Habits of Anxious Kids: Breaking the Bad and Making the Good

Finding Balance: Developing Healthy Habits for the Child With Anxiety 

Developing healthy habits is important for any child, but for the child with anxiety it can make the difference between having a good day and having a day filled with struggles. The child with anxiety experiences fear, nervousness and shyness and begins to withdraw and avoid certain places, people and activities. All children experience fear and stress, but the child with anxiety is unable to control his or her emotions to the point of it changing his daily routine and habits. Modeling good habits and using strategies to deal with anxiety on a regular basis helps children with the disorder live normal, healthy lives.

Manage Traumatic Events

According to the Anxiety Association of America children with anxiety need help managing traumatic events. Developing a plan to deal with traumatic events before they happen is the best plan. Model this healthy habit by getting your children involved in the process. Talk about how important it is to remain calm when something unexpected happens. Discuss the differences between what is traumatic and what is frightening, and what appropriate responses to different situations look like. Children who are prepared are less likely to have an attack of extreme anxiety.

Some level of fright or trauma is a part of life for most people. The Anxiety Association of America recommends these tips for helping children and adolescents deal with trauma:

  • Reassure them that you’ll do everything you can to keep them and their loved ones safe.
  • Encourage them to talk and ask questions
  • Let them know that they can be open about their feelings.
  • Answer questions honestly.
  • Protect them from what they don’t need to know.
  • Avoid discussing worst-case scenarios.
  • Limit excessive watching and listening to graphic replays of the traumatic event
  • Stick to your daily routine as much as possible.

It is also a good idea to watch for signs of ongoing or increasing anxiety. Look for these signs of more severe anxiety after a frightening experience or trauma:

  • Change in eating habits
  • Clinginess
  • Re-experiencing the event through nightmares, recollections, or play
  • Avoidance anything reminiscent of the event
  • Emotional numbing or lack of feeling about the event
  • Jumpiness
  • Persistent fears about another disaster
  • Problems sleeping.

Children with anxiety need to be able to talk about their feelings and process them in healthy ways. Encouraging good communication skills through ongoing dialogue will help them learn to cope with their fears.

Learn to Relax

Children with anxiety need to learn to relax. Practicing relaxation techniques at home can help them feel in control and able to relax anywhere and at any time. When an anxious child understands what he or she needs to do to calm down, it makes him more inclined to try new things. Use these techniques to help your child learn to calm down in any situation:

  • Deep Breathing. This is a tool your child can use to calm down quickly in any situation. Practice the technique at home by having your child lie on the floor or bed and pay attention to how his or her body breaths naturally. Then stand up and try to repeat the deep, stomach breathing by placing the hands on the stomach and pushing them out with each breath. Once your child can feel her diaphragm moving in and out, it will be easier to use controlled and deep breathing. Do this for a few minutes each day both lying down and standing. Add a simple stretch to the deep breathing by raising arms above the head with each breath.
  • Muscle Relaxation. Start at the top of the head and have your child tense and relax each muscle group. Tensing and relaxing muscles helps calm the entire body and can be done anywhere. Once your child has tensed his muscles from head to toe, have him imagine he is a rag doll and flop over at the waist, relaxing the entire body at once.

Using these tools at home helps your child understand the importance of keeping his or her body relaxed at all times. This will help her control feelings of anxiety and learn to relax and remain calm in any situation.

The Habit of Facing and Not Avoiding Fears

As adults we all know there are times when facing fears is the only option. Learning this healthy habit is important for children with anxiety. Facing fears for a child may be something as simple as sleeping longer each night without the night light; or it may be something big like trying out for the school play. In any case, learning to face fears at an age-appropriate level is an important habit to develop, especially for the child with anxiety.

Start by making a list of things that make your child afraid. Try to list them from least to greatest. This helps your child understand how fears can be different depending on the situation. Once you have completed your list, talk about ways to deal with each fearful thing and how important it is not to let fear control what he or she does. Take the least fearful thing on the list and encourage your child to enter into that situation repeatedly until the fear and anxiety start to come down. If your child needs to do this in increments and build up to fully engaging in the fearful thing, that is fine too. For example, the first fear on your child’s list is entering a crowded grocery store. The first time you try the activity, say to your child, “Today we are going in the grocery store. Let’s try and stay 10 minutes this time. When you start to feel anxious, let me know.” Biting off a little bit of the fearful event at a time may be a better way to ease into the fearful situation. Each child’s level of anxiety will be different, so tailoring this exercise to fit your situation is fine. The important thing is to help your child face the fear and be able to move on to the next item.

Healthy Home

Children with anxiety need a predictable home environment in order to function normally. Anxious children feel calmer when they know household routines, understand what is expected of them and know the consequences for misbehavior. Setting limits and sticking to routines helps the child with anxiety feel safe and secure in his or her environment. Use these suggestions to help establish healthy habits in your home:

  • Set limits. Children with anxiety need limits so they can play, work and rest is a secure environment. Set limits on TV and electronics time, after-school activities, play dates and other things that could potentially become excessive.
  • Keep a routine. Routines help children know what is expected of them and when. Routines are an important part of building healthy habits for life. Establish routines for school mornings, bedtimes and mealtimes to make times spent together as a family more enjoyable.
  • Encourage exercise. Exercise is an important part of reducing stress and anxiety in both children and adults. Including regular exercise as part of your family’s routine will improve mood, reduce crankiness and promote a good night’s sleep for everyone in the house.
  • Follow through with consequences. Some parents feel a lack of power when it comes to disciplining their anxious child. But children who know consequences ahead of time are less likely to become upset when they step out of bounds. Keep consequences appropriate for different age levels, and talk about why there are consequences when rules are broken. Keeping one set of standards for a child with anxiety that is different from the other children in the house is a recipe for disaster. Even though the anxious child may respond in a more emotional way, it is important for him or her to understand that all actions have consequences.

Simplekids.net (www.simplekids.net) recommends these five tips for creating routines in your home:

  • Keep it simple. Pick one thing you would like to add to the things you do normally in your home and weave it in over the course of two weeks. Once that task is blended into your family routine move on to another.
  • Be realistic. Not all routine-building ideas are easy ones. Be realistic about setting goals. Small changes become healthy routines over time.
  • Stay flexible. Routines are important, but sometimes a break from the ordinary is nice to keep life at home fresh and fun.
  • Make it personal. Your family’s routine will not look like other families. Decide the things that are important to you and make those a part of your daily life.
  • Stay organized. Part of making and sticking to a routine is staying organized. Completing daily tasks in a timely way helps your family stick to their routine.

Whatever elements become a part of your family routine, remember it is all about establishing and modeling healthy habits for your children. If you make healthy habits a part of your life, your children will see that behavior and want it for themselves. Children with anxiety need good examples to help them see and understand what appropriate responses to stressful situations look like. Setting this example on a daily basis will help them become productive adults who manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways.