Tears every morning before school.
A daily fight before bed.
Anxiety disorders, like selective mutism.
No matter what a child is anxious about, the driving factor is the same.
Oftentimes, the fear is not conscious. This is why children can't name or explain their fears or the anxiety they feel in words. Instead, you may see crying, screaming, swearing or aggressive behavior.
Other times, a child clams up, and turns the anxiousness inward. These signs are harder to identify. Chewing on shirts, thumb-sucking, twirling hair, or an inability to focus so that they jump quickly from one activity to another can all be signs that a child is battling some kind of fear inside.
Although it may seem natural to work on the behaviors themselves to stop anxiety, what actually works best is helping kids to overcome the fear.
Releasing fear is a good way to work through it.
Releasing fear does not require a child to learn coping methods or be able to explain their emotions. Instead, a parent or caregiver builds safety and allows space for a child to offload the fears through laughter and play (for lighter fears), and crying, upsets and struggles for more deeply held fears.
When this can happen, parents see remarkable progress.
Children who were clingy feel confident to go off and explore and make friends. Those who screamed and screamed at bedtime are able to fall and stay asleep peacefully.
And in fact, one breakthrough can lead to many more. Anxious children can go from strength to strength. Instead of worrying and being unable to take on new challenges, they know just what they need to do to get things done. They can go from quiet to outgoing. From picky to easy-going. From combative to peace-loving and agreeable.
It seems remarkable that this can be done without therapy, or sometimes in addition to it. But it can. I’ve seen it in my own children, and with many parents I've worked with.
Read on to learn three ways to help an anxious child using the Hand in Hand parenting tools. These tools help a child release their fears. They will give you daily ways to build the safety and space an anxious child needs to lift the fears that hold them back.
Helping your child manage vs eliminate anxiety
Many parents will go into treatment mode and sign their kids up for therapy or teach them about coping strategies, labeling and expressing emotions. This is not a bad idea. The key is managing our expectations around how well the strategies work in moments where kids are at their most anxious.
When a child is deep into anxious feelings – or any big feelings – they are unable to connect to the logical “knowing/thinking” part of the brain.
When this happens, it’s almost impossible to access the knowledge or skills they’ve been learning and apply them in the moment. If you think about it, it’s the same for us. It’s in the heated moments when our emotions take over that we cry or burst with anger.
And it’s only after the release that we feel calmer. Our rational minds come back “online,” and it’s easier for us to think and take action, or at least more confidently explain how we are feeling.
That’s why the tools in this post will focus on supporting children in these moments, and around them. They do not rely on rational thought or coping strategies. In fact, they are very child-centered and welcoming of a child’s emotional experience.
How play helps anxious children release fear and develop new confidence
Laughter, play and warmth are very useful to begin with. They help children lift lighter fears, and can lead to a hearty cry or meltdown. Holding space for them to struggle and cry helps them work on moving through the deeper fears.
After those sessions, you’ll sense your child feeling lighter in the world. Without the heavy weight or the fear, they will play more easily, less will bother them or cause them to stall.
And over time you’ll see jumps in their willingness to take on challenges they previously found difficult or stressful.
The anxiety they felt no longer holds them back.
Play and laughter is effective in helping children release lighter anxieties and fears. A good way to do this is with Hand in Hand’s Playlistening tool. To do this, just look for opportunities to take the less powerful role when you play with your child.
Try this in a general way, with some rough and tumble, or a favorite game they like. In a pillow fight, you might act scared and let your child pummel and pummel you and delight in their newfound power. Or in a chase game, you may lose and then loudly complain about it.
Keep trying new games and activities until you find the thing that makes your child laugh and laugh. Laughter can be a really powerful ally against fear.
You can also set up Playlistening to help with a specific anxiety.
One family I worked with had a preschool aged child who stopped talking in outside settings, including preschool. The child was relatively introverted but could physically speak just fine. I asked the parent to focus on games where the child would take the “adult” role while the parent played a frightened child who refused to talk to friends or teachers. During the game, I asked the parent to find silly ways she would communicate instead.
Her child enjoyed being the powerful adult and telling her parent what to do and what to say, while the parent playfully refused, asked for help or begged not to do it.
This simple game, used a few times, quickly broke down the child’s fears. Their ability to talk more openly outside the home soon improved.
In this scenario the child took the more powerful role while the mother carefully chose to bring up some of the things her child was going through (using her best judgment of the situation).
Play to help with picky eating and anxiety around food
Another common issue many parents deal with is picky eating, which is normally rooted in some fear or anxiety about food. Make carrot sticks do silly dances or beg your child NOT to eat anything green on their plate. Have a picnic on the floor, rather than insist on eating at the table.
Go for what makes your child giggle.
All of these can help lighten tension and anxiety around food.
Build safety with Special Time
Another helpful tool that helps with preventative emotional work is Special Time. When this one-on-one play tool is used regularly it gives a child the space to work on their own fears if they choose.
This does not have to be set up or directed in any way, aside from the usual Special Time guidelines.
But you’ll see that, as they absorb your good, undisturbed tension, children begin to relax and open up. You may see less rigidity and more laughter. They may tell you more of what they are thinking.
And because you follow their lead, they have the freedom to work directly on a fear as much or as little as they choose.
Some days it may be clear what a child is working on, other times, you will just need to trust them to do what they need to. Here’s what I mean.
When one of my kids was about four years old, they had a sudden total panic/fear-based reaction on an airplane and the experience rattled us both.
On our trip I did lots of Playlistening about airplanes which lightened things for the way home, although there was still a big upset on the ride back. It was a big scary thing at the time for my kiddo.
We already had a consistent routine for Special Time, and in the following weeks I noticed a new pattern. When Special Time would roll around my child always made the same request: swinging. And not just any swinging. It was a very controlled version, where my kid instructed me on how high, how hard, and where I pushed from.
As time went on and we did this over and over again the rigidity in the play began to loosen, until one day I gave a fairly hard push and my child excitedly told me it reminded them of taking off on the airplane.
I watched them giggle while they had me do it over and over, recreating the funny sensation in the body you feel when a plane takes off. However this time, they were in full control of their space.
Our play continued for months after the original incident until there was no more fear around going high. I never thought it would fully cure the airplane anxiety, but to my surprise there hasn't been a repeat upset while flying since.
Special Time gives children the time and space to work on their fear in their own way. All you really need to do is to show up and be there.
A Way To Welcome Anxiety – And See It Off
Playlistening and Special Time help children build their resilience. It helps them widen their windows of tolerance. Makes space for them to offload anxiety through connection and play.
But, deeper anxious thoughts or fear-triggering activities can still get the best of our kids and hold them back.
This is where really getting curious and paying attention when they get upset can help. At Hand in Hand this parenting tool is called Staylistening.
It’s common for grown-ups to shush away whining, crying and other upsets. To us they sound like defiance. Or the resistance may be triggering, especially if we have been dealing with the same thing day after day for week or months. Naturally, we just want it to stop – even as we want to be supportive.
But if your child whines or protests the minute you mention starting school, or taking swim class, or whatever it is they are anxious about, try thinking of it as an opportunity.
This is a tiny moment for them to offload a little of the anxiety. Having this awareness can be less triggering for parents.
You might try bringing the topic that bothers them up more often. And just listen to their upset about it. Tell them, “Uh-ha. That must feel hard.” or “Yes, that sounds scary.”
Every time they get to protest, you are helping them offset some fear they have about what scares them. As you do this over and over, you’ll see their reactions change. They may come up with a new way to protest, a different angle. And then, gradually their protests will reduce.
Now you can step a little closer to the fear. Suggest going shopping for school supplies. Or ask them to help you pack a backpack. Try on some swim goggles. Blow some bubbles in the bath.
Again, protests may stir. And again, try to receive these as opportunities. Hold on to the expectation that your child can do these things, but empathize with the great level of fear they have, and don’t get stuck on achieving the task you suggested. (It will happen, maybe not today, not tomorrow, but soon…).
Instead, get stuck on being able to listen and support them.
When adults stay close to the child and listen to their tears, or as they vent, scream or tantrum, we hold the idea for them that they are safe. They can work through the fear and anxiety they feel.
You don't have to say much, just enough to let your child know they aren't alone.
Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting’s founder, and the author of Listen: Five Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, suggests saying no more than five words.
These are good examples of what you might say when your anxious child is angry, crying and offloading.
“I know it’s hard.”
What it really means when a child cries for no reason
Sometimes your children will get ahead of you. They may register deep in their bodies that a cry or some other release would feel good.
This is when you’ll see them push hard on boundaries you set. Like you say, “Don’t pull on the cat’s tail,” or “save the cookie until after lunch,” but they don’t listen. They yank that cat’s tail and keep looking at you, or they grab the cookie and stuff it in their little mouth fast.
They aren’t looking to annoy you, but they are looking for a reason to cry. This is when it helps to set a limit. A warm no from you.
They may cry or rage against you.
Again. Not defiance.
Any opportunity you can give them to offload helps them work through the anxiety.
Other times they’ll be playing happily, and a small incident sets them off. A block may fall from their tower and it’s like their world came caving in. They may scratch their knee and cry like they broke it.
It's not a time to remind them of the coping strategies, it's not a time to distract, soothe or fix the problem. Slow down. Be with them. Your presence and calm while they storm is just what they need.
You’ll find that listening helps them get strong and courageous.
What if I can’t wait on my child?
Of course there are times when you just need them to do the thing they are scared of. After all, you can't put off night time for a child who is scared of the dark.
You can use the same play and listening strategies in the moment too.
Have a big pillow fight before bed and play until they want to stop. (Try making bedtime extra early to allow for this).
Your child may still try to fight their fear feelings. For example, a child who is anxious about bedtime may request a million small things to be done “before they can go to sleep.”
Try doing just one. If it helps, great.
If not, hold the limit. Tell them they have everything they need to go to sleep.
And then listen to the protest. It may be crying. It may be hearing “You’re so mean. I hate you.”
Remember, these words aren’t intended to hurt you. Your child’s thinking brain is offline. This is emotion talking and it’s not rational.
Working through fear isn’t easy, but every Playlisten and Staylisten helps you get to a point where your child can do the difficult thing they fear today.
Your own anxiety plays its part
As you can see, shedding fear can be a slow process. It is often cyclical. Like peeling back layers of an onion. Using these three tools provides your child with all they need to offload their worries and anxieties.
Make regular moments in your schedule to connect and listen, and you will see exactly where your child needs to be.
These tools give you good strategies for helping your anxious child. But living with an anxious child isn’t easy. Melting their fears, starts with your own. If you are experiencing anxiety, even only anxiety about your children's anxiety, it can be hard to truly welcome theirs, in play or tears.
You may feel annoyed. Impatient. Not strong or good enough to support them through. Your own worry for their future may block you. You may feel guilty about passing down anxious thoughts or patterns. So many things can get in the way.
Give yourself a safe space to talk about your fears and feelings around your kids' anxiety. Whether that's through therapy, a Listening Partner, a trusted friend, or a spouse.
You may want to wonder about:
- How do you feel when your child’s anxiety shows up?
- What do you wish was different?
- How were you treated when you were scared or anxious as a child?
- The words you would love to tell your child from the bottom of your heart.
Find yourself a safe space to work through some of your own feelings around whatever is happening. There’s no right or wrong. Doing this with a Listening Partner is incredibly useful, and can move you closer to being the calming anchor that helps your child lift anxiety.
Our children are still human at the end of the day, and sometimes that means that despite our best efforts fears and anxiety will still crop up.
This is normal and healthy.
Staying with them so that they can feel our presence and support will help them to build resilience over time, and bring connection, closeness and lasting trust to your relationship.
And the day where they do toddle off to school happily, hold their hand up and answer a question in class, come to the table and eat dinner with the family?
That will happen. And it will be largely because you made space to let it.
Do you have an anxious child? What have you found helps?