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5 Ways to help Lower Your Child’s Anxiety

child-anxiety-therapyIn my previous post, I offered some thoughts about one of the most common mental health conditions I see in my practice: anxiety disorders. In this post, I’ll be talking about common treatments for anxiety, but with a twist: How these treatments can help children and teens dealing with anxiety disorders. (Though I should note that these treatments are quite similar to, and adapted from proven adult therapies.)

My first message for parents is that you are not alone! Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health concerns for children and adolescents. In addition, help for your child is readily available from many skilled, experienced and caring therapists. And it’s very important for kids with anxiety disorders to get help, since untreated anxiety can lead to serious problems at home, at school and later in life. The good news, though, it that these disorders are very treatable. In particular, there are five proven approaches that can help lower your child’s anxiety.

#1 Medication

Pharmacology is not a solution to anxiety (for children or adults), since it doesn’t address the underlying causes. But in some cases, children may be so affected by their symptoms, that they require medication simply to reduce their anxiety level to a point where it’s treatable with other therapies. Decisions about medications are made by your family doctor. And in fact, many of my clients have been referred to me by a physician, so they can begin the next phase of their treatment. Therapists like myself are very familiar with the various of anxiety medications, and we’ll consider their effects in our therapeutic choices. In addition, some clients have tried natural remedies that have been proven to help.

#2 Exposure Therapy

Facing feared situations is an important step in managing anxiety, and this process is known as exposure therapy. Exposure involves gradually and repeatedly going into feared situations. This essentially retrains the brain to stop sending fear signals when there isn’t any danger. Starting with situations that are less scary, the therapist helps the client work his or her way up to facing things that cause a great deal of anxiety.

For example, children with social anxieties may even find that talking on the phone is excruciatingly hard. So in part of our work, I might ask the child to phone me—a safe and trusted person—as a first step. The key is finding step-by-step situations that cause some anxiety, but not too much—or too little. The tuning process takes some time and collaboration between the therapist and the child, but ultimately it’s typically quite effective.

#3 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Many rigorous studies have shown that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very helpful for young people with anxiety disorders. In a nutshell, CBT is a form of talk therapy designed to help young people recognize unhelpful thoughts and behaviours and learn how to change them. This type of therapy can givekids real-world strategies to improve their lives. As these strategies become habit, kids learn to replace negative reactions with new coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills and greater self-control.

# 4 Externalization Exercise

Externalization exercise is less well-known than other treatments, but it can be particularly effective with children who are unable to explain or articulate why they are anxious. By externalizing anxiety into a concrete image or object, rather than personalizing it, kids separate themselves from the problem at hand, and view it more objectively. For example, I sometimes give children a teddy bear who becomes their “anxiety bear,” to name and keep nearby. I recall one boy who named his bear “Oskar.” Over the course of our sessions the boy learned to give away all his anxiety to Oskar, so he didn’t have to carry it. It worked so well that the boy eventually gave Oskar back to me (though I did suggest he keep the bear, just in case).

#5 Breathing Exercises

You might not expect that learning physical exercises to control the body would be a useful treatment for young people, but in fact, it’s extremely effective. Children prone to anxiety tend to practice shallow (or thoracic) breathing, using the upper chest muscles. Shallow breaths can cause headaches, fatigue, cramps, muscle tension and hyperventilation. However, teaching a child to “belly breathe” and engage their diaphragm with deep breaths lower their heart rate. Another common breath-control exercise that’s easy for kids to learn is known as “squared breathing. Techniques such as these can be extremely effective during stressful situations. Kids are also surprisingly receptive to these techniques, and learn them quite quickly.

View this video to teach kids squared breathing:

So, which one of these therapeutic approaches will work for your child? There’s no magic formula. But with support and patience from their parents, young people are usually willing, even eager to learn how to face their fears. And as they feel better, they are justifiably proud of what they’ve learned.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.

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