world:
We are working on this, right now he knows he can go into the restroom and just breathe if he needs too. We haven’t developed a real game plan for this but so far just knowing he can do that if he needs to is okay. I also tell him to draw a picture of what’s scaring him if he is at school and then we can talk about it when he gets home.
As with anything, it takes a while to figure out what works for our kids. I hope this helps. This is what works for us.