There is no such thing as a fast fix in therapy or in life. Helping a child work through anxiety or trauma is a long process, and it takes time for a child to mature, develop new ways of thinking, and make sense of their experiences. It is beneficial to be patient and careful when dealing with anxious children.
Though sometimes you may not have the time to show patience. What if your child is in the midst of having a panic attack and you need to act? Or maybe you’ve just just begun counselling or therapy, but there’s a big event coming up that you fear will create high levels of anxiety for your child? Coping skills were designed for scenarios like this.
What are coping skills?
A healthy habit or practice that a person uses to handle strong emotions is referred to as a “coping skill.” They reduce the intensity of anxious thoughts, allowing a child to go about his or her day. They are best used when a person is nervous, depressed, or angry to help them think more clearly or get through a stressful situation by allowing them to cool off their thoughts and feelings. When people are stressed, coping skills or strategies may also be a safe alternative to unhealthy or even harmful actions.
Kids with anxiety or other mental health issues can use coping skills such as meditation, mindfulness, physical exercise, and creative arts activities to control their emotions. Many coping mechanisms encourage children to concentrate on their breath or things around them in order to divert their mind away from their anxious feelings and onto something else.
Teaching coping skills to a child will not resolve the root cause of anxiety or trauma symptoms. However, teaching a child to relax, self-soothe, and redirect their attention to something else is a crucial life skill. Coping skills can help children develop endurance and avoid having intense reactions when they are overwhelmed throughout their lives.
Why Do Anxiety-Affected Children Need Coping Skills?
A child’s brain and body are in fight-or-flight mode when they are nervous. Fight-or-flight is a normal response that is hardwired in all of us to help keep us safe from danger by releasing a large amount of adrenaline and other hormones that rapidly prepare us to fight or flee from a perceived danger. Many body systems are affected by fight-or-flight, including heart rate, sweating, breathing, and digestion.
The fight-or-flight response in an anxious child isn’t working as well as it should. It keeps triggering at inconvenient moments, making them physically uncomfortable when they aren’t supposed to be there. Although coping skills cannot alter the conditions that cause a child to be anxious, they can aid in the modification of the fight-or-flight response.
Anxious children benefit from coping strategies in the short and long term. They assist the child in quickly calming down, reducing anxiety and panic so that the child can make decisions about how to best manage a situation. They can also be beneficial in the long term: the more a child uses a coping skill, the more effective it becomes to aid those unwanted physical and emotional responses caused by anxiety.
How Do Coping Skills Help Anxious Kids?
Coping skills can be beneficial for children in a variety of ways:
- Coping skills will assist children in relaxing: coping skills are an excellent way for children with anxiety to ease their fight-or-flight reaction.
- They buy time for kids by allowing them to pause and weigh all of their choices before making a decision.
- They help a child concentrate on something other than themselves, which can help to alleviate worries.
Coping Skill One: 5-4-3-2-1
This simple tool is especially effective in the treatment of panic attacks and trauma symptoms such as flashbacks. This type of grounding ability draws a child’s attention away from their fears and back to the world around them. Here’s how to put this coping strategy to the test:
- Name 5 things you can see in the room or place around you
- Name 4 things you can touch around you
- Name 3 things you can hear (you may need to really pay attention)
- Name 2 things you can smell: if you can’t smell anything after really trying, name your favorite smells
- Name 1 thing you can taste: if you can’t taste anything, imagine what the last thing you ate tasted like
Since it only needs the use of the five senses, this quick ability can be used almost anywhere.
Coping Skill Two: Breathe in a Box
Breathing in a box is an easy way to show kids how to breathe slowly and mindfully. Make a square on a piece of paper and have your child draw around the edge of it with their finger.
On a count of four, your child can breathe in as he or she runs their finger across the top of the box. Then, when their finger slides down one of the sides of the box, hold a breath for the count of four. Breathe out to the count of four as their finger travels across the bottom of the box. Finally, when their finger moves up along the remaining side of the box, relax and pause for a count of four before restarting the breath loop.
The breath loop cycle would look like this: Breathe in 1-2-3-4, Hold 1-2-3-4, Breathe out 1-2-3-4, Rest 1-2-3-4.
Coping Skill Three: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a common coping technique for children suffering from anxiety, trauma, or insomnia. When a child is nervous or scared, the muscles in his or her body tense up, causing headaches, stomachaches, and other stress-related symptoms. Squeezing and releasing each muscle group in a specific order tells the brain and body that it’s okay to relax right now.
To practice progressive muscle relaxation, have your child squeeze his or her hands tightly (but not painfully) for a few seconds before relaxing. There should be a definite change in how the hands feel after just one grip. Repeat the squeeze, then move on to other muscle groups such as the head, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Starting at the top of the body and working their way down to the feet before finishing off with a full-body squeeze.
If you believe your child requires additional care, or if other problems such as insomnia or back-to-school anxiety are complicating your life, therapy will help. Contact your local health care provider and book an appointment to discuss the options for helping your child alleviate their anxiety.