Cultivating confidence and bravery

By Christine Weinzapfel Hayden, LCSW

Advice from Youth First

Children are creatures of habit. They thrive in calm, consistent, predictable environments. When there is change for them or even when they have the anticipation of change, it can create an onset of anxiety. As much as we would love to put our kids in a protective bubble, it is impossible to create a life for our children that is free of any fear or anxiety; nor would we want to do that. Rather, what we should aim to do is give them the tools, the strength and the confidence to navigate new, anxiety-provoking situations with confidence and bravery.

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell what anxiety looks like - especially with older children who more naturally start to pull away from their families. Some symptoms include being newly, easily overstimulated; becoming hyper focused on things they’re worried about; feeling overwhelmed by daily tasks; or expressing fear of doing activities or leaving home. They could also have physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, bowel issues or consistently feeling sick. As a parent, it can feel incredibly overwhelming when your child is struggling in these ways. But it is important to know that anxiety isn’t a helpless diagnosis. There are a lot of tools you can put in your box to help guide them through their more difficult moments.

The first thing to do is be sure you have your own anxiety in check. Being around an anxious adult can be triggering for an anxious child. It is our job to help regulate them, and we cannot do that if we are dysregulated ourselves.

Next, we want to be good models of self-regulation. This means when we see that our child is feeling anxious, we want to help them learn how to self-regulate and express how they’re feeling in a healthy way.  It is important to remember that our children need to be calm before they can talk to us about what they are feeling. There are a lot of great strategies for helping a child self-regulate when they’re feeling big feelings.

The first involves deep breathing using long slow breaths. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds.

The second, and my personal favorite, is grounding. This technique uses all five senses. We’re helping our children find five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can feel, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste. Sometimes, with young children, we might have to tell them the things we see, hear, feel, smell and taste, and ask them to follow along with us.

Help them with visualizations. Being able to visualize, in their mind, a place that makes them feel safe and calm can be a very powerful tool they can use at any time.

Ask them to do an activity you know they enjoy. This could be doing something artistic; being physically active; or listening to or playing music. By joining them in the activity while they’re upset, we’re reenforcing the activity as a coping mechanism.

Anxiety is a big feeling. It can be overwhelming for the child as well as the parent, and lead them to feel helpless at times. You can use healthy coping skills and communication to help your child work through their anxiety. If you feel that things aren’t getting better, professional help is always a positive choice. Teaching our kids that it’s okay to ask for help when they need it is important. Your Youth First social worker is always here to help.

Christine Weinzapfel Hayden, LCSW, serves as Youth First School social worker at Evansville’s Corpus Christi School and St. Philip School in Posey County.