Calming child anxiety can be one of the most difficult things you can do as a parent. You may worry that your parenting skills are lacking if your child experiences nervousness or panic attacks, or you may be concerned that your child is in need of intensive therapy. But in reality, anxiety among children is common – statistics show that 1 in every 10 children will experience intense anxiety at some point during their childhoods. The problem is not with your parenting style or with your child; anxiety is a fact of life, and the way your child’s brain processes the fight or flight response has a great deal to do with how he or she reacts to a perceived threat.
Think of the physical and emotional process that your child undergoes when she feels fear: her respiration speeds up as cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline begin flowing in anticipation of fight or flight. Her heart rate will increase. Her palms begin to sweat, and she may shake. Emotionally, she finds it increasingly more difficult to reason through her current situation as the instinct for survival kicks in. In no time at all, the adrenaline response controls both her mind and her body.
But there’s an added aspect to the fight or flight response that makes it particularly difficult for children to overcome. When your child begins feeling that nervousness kick in – her increased and shallow breathing, pounding heart, and sweaty palms – these physical symptoms are frightening. Fear of the physical sensations she is experiencing combines with her original nervous response to a perceived threat, creating a vicious circle that can be hard to break free from.
Teaching Your Child to Manage Stress Effectively
Let’s say your daughter is headed to school and she suddenly begins to worry. Maybe she feels self-conscious about the outfit she is wearing that day. As she begins to fret over her looks, she thinks of the worst case scenario – what therapists call “catastrophic thinking.” She says to herself, “Everyone is going to laugh at me. No one will sit with me at lunch.” She goes from a passing worry about her dress to a leap in logic, assuming the worst case scenario will happen. Her fight or flight response kicks in and she suffers a panic attack.
The next day, confronted with the same scenario, your daughter may experience the same thought process, ending in panic. This is because the stress response triggers neural pathways in the brain, burning the fight or flight response into her thought processes so she has a shortcut, so to speak. It’s a remnant of our caveman days, when learning how to deal with a perceived threat quickly was imperative to survival. But for our kids, it can make mountains out of molehills in no time – leading to daily panic attacks or meltdowns.
That’s why teaching your child to manage stress effectively is one of the most important life skills you can impart. By teaching her how to breathe, meditate, and perform other stress reduction techniques whenever the stress response is triggered, she can live a healthy life and deal effectively with stress which is, unfortunately, a natural part of modern life. Meditation is a particularly effective stress management tool, even for very young children. By guiding your child through meditation until she is able to meditate on her own, you are giving her a very special and long-lasting gift.
According to an article published in Newsweek in 2009, meditation has been taught in some public schools and is helping to create an atmosphere of calm reflection. Fletcher Johnson Middle School in Washington DC implemented two 20-minute meditation periods per day. According to the principal George Rutherford, “Fights stopped breaking out on the third floor, test scores went up.” In another study, 60% of anxiety-prone people experienced significantly less anxiety after meditating regularly for 6 to 9 months.
Getting Your Kid Interested in Meditation
As a parent, your challenge is to get your child interested in meditation. Sometimes, this can be difficult to do. Young kids are full of energy and the thought of having to be still and quiet can seem like not a ton of fun to them. But you can foster their love of meditation by meditating with them and guiding them through the process. Most kids will hold still for meditation if it’s something that Mom or Dad takes time out to do especially with them.
You’ll also want to keep your meditation periods brief as you begin. A six year old, for example, may only stay still for two minutes – and that’s OK. Slowly increase the length of time you spend on sessions as your child begins to take an interest. At first, you may have her start by lying down, but in time she can meditate while sitting cross-legged on the floor, by standing, or even during a daily walk. The most important thing to do is to make meditation a fun and restful time. Don’t force your child to try it if she seems uninterested. Instead, ease into it until she realizes what great things meditation can accomplish in her life.
Here’s a simple guided meditation exercise that you can use to get started. Remember to make this fun and relaxing for both you and your child by playing soft music, lighting some candles, and lying on the floor with pillows if that helps. Customize the meditation experience so it’s useful for both you and your child.
Begin by telling your child you are going on an adventure, but on the inside. Have them stretch out their arms and legs and allow them to go limp. Count to ten.
While your child is relaxed, have them visualize a beach on a warm, sunny day. Ask them to stand still, observing the waves as they crash against the shore, hearing the seagulls fly overhead. Have them visualize the patterns of the waves as they wash over the shoreline over and over again.
Have them breathe in and breathe out regularly. Allow them to rest, feeling comfortable in mind and spirit.
Practice this for as long as your child enjoys it. When they are ready to come back out of the meditative process, have them stretch their arms and legs again. Breathe deeply and have them sit back up.