Topic #24 How to help anxious kids in the summertime
For many children ( approximately 8% according to a large national survey of kids 13-18 ) anxiety is not just an icky feeling that comes and goes before a new event, but rather it is a life interfering disorder. Anxiety Disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, can get in the way of your child’s functioning at home, school and with friends. They may worry a lot about many different things including their family, friends, bad weather, long car rides, getting sick, going away to camp, etc. Structure and knowing “what comes next” can be a necessity for a child struggling with anxiety as it allows them to feel in control, which creates a sense of safety and security. The school year caters to many kids with anxiety because their days are quite structured with routine such as before and after school activities that pretty much have their own daily rhythm. In contrast, the summertime poses a threat to this system. For most families, summer is the best time to relax and unwind. There is typically not a set plan every day and this can cause internal disruption for kids who do best with structure. It is not uncommon to want kids to learn how to be more flexible, as we all know it is an important life skill. So, let’s focus on some ways in which we can teach this skill to our kids. Remember, everything may vary depending on each child’s individual strengths and struggles.
Here are a few tips to help balance summertime flexibility with your anxious child:
1. Know yourself as a person and as a parent. Are you a structured person who gets anxious when things don’t go your way? Or are you scattered and free flowing, easy breezy? Knowing this answer about yourself and your partner/spouse will be valuable in knowing your own strengths (and limitations) as you try to work with your family around structure. Anxious parents tend to have more anxious kids. Pay attention to the words and meanings you say aloud AND how you look when life throws you a curve ball. Monkey see monkey do 🙂
2. Know your anxious child. Start to talk to your child a bit more in depth about their feelings, and particularly their worries. A myth is that talking about anxiety will increase anxiety, when in fact it can alleviate it knowing that it’s “ok” to talk about our feelings. What is at the root of their worry? The more you know about how your child thinks and feels will help you help them cope better with their fears. One important thing to think about: Does it ever help you worry less when someone says to not worry about it? Most likely your answer is nope! So please, don’t minimize your child’s worry. Statements like “oh don’t worry about that” or “that’s silly to worry about” tend to cause already anxious kids to retreat inward, and may increase feelings of guilt or shame. These statements tend to be more helpful for the parent rather than for the child. Try to validate their worry (no matter what it is) and help them learn ways to cope using skills like deep breathing, kid yoga, exercise, talking about it, etc.
3. Before summer arrives, communicate the changes that will occur in your family structure with your child. Include your child in the discussion. Doing so will allow you to hear (and see) a bit more of what their worry may be about. What do they like about the change from school to summertime – each child does like something – and focus on that.
4. Keep a loose schedule of the week on a white board and discuss the upcoming week with your child. Allowing the child to see what’s coming up that week gives them some control. Although changes can occur quite often, this visual can really help them regulate their anxiety upfront. Their hundredth question about what time and when the concert is this week will also dwindle as they can see the answer on the white board with the days of the week/month. It’s visual and concrete to them at that moment in time. This can be very grounding for anxious kids (and for anxious parents!)
5. Give them a role in summertime plans. Have them be a part of the planning for summer activities. Given them an independent role in the planning or organizing an activity. For example, if a family party is happening in July, start helping them plan the gift bags in June. Each day they can spend time on this one activity. Help them learn how to plan and organize in a positive way, chipping away a little bit each day to complete a task. Help them learn how to hone in on their personality traits (yes, anxiety can be a part of someone’s personality) in a positive way – turn what appears to be a negative into a positive. Wouldn’t we all love to be a bit more organized?
6. Positive regard and encouragement. Each step of the way, observe your child engaging in positive behaviors. When he/she is able to be flexible and roll with change in a positive way, praise them for their behavior and talk about why you are praising them. For example, “I’m very impressed by the way you just handled the change of not going swimming today and having to go to your cousin’s graduation party. It’s not easy to have to change plans last minute, but you handled this very well!” Be specific and talk about why that skill is important. If there is a chance to go swimming another time, give them a few day/time options that you know should work and let them choose.
Learning to cope with anxiety is something everyone can do no matter their age! It takes the same amount of time and attention as it does to, say, play the piano or learn a new dance routine… practice practice practice!