10 Tools to Help an Anxious Child or Teen

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As a psychotherapist and mom, I’m always on the lookout for concrete and effective ways to help kids soothe their anxieties—especially now, between the pandemic and world events feeling particularly uncertain and scary.  We know that our kids and teens need more mental health support than they’ve been getting; the need is greater than it has been in years past. As a place to start, I wanted to share some of my favorite anxiety-busting activities for kids and teens alike. They’re quick and accessible for anyone to start building into their daily routine.

1. Chart feelings.

In some cases, anxiety arises—or is exacerbated—when people experience feelings that they can’t understand. Charts like these can help younger kids learn to identify and name their feelings; likewise, a feelings wheel can help older kids articulate their feelings (and recognize the way those feelings may overlap with one another in more nuanced ways.)

As kids of all ages learn to label their feelings, the upstairs part of their brains comes online. This is the rational, decision-making part of the brain which helps regulate emotions, as opposed to the downstairs or the feeling part of the brain, which can get swept away by overwhelming emotions. Once someone learns how to identify their feelings, they are much better equipped to make a plan of action for how to work with those feelings, such as trying out some of the other ideas listed below.

2. Get sensory.

Sensory play—think: making slime, playing with play dough or clay, making a stress ball—can help regulate anxiety. These activities stimulate all five senses, relieve muscle tension and can cultivate a positive mood state. My daughter is obsessed with making and playing with slime. The touching, squeezing and kneading is “satisfying,” she says, and this is a word often used to describe the trending video craze of ASMR, which is a feeling of well-being associated with listening to a gentle stimulus like the soft sounds of people whispering, slime crackling, or nails tapping. Adults, spend some time with your kids on this one and get tactile. You, too, may find it super soothing.

3. Establish Kindness Hour.

Helping others isn’t only altruistic; it becomes self-care because of the way it lifts our mood and gives us a “helper’s high.” By activating the kindness muscle, kids learn to shift out of a state of stress and into one of gratitude and appreciation. Is there a time during each day—like at dinner or before bed—when you can create a ritual where each member of the family shares something they’re grateful for? Or can your child make it a point to engage in a kind act for someone else each day by writing a note of appreciation for a friend, offering a compliment to someone in the family, or lending a hand to the community in some way?

4. Use a weighted blanket.

When my kid-who-never-stops-moving tried a weighted blanket, it had a magical effect on her anxiety. These blankets activate the deep pressure receptors in the body which stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (AKA the rest-and-digest system). If your child’s anxiety makes it hard to slow down for sleep, try a blanket that is the right weight for your them and see if it helps to ease them into calm and dreamland. A weighted stuffed animal also works wonders.

5. Journal (using writing or not).

It may sound cliche, but traditional journaling — putting feelings down on a page —  is really an effective way for older kids to regulate their anxiety. It allows them to:

  • put down devices (devices can add to a sense of anxiety)
  • stop and observe their thoughts and feelings as they write them down
  • practice resilience by witnessing and regulating their challenging emotions
  • think about ways to solve their own problems

Keep in mind that journaling doesn’t need to involve putting words to paper in paragraph form. The same benefits can be achieved by creating artwork, collages, or even coming up with custom, calming meditations to read before going to bed.

6. Get moving.

You’ve heard it a zillion times before: Exercise is an effective antidote to anxiety. And here’s why. When we’re experiencing anxiety, our brain and body think that we need to activate the fight-or-flight response and either run for the hills or fight a wild animal. As a result, our muscles tense, our heart races, and our breathing shallows. But as we exercise, we not only trigger the release of positive hormones like endorphins, but the anxiety has a chance to drain out of the body as our muscles relax, our heartbeat slows and our breath deepens. So take your pick of ways to get moving: jump on the trampoline, have a dance party where each person gets to take turns picking the songs, or try a yoga card deck for kids. It doesn’t matter what you do, but it is helpful to understand that having some quick, movement-based activities at the ready can make a big difference.

7. Practice progressive muscle relaxation.

Scan through the body by isolating each body part one at a time and squeezing it tightly for a couple seconds before releasing. For example, squeeze your fists tightly on the inhale, then release your hands and exhale. Next, tighten and squeeze your shoulders, relax, and breathe. Continue through the body, all the way up into the face where you can squish the muscles there tightly and then relax. Have your child pick a calming color to send through his or her entire body during this exercise. By relieving stress and tension in the physical body, the emotions can follow suit.

8. Get tapping.

An effective method for helping kids with anxiety is to use EFT tapping, in which you lightly tap pressure points on your face and upper body while talking or thinking about a challenging issue or feeling. As you tap and talk, you release tension and help rewire the brain to think more clearly and feel calmer. Kids can learn this in conjunction with an adult and can then easily learn to practice this on their own. Tapping can also be used to promote relaxation before sleep and has been proven to be effective for people of all ages. When my daughter was young, we would take time to tap away icky feelings, and tap back in positive words and feelings.

9. Establish family meetings.

Anxiety can build up when kids feel disconnected from their caregivers. Take time out for a family meeting in which all members of the family gather together, ideally at a regular time each week. You can collect suggestions for topics beforehand and list them somewhere visible to all, like on a white board in the kitchen. During the meeting, each person shares one thing that has been positive, as well as one thing they might like to improve at home. Having family meeting time carved out lets kids know that there is space for them to bring their feelings and concerns to the table. Plus, it provides a way for the whole family to connect — without the pull of distractions.

10. Find the funny.

Truly! This might sound hokey, but laughter really does release anxiety. It gives us a chance to take in more oxygen, improve circulation, and relax the physical symptoms of stress. Laughter has even been shown to have positive effects on the immune system. So, what gets your kids laughing? A game of charades, watching animal videos, dressing up in costumes, MadLibs? Whatever tickles their funny bone, let them get after it.

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Kathryn Lubow is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Mindful Self-Compassion teacher in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been featured on Sweety High, Damsel in Dior, and Medium as well as her blog at www.kathrynchayalubow.com. Instagram: @kathrynchayalubow