How mindfulness can become a useful part of your child’s mental-health toolkit.
Parents shouldn’t be intimidated by conversations about how to manage childhood anxiety. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anxiety is a problem that needs to be fixed. In reality, anxiety is a very expected, everyday part of the human experience that can be managed. All of us will experience anxiety at some point. While we never want to downplay or dismiss the debilitating impact that anxiety can have when it’s left unchecked, we also want to avoid the extreme of thinking that a child is somehow flawed or damaged just because they experience anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t have to be scary for kids and parents. One of the best ways to approach the conversation about managing anxiety with your child is to introduce mindfulness.
Mindfulness Is Helping Kids Overcome Anxiety Through Self-Regulation
Parents need to be open-minded about mindfulness. Based on a review of more than 200 studies, the American Psychological Association (APA) can say with confidence that mindfulness-based therapy is especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. While people who have never practiced meditation may think that mindfulness requires intense training with a spiritual guru on a snow-dusted mountain peak, the reality is that mindfulness can be child’s play. Mindfulness is simply the practice of tuning into a mental state focused on one’s awareness of the present moment. Parents need to think of mindfulness as a tool for self-regulation instead of a spiritual movement.
Through mindfulness, people of all ages can acknowledge and accept all of the feelings, thoughts and sensations that are passing through the mind and body without being reactive or judgmental. While a person may only spend minutes each day doing mindfulness exercises, they can carry the benefits with them into every scenario they encounter. When researchers looked at brain scans as part of a comprehensive study on the effects of mindfulness on the brain, they found that changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they’re not meditating.
For parents looking for tips on how to help a child with anxiety relax, learning some simple mindfulness techniques that can be integrated into a child’s daily experience can be a truly life-changing step. Mindfulness allows both parents and children to prioritize mental health, normalize the idea of recognizing anxious feelings instead of hiding them and take back control of the body and mind when signs of anxiety surface.
What Are the Signs of Anxiety in Children?
It’s essential to recognize that anxiety is built into the human experience in many ways. We are subject to feelings of hunger, cold and tiredness from the moment we are born. As we develop, life stages like learning language skills, interacting with others and slowly gaining independence from our parents are all anxiety-provoking milestones. While some children seem to fly past milestones without any hesitation, others begin showing strong reactions to all of the changes, pressures and dangers of the world. This can be a frightening experience for parents who feel like they are watching their children retreat into themselves.
How can you know if your child is suffering from anxiety? Some symptoms can be more age-specific than others. While a toddler may engage in bedwetting when anxious thoughts kick in, a preteen’s anxiety might manifest as social withdrawal. Here’s a look at the common symptoms of anxiety and depression in children across the board:
- Intense fear when separated from parents
- Showing fear about school
- Showing fear about public places
- A strong dislike of places and situations that involve interacting with other people
- Strong worry about bad things happening in the future
- Feeling sad and hopeless
- Frequent irritability
- Not wanting to participate in fun or enjoyable things
- Changes in eating patterns. While some children eat more when feeling anxious, others will exhibit a worrying loss of appetite.
- Changes in energy levels. Some children may seem extremely lethargic or sluggish. Others will be tense and restless.
- Avoiding fun things
- Difficulty with paying attention
- Feelings of being worthless or useless
- Constant feelings of guilt
- Self-destructive behaviors. This could be something as simple as failing to turn in homework on time even though a child knows this will result in a failing grade.
- Selective mutism. While some parents and teachers dismiss a lack of speech as a child “just” being shy, mutism can be a sign of anxiety.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is linked with anxiety. Many children with OCD feel a sense of relief when carrying out rituals related to tidiness, counting or reciting certain words.
- Phobias. A child asking a parent to check under the bed for monsters at bedtime shouldn’t necessarily raise eyebrows. However, intense fears and phobias could be telltale signs of underlying anxiety. Responses to things like thunderstorms, spiders or being left alone that seem unreasonable in proportion to the threat level may point to anxiety.
- Panic attacks. This is the strongest, most obvious sign that a child is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Common signs of a panic attack include sweating, dizziness, chest pain, hot flashes, shaking, shallow breath, numbness and heart palpitations. Your child may also tell you that they “feel like they are dying.” A child may also have an overwhelming fear of losing control. Always rule out a medical condition before diagnosing your child with a panic disorder.
Setting your child up to have mindfulness techniques in their toolkit can help to slow down the anxiety freight train. For many children, practicing mindfulness is a way to avoid falling into an anxious state. Others can plug into the mindfulness techniques they’ve learned to maintain an even mood throughout the day.
Introducing Mindfulness to Your Child
There are several ways to integrate mindfulness practices into a child’s life. First, parents can enroll their children in mindfulness courses or one-on-one sessions led by experts. There are two standard options for parents seeking mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions for childhood anxiety. The first is something called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). During such treatment, a child will spend several weeks learning daily mindfulness exercises that can be practiced daily in real-world situations. This can be a great way to pack a child’s mental-health toolkit with ways to soothe the mind while taking control of the body. Another option is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This option integrates MBSR with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Parents can start the mindfulness conversation today. A good way to introduce mindfulness to a child is to simply encourage them to practice breath awareness. This can grow to include things like taking three deep breaths upon waking up, using guided imagery when a child is feeling hesitant to board the school bus in the morning, or stopping to ask an aspirational question that can be meditated on twice a day. An aspirational exercise can be as simple as asking a child to focus on three things they would put on their activity list if they were visiting the beach.
The big thing for parents to remember is that mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. It is the getting back to basics aspect of mindfulness that makes this technique so effective for helping children to find stillness, wholeness and confidence amid a world that feels like it’s full of things jumping out from the shadows at every turn. The best part is that parents can join their kids in practicing mindfulness to improve their own mental health.
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Anthony Cupo is a trained mindfulness facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.