Anxiety is Future-Focused
Anxiety is all about the what-ifs and mights. When youth experience something traumatizing, it is very common that they have anxiety you can readily trace to that experience. One of the most helpful skills you and your child can build is being able to get back into the present moment instead of reliving the trauma. When you can quiet the anxiety, you are both better able to make a plan that will actually help. So step number one is for the adults in a child’s life to manage their own anxiety without visiting it upon the children. Pause before you give your first reaction to your child’s questions or comments. Instead, consider how to respond in the way that will be most calming and comforting for your child.
Our Non-Verbal Messages to Kids
Often adults hope that the mere passage of time will help children recover. How we wish this could be true! Trauma actually changes how the brain functions. The memory becomes locked up in a primitive part of the brain until we can “rewire” the brain. Both counselors and parents can play a role.
Perhaps most important is that children often won’t bring it up. Youth often think that our silence indicates our unwillingness or our fear of talking about it. They are often relieved when we bring it up. Adults just need some idea of how best to do so. Pause and reason through how best to do this so your conversations are helpful.
Start the Conversation
Kids need to know that they don’t have to keep this all bottled up inside. They need to know that we understand that what happened for them is way beyond anything any of you expected would ever happen.
Depending on exposure, some youth will greatly benefit by professional help in addition to what parents can provide. One way you can begin to gauge the level of need for your child is to have conversations with them using some of the suggestions below. Remember, this will be a journey. None of us recovers from trauma overnight. But it can ease over time if we keep working on it. Below are some suggested starting places for truly hearing where your child is. Choose words appropriate for your child’s age.
Opening Meaningful Discussion
Here are some tips:
- Deal with your own anxiety the best you can. .
- If your child says something that alarms you, remain calm on the outside (even if you aren’t inside!) and reply with something like, “Let me think on that.” “I’m not sure what to say about that now, but let me keep listening,” or, “I’m so glad you told me about that.” These responses keep you from stopping the conversation or feeding your child your own fears.
- “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable response! When someone has done something horrific, we often don’t know why. If you answer with “I don’t know,” you can follow up with, “What do you think?” or “What do your friends think about that?” or “Let me think about that and let’s revisit that … [when?]”
- It is common for people of all ages to have difficulty sleeping, including having frightening nightmares. If your child wants to sleep in your room, welcome them to do that for as long as it takes. IF YOUR CHILD HAS DIFFICULTY SLEEPING FOR MORE THAN A FEW NIGHTS, or has other symptoms lasting more than a few days, ask your school counselor or a local professional for advice. While waiting for help, though, don’t force your child to sleep alone just because time has passed. Ask you child what will help! You might say, “I can see that it is helpful for you right now to be sleeping in our room. Let’s begin to figure out some small steps we can take to help you move back toward sleeping in your room again.” Assume that this might be a multi-step process. We have suggestions in the “Sleep” segment on this website.
- TRAUMA IS LIKE AN INJURY TO THE BRAIN! Just like any other physical injury, sometimes we can heal from it and sometimes we need medical or professional help. In the case of trauma, waiting it out leaves your child at greater risk for coming years. The best intervention is one that happens early on, right after the event.
Acknowledging the Trauma
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened for you on [what day?]. We’ve never been through something like that in our family, and I wasn’t quite sure what to say about it. Now I realize I just really want to know how you’re doing and what would help. (Choose any of the following questions and amend them to suit your situation, using language that meets the developmental level of the child.)
- If there were one thing I could do right now, or one thing we could do here at home that would help, what would that be?
- I’m wondering how much of the time you are thinking about [the event] and how much you’re able to think about other things?
- Sometimes when scary things happen, we have frightening dreams. Have you had bad dreams?
- You know, when [event] happened, I bet lots of kids were really frightened. What do you think your classmates are thinking about this? What do you think worries them most?
Concluding Your Conversation: Conclude by making it clear that this is just the begining of the conversations and the journey to feeling more adjusted. You might say something like, “I’m so glad we could talk about this a little. I bet I’ll think of other questions and you might think of things you want me to know. Don’t wait for me to check in with you if there is something that worries (or concerns) you.”
A very primary issue for youth following a traumatic event is re-establishing a sense of safety.
Although it is very common that people feel anxious about going back to the place something frightening happened, it is also quite common that they feel anxious in general. Having something so frightening happen shakes our trust in the world being a safe place. It is very helpful if youth can begin to differentiate between someplace that is truly unsafe and the generalized feeling that now everyplace is unsafe. The following questions – modified as needed – might help children let parents know what will help them “let down” and feel less anxious when at home. The goal at first is to establish at least one environment where kids can feel safe. Where they can get a break from the anxiety. Questions/statements that might be helpful could include:
- “Sometimes when something awful happens, we feel like it might happen again, and it might happen anywhere. So we feel anxious all the time. One thing that helps is to create at least one place where we feel safe. Can you identify one place that feels safest to you?” (Don’t be worried if they can’t, it is just helpful to have that to build on if they do.) If they do, ask questions that help them describe all the things that help them feel safe. What about the physical space is helpful? Who are the people who are a part of supporting that sense of safety. If that area is other than your home, ask what of those aspects of safety could be implemented at home.
- When kids are reluctant to talk, it sometimes helps to make them the experts. “What are some of the things you think other families have figured out that help kids feel safe?” “How can kids begin to identify the many people in their lives that are safe people?” “What do you think teachers need to know to help kids feel safe at school?” (Use examples other than schools that are familiar for your child.)
- Using art can be a way of helping children tell us things that might be difficult to put to words. Asking children to draw a picture of what helps kids feel safe can give you clues. Be sure in your conversation about the picture to ask questions rather than assuming you know what they want you to know from their picture. “Tell me about this part of your picture.” “What else would you like to add to your picture?”
Concluding Your Conversation: “Sometimes kids think that their parents should be able to figure out what will help, but I want you to know that I need you to keep telling me what you need and want to feel safe. Let’s talk about this again [when].
Returning to the Scene
With many of the circumstances kids experience, at some point they’ll need to return to the place where it happened. For example, if something happened at school, at a place of worship, or at the home of a relative, it might be difficult for kids and adults to go back to that place. Youth need us to give them a lot of support and perhaps a lot of conversations before they may be able to return. Consider the following:
- Is there a way for youth to have adults of their choice accompany them the first time or or even the first several times they return?
- Can the activities they do be different than the “usual day” they will expect to have in the future?
- Could they have the opportunity to just sit in the parking lot in the car with you and see how they do with that, and talk about what might help for them to walk up to the door?
- Can they identify the people that they trust who will be in the building or place?
- Are there other activities or accommodations they can identify that would be helpful?
Concluding Your Conversation: “Let’s make a plan to check in each day so I can learn what new ideas you have that will help.” You notice that the language is framing the conversation toward assuming that we can manage this together; it just might be lots of steps to get there, and adults will need to be listening all the time so they know their part in supporting the child. Often adults assume they know what their children need. In cases of trauma, it isn’t helpful to assume. Ask! Listen!
Accepting that Life Has Changed
Loving parents work hard to protect their children from threat and danger. Sometimes we feel like we’ve let them down when life unfolds differently than we expected. Accepting that life will be different in some ways – at least for the forseeable future – doesn’t mean that life won’t be “as good as” or “as fun as” it was before this happened. But at least for awhile, thoughts of the event may come up or fears may surface at unexpected times. Here are some things for parents and loving adults to remember:
- We can’t talk people out of trauma, or out of their fears. It doesn’t help to try to tell them why we think they don’t need to worry. We have to give them the opportunity to work through it themselves so they integrate and “own” their progress. Otherwise they’re just shoving it down to satisfy us, and it will come up later in ways that will be detrimental to their well-being.
- Although you may feel justified in anger toward a person, a system, the police or other identifiable people in authority, those attitudes and conversations are detrimental to our kids’ recovery. Find ways to deal with your own feelings without adding the impact of your struggle adding to your child’s recovery.
- We all feel more empowered when we can do something in the aftermath of these events. Make sure that actions you consider taking add to the peace and calm, and that the outcomes make life better for the kids. They didn’t ask for this to happen to them, and we owe it to them to help them make the best recovery possible.
- Helping our kids recover from these events takes the very greatest determination on our part. It is easy to get distracted by our own reactions! Take a deep breath and remember that the crisis is over, and the recovery is going to take time. Rather than rush into saying something you’ll regret later, first pause. Ask yourself how this will make it better for the kids – all of the kids (not just your own). Once the kids are well on their way to doing better you can turn your attention to the rest of what this event brought up for you.
Concluding Thoughts: “Parents have every reason to be angry and upset when difficult things happen to their children. But blame and stirring the pot is patently unhelpful for the kids – for all of the kids. We have an adult mind with adult context to understand that we will cope with this and learn from it and adjust to it and move forward. Kids don’t have that context, so our decisions and actions need to take that under consideration – always!
Activities to Reduce Anxiety (Youngers)
Any of these activities can be repeated many times to reinforce the benefit.. Plan to give your child your full attention during this time.
Activity #1: Fresh Fruit
Name (or write a list of) your favorite fruits from your most favorite back to those that are just OK.
Why This Works. This engages your child’s mind to be active in the present time. It also engages your child in writing, an activity that requires both sides of the brain.
Activity #2: Build a Tower
Build the highest tower you can from whatever materials you have on hand for them to use. When it topples down, see if you can build it higher.
Why This Works. Again with this activity, the goal is to get your child engaged in something physical that is very in-the-moment rather than future-focused.
Activity 3: Drawing Circles
Have either you or your child draw lots of circles randomly all over a piece of paper.
Have your child name each circle to represent a person in their lives. Remind her to draw one for herself as well.
Have your child use a pen or marker to draw lines to connect the people who know each other.
Why This Works
- Instead of worrying about what might happen in the future, you’re allowing your child to focus on who we have in our world right now. And that matters a lot!
- If your child doesn’t realize it, point out that the circle that represents him can be connected to every single one of the other circles. “Wow! Look how many people you have in your world!”
Take It Further
- Your child could use another color to connect people who know one another from each place they go (school, church/synagogue/mosque/temple, neighborhood, family). The picture begins to get really full of lines. “Look how many ways we’re connected!”
- Now color in the circles to represent kids in one color and adults in another. “How wonderful it is to have people of different ages in our lives! What are some of the reasons we’re glad to have adults? What are some of the reasons you love having kids in your pictures?”
- One more step – invite your child to write or draw a picture to mail to each of these people. If mailing isn’t an option, take a picture of each of your child’s drawings and text it to each person. This helps keep us in the moment. “What would be fun for Aunt Betsy to receive? Let’s see, what does she like to do? Can you do a picture of that for her?”
Activity 4: Laugh Together
Watch something fun together. It could be as simple as a short YouTube video.
Why This Works. Laughter has great benefit in lowering some of the biochemistry of worry in our bodies, so keeping laughter in your days in any ways possible will be so helpful, even healthful!
Activity 5: Puzzles and Board Games
Do puzzles or board games together. Make it a set time throughout the week so everyone can look forward to a “Family Date.”
Why This Works. The more concentration something takes, the more it keeps us present. Puzzles and games are the perfect mix of concentration and fun!
Activity #6: Draw People Who Help Them Feel Safe
Invite your child to draw a picture that has all the people in it that help him feel safe, or that she loves. Consider these prompt to get things going:
“What do you think each person might be doing right now based on what you know of them?” (Grandma knits, Uncle Jack builds things in his garage….)
Draw a picture or write a note to each person you draw. Send them the note and picture in the mail.
Activity #7: Gratitude Journal
Start a Gratitude Journal. Every day draw one picture that shows something for which you are grateful (both adults and kids). You could publish your book on Mixbook and share the link with people you speak of in your book.
Why This Works. We know that when we have our minds focused on gratitude, positive physical changes actually occur inside our bodies that lower our blood pressure, calm the nerves, and lower adrenaline.
Activity #8: Tummy Laughter
Have everyone lie down on the floor and put your heads on someone else’s tummy. (If it is just a child and one parent, take turns having your head on the other’s tummy.) One person begins to laugh, even if it isn’t for real yet. See if it “catches” and others begin laughing. Trade to others’ tummies.
How else can you spawn a quick moment of laughter?
Why This Works. Laughter brings down the anxiety biochemistry.
Activity #9: Airplane Rides
Give kids airplane rides. Lie on your back, hold their hands, your feet on their lower tummy. While they’re flying, ask what they see on the ground… “Pretend we’re flying from here to the park! What do you see when you look down?” “Pretend we’re flying over the river. What do you see in the river?”
Why This Works. This gets the child paying attention to what is happening in the moment. It also engages their imagination in the best way possible!
Activity #10: When You Were a Baby
Invite your child to the couch with you.
“Curl up in a little ball and lay with your head on my lap. Imagine when you were a baby in my tummy. What was it like?” Give them ideas…
“Could you see anything yet?” “You could hear things, though… what could you hear?” (Voices, music, noises) “Could you smell anything yet?” “Taste?” “What could you feel?” (Warmth, floaty…).
Why This Works. We are remarkably comforted by happy memories of the past. In assisted living centers, studies have found that residents are calmer and happier when the television has black and white re-runs of shows from the 1950s, like Lucille Ball and The Andy Griffith Show. Think about adapting that concept for your kids of any age.
Take It Further
- Then, “Now let me hold you like when you were a little baby” and just have them move up into your arms. “Now you’re a little baby. I’m holding you and looking and you and loving you. What do you think you could see when you were a little baby?” “What could you hear?” “What could you taste?” “…smell”
- “Now sit on my knees facing me like you did when you were just 2 or so. How do you think I played with you when you were a toddler?” (Horsey when s/he “rode” on your foot, bounce your knees up and down, talk about how you could lift them up over your head…)
- You might end with, “If you could be any age right now, what age would you like to be?” If your child wishes they were young, agree to play that with them for awhile. Allow them to act as if they’re much younger than they are, if that’s what they wish. Remembering what it was like when they were younger and felt safe gives them a break from the anxiety. It also allows them to re-experience what it felt like to simply trust in the safety of their world.
Activity #11: Build a Cave
Create an indoor “cave” using chairs and blankets or whatever, and take all the things that help us feel safe inside the cave. Crawl inside with them and read their favorite children’s stories in the cave. Adapt this concept to other ways of creating a “nook” of safety for them. Ask them to help with ideas for this.
Activities to Reduce Anxiety (Olders)
The following activities can be done repeatedly. Plan to give your child your full attention during this time.
Activity #1: Stand Together
Sit down on the floor, knees up, feet flat on the floor toes almost touching, facing each other, holding hands… see if you can stand up.
These kinds of quick activities are physical enough that it makes it difficult to keep the worry going in the moment.
Activity #2: Back to Back
Back-to-back, sit on the floor, link elbows and see if you can stand up.
Why This Works. These kinds of quick activities are physical enough that it makes it difficult to keep the worry going in the moment. It can give a quick break and may offer the chance for you to redirect their thoughts to things that are current. “Help me decide what we should fix for dinner.”
Activity #3: Fitness Hour
Schedule a fitness hour into the day. If you don’t have weights to lift, use canned goods! Work out together.
Why This Works. Physical exercise is one of the fastest ways to burn off adrenaline.
Activity #4: Take a Walk
Take a walk together. Whether it’s around the block or at a local park that is still open, the fresh air and activity will do wonders for the emotions, too! Be aware if there are moments when your child appears to be less calm or seems guarded. It may be traffic or something else present that is taking them back toward anxiety. Tell them what you notice. “You seemed really calm until just a moment ago… what changed for you?” Make honest reassurances about their safety.
Why This Works. Walking is remarkably calming because of how it engages both sides of our brains. Think of dads pacing while moms have babies. They pace because that bilateral movement has a calming effect on the nervous system. So! Walking with your child also provides an opportunity for you to benefit from that bilateral movement.
Activity #5: Walk With a Friend
If your teen will truly observe the need for distance, walk across the street from a friend and talk on the phone to one another as you do… talk about what you see from where you are – the shared sunset… geese flying… talking about things that are in this moment.
Affirmations can help focus our thoughts on something positive . Doing so changes our brain chemistry and can decrease depression and sadness. One way to help children reinforce affirmations is to write them on a little slip of paper and let them have it in their pockets while they’re at school or away from you. Some examples are here. Once you’ve tried a few with your kids, have them come up with more.
- “I know this won’t last forever. I will get better at managing my fear.”
- “Anxiety might make me feel uncomfortable but it isn’t dangerous, and I’m going to be OK.”
- “I have lots of people who care about me and they care even in this moment. I am not alone in this.”
- “There are helpers in our world, and I need to ask for help when I need it.”
- “If I can slow down and breathe deeply I can help myself relax.”
- “I control my thoughts; they do not control me.”
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