How Sports Can Help (or Hurt!) Your Anxious Child

child sports basketballSports can help your child alleviate anxiety – or they can contribute to it. Check out the potential benefits and detriments to help you determine what sports may be doing for your child.

When Sports Can be Good for Your Anxious Child

Physical Health: Unless your child’s sport of choice involves a joystick and a couch, sports offer automatic exercise. The general consensus is that children (and adults!) are way too sedentary these days, and sports can get the blood pumping, the calories burning and the muscles primed.

Mental Health: Along with a well-toned body, sports can help create a well-toned mind, according to numerous studies, and the Internet4Classrooms website. Sports have the power to:

  • Improve mood
  • Reduce symptoms of depression (in some cases as effectively as anti-depressants)
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Reduce the spectrum of negative emotions
  • Elevate feelings of well-being
  • Improve skills
  • Help children make friends and socialize
  • Have fun

Sports for Children with ADHD

A study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders touted sports as particularly helpful for children suffering from ADHD, with benefits that may extend to all children with anxiety. The study examined the effects of playing sports on two groups of children, ages 6 to 14. One group had been diagnosed with straight-up ADHD and the other had been diagnosed with a learning disability, or LD. The ADHD group showed the more involved the children were in sports, the fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression they displayed. This did not hold true for children diagnosed with LD.

That doesn’t mean, however, you should run out and enroll Jimmy or Sally into all sports available within a 50-mile radius, as an overload of anything can be bad for the body as well as the mind and soul. There are also a number of detriments that playing just one sport can bring to your anxious child if you don’t keep an eye on his or her enjoyment level. 

When Sports Can be Bad for Your Anxious Child 

When They Contribute to Overload

It’s not just too many sports that can make a child stressed-out, it’s too many things in general. In our Flipping Ambition series we discuss overload in detail and cue you in on how you can figure out if you or your child suffers from it. We then share how to “dump the bucket” to help alleviate stress and anxiety.

When They Force Children to Constantly Indulge in a Weakness

Not all children are good at or even enjoy sports. They may much prefer other activities where they excel. It only makes sense that people typically enjoy things that they’re good at and try to avoid those they are not.

Forcing children into activities that they simply don’t like is neither healthy nor fun, another items we discuss in the Flipping Ambition series with Sad Sally, the mediocre soccer player.

If sports aren’t in the cards, find out what activities are and let your child indulge in those instead. Maybe Jimmy pounds a mean piano or Sally is a super-duper artist just waiting to happen.

When They Induce Undue Stress and Pressure

Sports can all too easily transform from a bout of fun into a bout of misery, depending on how much stress is involved. Your anxious child is subjected to good stress and bad stress every day, KidsHealth points out, and you want to ensure any activity is focusing on the former.

Good stress is a kind of excitement children get from a challenge. Rooting from the sidelines and cheering Sally on definitely fall into this category.

Bad stress is the kind that likes to pile up and make everything seem impossible and no fun at all. This kind of stress can come from yelling at Sally for missing a kick (“What’s wrong with you?!) or forcing Jimmy to play ball right after his pet dog died. Ouch. No one is having fun in either instance.

Adult-Induced Bad Stress

Yes, we know it may have been an automatic reaction and you didn’t mean to chide your child in front of the whole team for missing a goal, but that kind of reaction can hurt big time. The same kind of hurt can come from fanatical parents or coaches who lose focus of that thing called “enjoyment” and are only out to win, win, win.

Sport psychologist and Psychology Today writer Frank Smoll adds that bad stress can also be the result of the “frustrated jock” fathers (or mothers) who are hoping their children attain the sports stardom they never reached on their own.

“Unfortunately, in some cases, the degree of identification becomes excessive, and the child becomes an extension of the parent’s ego,” Smoll writes. “When parents over-identify with their child’s sport performance, they begin to define their own self-worth in terms of their son’s or daughter’s successes or failures.”

There is certainly nothing fun about that, as the parents may begin to feel the pain of missing a goal or striking out inside the fibers of their very being. Reactions can be very strong and very negative in such instances, leaving the child with feelings of low self-worth, shame, frustration and all sorts of other horrible emotions.

Children can also come to think that their stellar performance is the only way to win their parents’ approval or love, and striking out means they are no longer in their parents’ favor. Double ouch on this scenario.

Self-Induced Bad Stress

Bad stress can also come not from outside sources but from within the children themselves. Like many of us are wont to do, they may place unrealistic expectations on themselves, like Sally’s expectations to be Pele tomorrow or Jimmy’s expectations to hit a grand slam every time he’s a bat. Children may start to beat themselves up mentally for not attaining their self-imposed, unrealistic goals that no one but the bionic man or woman may be able to attain.

Even Pele had his off-days, for goodness sake!

Sports can be great for your anxious child – with the keyword being “can.” Keeping an eye on your child’s stress levels is vital to ensure your child is reaping the benefits that sports can bring and, indeed, having fun.

Want more info? Check out our Tips for Making Sports Happy and Healthy for Your Anxious Child


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