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What are ways to calm down an anxious child?

Parents, have you ever been in one of these situations?

  • Your child arrives at a birthday party excited but becomes too worried to walk through the door

  • Your child runs out of the doctor’s office as the nurse approaches with a needle/shot

  • Your child feels nauseous about performing on stage, trying out for an activity, or taking a test

Yes? And have you ever been at a loss as to how to help your child when he/she is anxious, such as the time when it seems like nothing you say or do helps?

Is your child anxious?

When your child is anxious, they often experience a fight, flight, or freeze (acute stress) response, which is a physiological reaction in response to something they perceive as scary.

The body's sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it can take up to an hour for their body to return to normal levels.

Some children experience anxiety more than others. About 15-20% of kids are born with a more anxious temperament, wherein one part of their brain, the amygdala, is more reactive to novel stimuli. Anxious kids may scream, shake, run away, be especially quiet, act silly, hide, cling, have tantrums, or act out to avoid a stressful event or environment.

At times, parents make the mistake of trying to reason with kids or talk them out of their fears without first addressing the acute physiological factors at play. They may say things like "calm down," "stop crying," or "try to be brave now." Because anxiety can look like defiance or acting out (e.g. running out of the room), parents may even punish anxious kids or give them time-outs.

However, brain research suggests that it's extremely difficult (if not impossible) for kids to think with logic or control their behaviour until they step out of fight/flight/freeze mode.

Here are 5 tips that parents like you can gently help your child calm down, regain a sense of safety, and manage his/her anxiety.

1. Breathe

When kids are anxious, they tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. Taking slower, deeper breaths (from the abdomen or diaphragm) can relax them. Try having your kid:

  • Breathe slowly, in through the nose, out through the mouth

  • Blow bubbles

  • Blow into a pinwheel

  • Slowly blow out “candles” on your fingertips

2. Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Stimulating your child’s vagus nerve (located on both sides of the voice box) can interrupt fight or flight mode and send a signal to his/her brain that your child is not “under attack”. Some of the ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include:

  • Chewing gum

  • Singing or humming

  • Eating a piece of dark chocolate (which is also a parasympathetic regulator)

  • Gargling with water

3. Cross the Midline

Crossing the “midline” - or moving one's hands, feet, and eyes across and to the other side of the body - can help reset the brain.

When your child moves his/her arms or legs across the centre of their body, the brain’s hemispheres are activated and work together, which helps them think with both logic and emotion. Try some of the following steps:

  • Wipe a surface - such as a table - with one hand

  • Cross marches: A child marches in place while touching their opposite knee (right arm touch left knee)

  • Windmills: Have your child reach out to the side with their arms straight; then pretend that they are a windmill by moving their arms in a circle while crossing across the middle of their body

  • Figure eight walking: Draw a large side-to-side figure eight with sidewalk chalk for your child, and have him/her walk the figure eight

4. Heavy Work

Heavy work activities (or any activities that push or pull against the body) provide input to a child's muscles and joints, increase a child's focus and attention, and “centre” a child.

Doing wall push-ups, carrying a backpack, pushing a vacuum, climbing a jungle gym, carrying a pile of books, or pulling a wagon, can help your kid calm down and regulate their emotions.

5. Narrow Focus

Parents can help kids “look at one thing, hear one thing, or think about one thing” because relaxation can be achieved by narrowing attention. Use guided imagery by asking kids (when they are not anxious) to think of a "happy place" or "happy symbol." Here’s an example:

  • "Imagine a place where you feel totally comfortable and happy, a favourite place you have been, somewhere you have seen, or completely made up.

  • What do you see there? What do you hear? What do you smell?

  • How does your body feel?"

When your child is anxious, have him/her imagine their happy place. Kids may also narrow their focus by colouring - such as this colouring kit from Tiger Tribe! - or playing with a glitter wand.

So if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where your child feels anxious, try the tips above!

Do you have tips to help calm down your child? Make sure to let us know in the comments section below - or stay tuned here or on our Facebook page for more tips like these!