Supporting Your Child Through Anxiety, Panic, and Overwhelm

“I noticed you didn’t eat your lunch today. Talk to me a little more about that.” In all honesty, this wasn’t the first time I had noticed. For several days she had been eating her lunch in the car or as soon as we got home. She’s not big on breakfast, so I knew she’d be hungry by lunch, but going all day without eating didn’t sit well with me.

“It’s too loud and there are too many people in there. It makes it hard to eat.” Hearing these words reminded me of my own childhood and being overwhelmed by all that was going on around me. I remember my stomach turning at the thought of what the day ahead would hold for me and the countless ways I’d try to get out of going to school on those days.

It would be easy for me to brush this off and say, “She’s just nervous,” or respond to her with a simple, “You’ll learn to get over it,” but that would be putting a band-aid over something deeper going on.

Over the past few years there have been several signs that my pre-teen was experiencing anxiety:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Stomach issues
  • Seemingly random headaches
  • Inability to focus in certain settings
  • Avoidance in specific situations
  • And the list goes on.

As an educator of ten years, these telltale behaviors are all too familiar to me, but it’s something many parents are left wondering about. They don’t know how to support, what they should say/do, or when they should become concerned.

With many students in the San Antonio area heading back to school, worry, fear, and anxiety might be high. You might notice some shifts occurring with one or more of your children as they switch back to a school setting. (You can read more about anxiety disorders from the Mayo Clinic here.) If you are looking for ways to support your child who is experiencing anxiety, here are three things you can do for any age group:

1. Validate their experiences.

Everyone experiences anxiety differently and the support that one child needs is not going to be the same as another child, but one thing that ALL children need when experiencing anxiety is to be validated. They need to know that you see them and what they’re experiencing and that you hear what they’re saying when they express their discomfort or uneasiness.

Some things you can say are:

  • “I’m here with you.”
  • “I hear you.”
  • “I see you.”
  • “Would you like to talk about what you’re experiencing?”
I see you. I hear you. I'm here. @JeriTheMindfulMama
Photo by @JeriTheMinfulMama of The Mindfulness Co., LLC

Some things you can do:

  • Lean in as you speak.
  • Mimic facial expressions to connect.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable during that time, it’s okay. You are also allowed to feel uneasy in those moments. Show yourself some self-empathy by validating your own experience: “I’m feeling ______ because I’m needing _______.”

2. Hold space for them.

Often our children experience anxiety because they perceive a threat. It might be a physical threat or a threat to their identity and who they are as a person. When this happens, many children begin to experience rushing thoughts, an increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating, or feeling on edge.

As parents, it’s easy to want to “fix” our kids or what they’re experiencing in those moments. Instead of trying to fix the moment or moving through it too quickly, hold a brave space for them to reconnect with the present moment.

This could look like:

  • Creating a calming corner together that they can access when needed
  • Asking consent before attempting to physically comfort them
  • Staying nearby to remain in their presence while giving them space

If you have older children, you can always ask them what they need in those moments or share some options of how you can support them. Remember, as time goes on, what they need might change, so check in again.

Mother holding child.
Photo by @JeriTheMindfulMama

3. Engage in mindfulness practices to help them work through it.

I’ve seen the word “mindfulness” used quite frequently and have seen some skepticism come along with it. Mindfulness is the ability to become conscious and aware of what’s going on in the present moment—this can include your thoughts, emotions, and surroundings—while acknowledging and accepting without judgment. There are tons of mindfulness practices that you can try, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • Tracking: In this practice, you use the sense of sight to help bring you back to the present moment. Start by taking a few deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Slowly look around and begin to name objects that you see. You can keep it simple or be descriptive. Continue until you feel your heart rate slow down and your mind becomes a bit more clear.
    • This practice helps you focus on what’s in your immediate surrounding, sending a signal to your brain that your environment is safe.
  • Rainbow breaths: Focusing on our breath is a powerful way to help slow our heart rate and bring us back to the present moment. Rainbow breaths incorporate movement and breathing, helping your child focus on how their movement can align with each inhale or exhale.
  • Glitter jars: Not only is this a fun, personalized activity, but it’s an item that your child can use again and again as a visual sensory calming tool. In the link above, you will also find a script to use as you think about incorporating the jar into a daily practice.

As you consider how you will support your child who is experiencing anxiety, remember these key things:

  • Don’t try new things DURING the moment they’re experiencing anxiety. It’s best to practice or ask questions during a time when they are calm and are able to access their thoughts more clearly.
  • New things take time. If it doesn’t work right away, try it again to gain some familiarity and comfort.
  • Not everything will resonate with you or your child. If something doesn’t feel authentic to you or the mindfulness practice that once worked isn’t doing the trick anymore, it’s okay to find something else that does.

Parenting is hard, and trying to navigate the complexities of anxiety can feel heavy, but you are here, wanting to learn more to support your child, and that is everything. If you ever feel that the anxiety is getting to be too much, lasting too long, or happening too frequently, ALWAYS reach out to your primary care provider and a mental health expert to help support you with the next steps. For more local resources you can visit The Bexar County Department of Behavioral Health.

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