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37 techniques to calm an anxious child

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Imagine you are driving in the car. You look in the rearview mirror and see your child trying to shrink into her seat.


"What's wrong?" you ask.

"I don't want to go to the birthday party."

"But you've been excited all week. There will be cake and games and a bounce house. You love all of those things," you try to reason.

"But I can't go. There will be lots of people there I don't know. No one will play with me. My tummy hurts."

Sound familiar? As a parent of an anxious child, you might regularly find yourself in situations where no matter what you try, what effort you make, what compassion you offer, or what love you exude, nothing seems to help quash the worry that is affecting your little one's everyday interactions.

In my work with anxious children, I have found it tremendously beneficial for both parents and kids to have a toolkit full of coping skills from which to choose. As you know, every child is different and some of the tools described below will resonate more than others. When you pick one to work with, please try it at least two to three times before making a judgment on whether it suits your child and family.

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Here are 37 techniques to calm an anxious child:

1. Write it out and then throw it out

In a study published in Psychological Science, people were asked to write what they liked or disliked about their bodies. One group of people kept the paper and checked it for errors, whereas the other group of people physically discarded the paper their thoughts were written on. The physical act of discarding the paper helped them discard the thoughts mentally, too. Next time your child is anxious, have her write her thoughts on a paper and then physically throw the paper out. Chances are, her perspective will begin to change as soon as the paper hits the trash can.

2. Journal about worries

Researchers at Harvard found that writing about a stressful event for 15 minutes, for four consecutive days, can lessen the anxiety a person feels about that event. Although the person may initially feel more anxiety about the stressor, eventually the effects of writing about anxious events relieved anxious symptoms for up to six months after the exercise. Make journaling about anxious thoughts a habit with your child.

3. Create "worry time"

In the movie Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O'Hara often says, "I can't think about that now. I'll think about it tomorrow." A similar concept works for anxious children. Set aside a designated "worry time" for 10-15 minutes on a daily basis. Choose the same time each day and the same spot and allow your child to write down his worries without worrying about what actually constitutes a worry. When the time is up, have him drop the worries in a box, say goodbye to them, and move on to a new activity. When your child begins to feel anxious, remind him that it isn't "worry time" yet, but reassure him that there will be time to review his anxiety later.

4. Write a letter to yourself

Dr. Kristen Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, created an exercise where people were asked to write a letter as though they were not experiencing stress or anxiety but rather their best friends were. From this exercise, they were able to examine themselves and their situation objectively and apply a level of compassion to themselves that they often reserve for other people. Next time your child feels anxious, have them write a letter that begins "Dear Me" and then ask them to continue writing in the voice of their best friend (real or imaginary).

5. Talk to your worry

A personification of a worry allows children to feel as though they have control over it. By giving anxiety a face and a name, the logical brain takes over and begins to place limitations on the stressor. For young children, you can create a worry doll or character for them that represents worry. Next time a worried thought arises, have your child try to teach the doll why they shouldn't worry. As an example, check out Widdle the Worrier.

6. Recognize that thoughts are notoriously inaccurate

Psychologist Aaron Beck developed a theory in behavioral therapy known as "cognitive distortions." Simply put, these are messages our minds tell us that are simply untrue. When we help our children recognize these distortions, we can begin to help them break them down and replace them with truths. Read through and use this list as a reference with your child. Depending on their age, change the language for greater accessibility.

7. Give yourself a hug

Physical touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream. The next time your child feels anxious, have her stop and give herself a warm hug. She can hug herself discreetly by folding her arms and squeezing her body in a comforting way.

  • Jumping to conclusions: judging a situation based on assumptions as opposed to definitive facts
  • Mental filtering: paying attention to the negative details in a situation while ignoring the positive
  • Magnifying: magnifying negative aspects in a situation
  • Minimizing: minimizing positive aspects in a situation
  • Personalizing: assuming the blame for problems even when you are not primarily responsible
  • Externalizing: pushing the blame for problems onto others even when you are primarily responsible
  • Overgeneralizing: concluding that one bad incident will lead to a repeated pattern of defeat
  • Emotional reasoning: assuming your negative emotions translate into reality, or confusing feelings with facts

8. Rub your ears

For thousands of years, Chinese acupuncturists have used needles to stimulate various points in a person's ears to treat stress and anxiety. Similar benefits are available to your child simply by having him apply pressure to many of these same points. Have him begin by lightly tracing the outline of his outer ear several times. Then using gentle pressure, have him place his thumbs on the back of his ears and his forefingers on the front. Have him count to five and then move his finger and thumb down to a point just below where they started. Have your child repeat the process until he has squeezed both earlobes for five seconds each.

9. Hold your own hand

Remember the safety you felt when you held your parent's hand as you crossed the street? As it turns out, hand-holding has both psychological and physiological benefits. In one study, researchers found that hand-holding during surgery helped patients control their physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. Have your child clasp her hands together, fingers intertwined, until the feelings of anxiety begin to fade.

10. Understand the origin of worry

Anxiety and worry have biological purposes in the human body. Once upon a time, anxiety was what kept our hunter and gatherer relatives safely alert while they searched for food. Even today, worry and anxiety keep us from making mistakes that will compromise our safety. Help your child understand that worry and anxiety are common feelings and that he gets into trouble only when his brain sounds the alarm and he does not allow logical thoughts to calm him down.

11. Learn about the physical symptoms of worry

We often think of anxiety as a mental state. What we don't think about is how worry creates physical symptoms as well. Cortisol and adrenaline, two of the body's main stress hormones, are produced at a rapid rate when we experience anxiety. These are the "fight or flight" hormones that prepare our bodies to either fight or run from something dangerous. Our heart rates increase, and our breathing gets fast and shallow; we sweat, and we may even experience nausea and diarrhea. However, once your child is familiar with the physical symptoms of anxiety, he can recognize them as anxiety and use any of the strategies in this article rather than worry that he is sick.

12. Stretch

A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics showed that children who practice yoga not only experience the uplifting benefits of exercise but also maintain those benefits long after they are done with their practice. Even if you or your child is unfamiliar with yoga poses, the process of slow, methodical stretching can provide many of the same benefits.

13. Push against a wall

For some children, trying to breathe deeply or relax through meditation only causes more anxiety. "Am I doing this right? Everyone thinks I'm crazy. I forgot to breathe that time." The act of physically tensing the muscles will create a counterbalancing release when they are relaxed, resulting in the relaxation more passive methods may not provide. Have your child push against the wall with all of her might, taking great care to use the muscles in her arms, legs, back, and stomach to try to move the wall. Have her hold for a count of 10 and then breathe deeply for a count of 10, repeating three times.

14. Practice chopping wood

In yoga, the Wood Chopper Pose releases tension and stress in the muscles by simulating the hard labor of chopping wood. Have your child stand tall with his legs wide and arms straight above as though he is holding an ax. Have him inhale and, with the full force of his body, swing the imaginary ax as though he is chopping wood and simultaneously exhale a "ha." Repeat.

15. Try progressive muscle relaxation

This relaxation exercise includes two simple steps: (1) Systematically tense specific muscle groups, such as your head, neck, and shoulders etc., and then (2) Release the tension and notice how you feel when you release each muscle group. Have your child practice by tensing the muscles in her face as tightly as she can and then releasing the tension.

16. Use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

EFT combines tapping acupressure points in the body with verbalizing positive affirmations. Using his fingertips, have your child gently but firmly tap the top of his head, his eyebrows, under his eyes, under his nose, his chin, his collarbone, and his wrists while saying positive things about his situation. The idea is that the body's natural electromagnetic energy is activated and associated with positive affirmations, thereby reducing anxiety.

17. Strike a power pose

Anxiety makes your child want to physically shrink. However, research has shown that holding a powerful pose for just two minutes can boost feelings of self-confidence and power. Have your child pose like her favorite superhero, with her hands on her hips, ready for battle, or strike a pose like a boss leaning over a table to drive a point home, hands planted on the table top.

18. Sweat it out

Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in our bodies. Exercise that is more intense than your child's normal physical activity level can actually reduce his body's physical response to anxiety.

19. Fall into Child's Pose

Have your child assume the Child's Pose, a pose in yoga that is done by kneeling on the floor and bringing the body to rest on the knees in the fetal position. The arms are either brought to the sides of the legs or stretched out over the head, palms on the floor.

20. Do a tech detox

Studies show that modern technology is adversely correlated with sleep and stress—especially in young adults. Challenge your child to spend a week without video game systems or smartphones, and encourage her to be more creative with her time.

21. Walk in nature

A Stanford study showed that exposure to green spaces has a positive cognitive effect on school children. Going for a walk in nature allows your child to reconnect with tangible, physical objects; calms his mind; and helps his logical brain to take over for his anxious brain.

22. Drink more water

Although dehydration rarely causes anxiety on its own, because our brains are 85 percent water, it can certainly make its symptoms worse. Make sure your child is getting adequate amounts of water in a day. The basic rule of thumb is to drink one-half to one ounce of water per pound of body weight. So if your child weighs 50 pounds, he should drink 25 to 50 ounces of water every day.

23. Take a cold or hot bath

Hydrotherapy has been used for centuries in natural medicine to promote health and prevent disease. Just 10 minutes in a warm or cool bath can have profound effects on the levels of anxiety your child is experiencing.

24. Observe your "train of thoughts"

Have your child imagine her anxious thoughts are like trains coming into a busy station. Sometimes they will slow down and pass by, and at other times they will stop at the station for a while. If the anxious thought stops at the station, have your child practice breathing slowly and deeply until the train pulls out of the station. As it fades, have your child "watch" as the train pulls away. This exercise teaches children that they don't have to react to every thought that occurs to them. Some thoughts they can simply acknowledge and allow to leave without acting on them.

25. Practice a five-by-five meditation

Have your child use each of his five senses to name five things he experiences with that sense. Again, this exercise roots your child in things that are actually happening rather than in things that may happen or could happen that are causing him to worry.

26. Focus on your breath

The natural biological response to anxiety is to breathe shallowly and quickly. Focusing on breathing slowly and deeply will mitigate many of the body's stress responses.

27. Tune in with a body scan

Have your child close her eyes and check in with all of the parts of her body. Have her talk to each part and ask how it feels and if there is anything wrong. Then have her invite it to relax while she checks in with the other parts. This animation can be a fun way to practice a body scan meditation with your child.

28. Practice cognitive defusion

The process of cognitive defusion separates the reaction your child is having from the event. It gives your child a chance to think about the stressor separately from his reaction to that stressor. Have your child talk about his feelings of anxiety as though his mind is a separate person. He might say something like "My mind does not want to go to the party, so it is making my stomach hurt." By disconnecting the two, he can then talk to his mind as though it is a person and re-create his internal dialogue.

29. Listen to music

It is challenging for your child to feel anxious when she is dancing to her favorite song. Crank up the tunes and sing along!

30. Listen to stories

Avid readers know how difficult it is to pry themselves away from a good book. Listening to audiobooks can help your child get lost in an imaginary world where anxiety and worry do not exist or are put into their proper perspective.

31. Listen to guided meditations

Guided meditations are designed to be soothing to your child and help him relax by presenting images for his mind's eye to focus on rather than focusing on the stressor.

32. Listen to the uplifting words of another

Often, anxiety is rooted in a negative internal monologue. Have your child listen to your uplifting words or those of someone else to restructure that monologue into positive affirmations of herself.

33. Volunteer

Researchers have long shown that "helper's high" happens when people volunteer to help others without any expectation of compensation. Whether your child is helping a younger sibling do math homework or helping your neighbor weed her flower bed, volunteering is an easy way to alleviate his feelings of stress or anxiety.

34. Be a friend and give someone else advice

Sometimes the advice we give others is really meant for ourselves.

Encourage your child to tell you how you should react to a situation similar to what your child might be experiencing anxiety over. If she is worried about giving a presentation in class, have her tell you how to get over your anxiety about a work presentation. The same techniques your child is teaching you will come into play when she is faced with a similar situation.

35. Turn your focus outward

Anxiety would have your child believe that he is the only one who has ever experienced worry or stress in a certain situation. In reality, many of his peers are likely experiencing the same feelings of worry. Encourage your child to find someone who may look nervous and talk to her or him about how she or he is feeling. By discussing his anxiety with his peers, your child will discover that he is not the only one to feel worried.

36. Know that this too shall pass

One of the greatest lies the anxious brain tells your child is that she will feel anxious forever. Physiologically, it is impossible to maintain a high level of arousal for longer than several minutes. Invite your child to sit by you, and read a story or simply watch the world go by until the feelings of anxiety start to fade away. It sounds simple, but acknowledging that the "fight or flight" response won't last forever gives it less power when your child begins to feel its effects.

37. Worrying is part of our humanity

Anxiety, stress, and worry are all part of what makes us human. These biological and psychological responses are designed to keep us safe in situations we are not familiar with. Reassure your child that there is nothing wrong with feeling anxiety, that it simply alerts his body so that he can be on the lookout for danger.

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By: Justine LoMonaco


From the moment my daughter was born, I felt an innate need to care for her. The more I experienced motherhood, I realized that sometimes this was simple―after all, I was hardwired to respond to her cries and quickly came to know her better than anyone else ever could―but sometimes it came with mountains of self-doubt.

This was especially true when it came to feeding. Originally, I told myself we would breastfeed―exclusively. I had built up the idea in my mind that this was the correct way of feeding my child, and that anything else was somehow cheating. Plus, I love the connection it brought us, and so many of my favorite early memories are just my baby and me (at all hours of night), as close as two people can be as I fed her from my breast.

Over time, though, something started to shift. I realized I felt trapped by my daughter's feeding schedule. I felt isolated in the fact that she needed me―only me―and that I couldn't ask for help with this monumental task even if I truly needed it. While I was still so grateful that I was able to breastfeed without much difficulty, a growing part of me began fantasizing about the freedom and shared burden that would come if we bottle fed, even just on occasion.

I was unsure what to expect the first time we tried a bottle. I worried it would upset her stomach or cause uncomfortable gas. I worried she would reject the bottle entirely, meaning the freedom I hoped for would remain out of reach. But in just a few seconds, those worries disappeared as I watched her happily feed from the bottle.

What I really didn't expect? The guilt that came as I watched her do so. Was I robbing her of that original connection we'd had with breastfeeding? Was I setting her up for confusion if and when we did go back to nursing? Was I failing at something without even realizing it?

In discussing with my friends, I've learned this guilt is an all too common thing. But I've also learned there are so many reasons why it's time to let it go.

1) I'm letting go of guilt because...I shouldn't feel guilty about sharing the connection with my baby. It's true that now I'm no longer the only one who can feed and comfort her any time of day or night. But what that really means is that now the door is open for other people who love her (my partner, grandparents, older siblings) to take part in this incredible gift. The first time I watched my husband's eyes light up as he fed our baby, I knew that I had made the right choice.

2) I'm letting go of guilt because...the right bottle will prevent any discomfort. It took us a bit of trial and error to find the right bottle that worked for my baby, but once we did, we rarely dealt with gas or discomfort―and the convenience of being able to pack along a meal for my child meant she never had to wait to eat when she was hungry. Dr. Brown's became my partner in this process, offering a wide variety of bottles and nipples designed to mimic the flow of my own milk and reduce colic and excess spitting up. When we found the right one, it changed everything.

3) I'm letting go of guilt because...I've found my joy in motherhood again. That trapped feeling that had started to overwhelm me? It's completely gone. By removing the pressure on myself to feed my baby a certain way, I realized that it was possible to keep her nourished and healthy―while also letting myself thrive.

So now, sometimes we use the bottle. Sometimes we don't. But no matter how I keep my baby fed, I know we've found the right way―guilt free.


This article is sponsored by Dr. Browns. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


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Learn + Play

Adele's albums have soothed many hearts through hard times, and now she's going through a big relationship transition of her own.

The singer is separating from her husband Simon Konecki, the father of her 6-year-old son, Angelo James.

"Adele and her partner have separated," Adele's people wrote in a statement to the Associated Press. "They are committed to raising their son together lovingly. As always they ask for privacy. There will be no further comment."

Our hearts go out to Adele. Of course, she doesn't owe anyone any further explanation or discussion of her separation, but by announcing it publicly, she is shining a light on a family dynamic that is so common but not talked about as much as it should be: Co-parenting.

Parenting with an ex is a reality for so many mothers. According to the Pew Research Center, "the likelihood of a child – even one born to two married parents – spending part of their childhood in an unmarried parent household is on the rise."

Angelo James' experience will be similar to many of his peers.

"Increases in divorce mean that more than one-in-five children born within a marriage will experience a parental breakup by age 9, as will more than half of children born within a cohabiting union," Pew notes.

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Adele and Konecki already know a thing or two about how co-parenting works, as Konecki has an older child from a previous relationship.

They can make this work because so many parents are making this work. The reality is, two parents can still be a family, and be a team for their child without being romantic partners.

Decades ago, co-parenting after a divorce wasn't the norm, and a body of research (and the experience of a generation of kids) has changed the way parents do things today. Today, divorce isn't about the end of a family. It's about the evolution of one.

Research suggests joint physical custody is linked to better outcomes for kids than divorce arrangements that don't support shared parenting and that divorced couples who have "ongoing personal and emotional involvement with their former spouse"(so, are friends, basically) are more likely to rate their co-parenting relationship positively.

Co-parenting is good for kids, and clearly, Adele and Konecki are committed to being a team for Angelo James.

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News

If you've had a baby in a hospital you know that those first few nights can be really hard. There are so many benefits for babies sharing rooms with their mamas (as opposed to being shipped off to those old-school, glassed-in nurseries) but tired mamas have a lot of conflicting messages coming at them.

You're told to bond with your baby, but not to fall asleep with them in the bed, and to let them rest in their bassinet. But when you're recovering from something that is (at best) the most physically demanding thing a person can do or (at worst) major surgery, moving your baby back and forth from bed to bassinette all night long sure doesn't sound like fun.

That's why this photo of a co-sleeping hospital bed is going viral again, four years after it was first posted by Australian parenting site Belly Belly. The photo continues to attract attention because the bed design is enviable, but is it real? And if so, why aren't more hospitals using it?

The bed is real, and it's Dutch. The photo originated from Gelderse Vallei hospital. As GoodHouskeeping reported back in 2015, the clip-on co-sleepers were introduced as a way to help mom and baby pairs who needed extended hospital stays—anything beyond one night in the maternity ward.

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Plenty of moms stateside wish we had such beds in our maternity wards, but as but Dr. Iffath Hoskins, an OB-GYN, told Yahoo Parenting in 2015, the concept wouldn't be in line with American hospitals' safe sleeping policies.

"If the mother rolls over from exhaustion, there would be the risk of smothering the baby," she told Yahoo. "The mother's arm could go into that space in her sleep and cover the baby, or she could knock a pillow to the side and it's on the baby."

Hoskins also believes that having to get in and out of bed to get to your baby in the night is good for moms who might be otherwise reluctant to move while recovering from C-sections. If you don't move, the risk of blood clots in the legs increases. "An advantage of being forced to get up for the baby is that it forces the mother to move her legs — it's a big plus. However painful it can be, it's important for new moms to move rather than remaining in their hospital beds."

So there you have it. The viral photo is real, but don't expect those beds to show up in American maternity wards any time soon.

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News

A new study has some people thinking twice about kissing their bearded partners, or maybe even letting those with beards kiss the baby—but there's a lot to unpack here.

According to Swiss researchers, bearded men are carrying around more bacteria than dogs do. A lot more. But read on before you send dad off to the bathroom with a razor and ask him to pull a Jason Momoa (yes, he's recently clean-shaven. RIP Aquaman's beard).

As the BBC reports, scientists swabbed the beards of 18 men and the necks of 30 dogs. When they compared the samples, they learned beards have a higher bacterial load than dog fur.

Dudes who love their beards are already clapping back against the way the science was reported in the media though, noting that the sample size in this study was super small and, importantly, that the scientists didn't swab any beardless men.

The study wasn't even about beards, really. The point of the study, which was published in July 2018 in the journal European Radiology, was to determine if veterinarians could borrow human MRI machines to scan dogs without posing a risk to human patients.

"Our study shows that bearded men harbour significantly higher burden of microbes and more human-pathogenic strains than dogs," the authors wrote, noting that when MRI scanners are used for both dogs and humans, they're cleaned very well after veterinary use, and actually have a "lower bacterial load compared with scanners used exclusively for humans."

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Another important point to note is that most bacteria aren't actually dangerous to humans, and some can be really good for us (that's why some scientists want us to let our kids get dirty).

This little study wasn't supposed to set off a beard panic, it was just supposed to prove that dogs and people can safely share an MRI machine. There is previous research on beards and bacteria though, that suggests they're not all bad.

Another study done in 2014 and published in the Journal of Hospital Infection looked at a much larger sample of human faces (men who work in healthcare), both bearded and clean shaven, and actually found that people who shaved their faces were carrying around more Staph bacteria than those with facial hair.

"Overall, colonization is similar in male healthcare workers with and without facial hair; however, certain bacterial species were more prevalent in workers without facial hair," the researchers wrote.

A year after that, a local news station in New Mexico did its own "study" on beards, one that wasn't super scientific but did go viral and prompted a flurry of headlines insisting beards are as dirty as toilets. That claim has been debunked.

So, before you ban bearded people from kissing the baby (or yourself) consider that we all have some bacteria on our faces. Dads should certainly wash their beards well, but they're not as dirty as a toilet.

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News

New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo is on a mission to level the playing field for young women and provide them with the tools for success. In 2017, he implemented free two- and four-year public colleges for New Yorkers, and now Cuomo is adding a budget proposal that would provide on-site childcare at community colleges.

Under the proposal, single parents participating in the program would also have access to tutoring and help when applying to four-year schools. It's the kind of idea that could be a game changer for parents in New York state.

Currently, childcare centers are subsidized for student-parents but can still cost parents $50-$60 a week; under Cuomo's budget proposal, childcare would be free. Students who are already enrolled in similar programs acknowledge that the benefits are enormous.

"As a single parent of two children going to school full time, I wouldn't be able to come to school and afford for childcare," says Michelle Trinidad, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and parent to a 4 and 5-year-old. "Thank goodness for BMCC Early Childhood Center that is very much affordable. It gives me the opportunity to advance my career and be confident that my son is in good hands. School is hard enough on its own, having reliable child care means a lot to me and my children."

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The plan is a part of Cuomo's 2019 women's justice agenda, legislation that addresses the gender wage gap, as well as economic and social justice for all New York women. According to a 2017 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 11% of undergraduates, or 2.1 million students, were single mothers as of 2012, which has doubled since 2000. Additionally, that same study found that 4 in 10 women at two-year colleges say that they are likely or very likely to drop out of school due to their dependent care obligations.

"This is an exciting initiative for New York that addresses a critical need, and if implemented, will have a far-reaching impact on various aspects of society, especially for the next generation," says Ryan Lee-James, PhD an Assistant Professor at Adelphi University. "I view this initiative as both a direct and indirect pathway to address the well-documented achievement gap between children reared in poverty and those growing up with higher income families, as it provides moms, who otherwise may not have had the opportunity, to further their education and thus, afford their children more opportunities."

Additionally, many view campus childcare as a safe haven for college students. "During my 18 years working in campus childcare, I have witnessed how the student-parents can complete their courses and stay focused by having childcare on campus," says Sori Palacio, a Head Teacher at BMCC Early Childhood Center. "Parents usually express how thankful they are for having their children traveling with them to school as well as having their children nearby while they complete their degree. They concentrate in academic work without worrying about their child's wellbeing. This service helps the entire public by preparing more people to serve the community."

Parents have so many barriers when it comes to accessing higher education, but free childcare could be a game changer that benefits multiple generations.

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