by Kathy Eugster, MA
Anxiety is a normal emotional state that we all experience at various times in our lives. It is closely related to fear, which is another normal and necessary emotion that everyone experiences. We need to be fearful of certain situations in order to protect ourselves from danger.
Anxiety is usually associated with anticipated fear of something happening in the future. Anxiety is normal and beneficial when we are faced with a difficult situation. For example, it is normal for us to feel anxious before a test or speaking in front of a group of people, and our anxiety helps us to prepare for the difficult task.
Children experience various states of fear and anxiety from the moment they are born. Sometimes it is easy to tell if a child is anxious by their crying and clinging behaviors. But sometimes, it is difficult to identify anxiety in children and may be overlooked. Some children hide their anxiety because it is too difficult for them to express it to others. Some children turn their anxiety into angry tantrums or defiant behaviors.
Sources of Anxiety in Childhood
Some children are born with an anxious temperament and seem to be anxious of many situations right from the start. It is believed that up to fifteen percent of infants are born with a more anxious temperament.
There are developmental sources of anxiety throughout childhood as well and all children experience fears and worries as part of their normal development. Most young children experience fears of the dark, monsters, separation from parents, animals, and strangers. As children grow, these fears gradually change to fears about social acceptance, academic and sports achievements, health, mortality and family.
Other sources of anxiety for children arise from normal life and family transitions. Children go through many changes and transitions as they and their families grow and mature. For example, the birth of a sibling, starting school, moving to a new home, death of an elderly grandparent, becoming accepted by a peer group, and mastering tasks in and out of school can all be stressful and anxiety-provoking for children.
In addition, difficult or even traumatic events that are out of the ordinary can happen to a child with the likelihood that anxiety will increase for that child. For example, parental conflict and separation, illness or injury of the child or the child’s family members, the unexpected death of a close family member, extended separations from parents, family or community violence, and natural disasters are all difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences for children to go through.
Play Activities to Help Your Anxious Child
Anxious children can benefit a great deal by support from their parents. The following play activities will provide you with some ideas for helping your anxious child.
Color Your Feelings Game:
This game is a parent-directed activity and helps your child learn to identify and express feelings doing a fun coloring activity. Being able to identify and express feelings is a fundamental skill that leads to a child being able to manage and regulate feelings. For anxious children, this is especially important in order to decrease the intensity of strong and overwhelming feelings.
- Have ready paper and a selection of different colored crayons or markers. Help your child to match a color to a feeling, for example yellow=happy, pink=excited, red=angry, orange=worried, purple=scared, blue=sad, etc. Choose both comfortable and uncomfortable feelings that your child is experiencing.
- Ask your child to draw how he feels by saying something like, “Draw me a picture of how you feel right now” The drawing does not necessarily need to be of something specific; your child may just want to scribble on the paper. The bigger and heavier the area colored, the stronger the feeling.
- Describe what your child is doing, for example, “Oh, it looks like you are drawing lots of angry red and a little bit of sad blue … Now you’re adding some worried orange … And now you’re drawing some happy yellow … There’s a purple scared house … And you drew an excited pink person.”
- When your child is done, you can say something like, “Tell me about this picture … When was another time you felt lots of angry red? … Sad blue? … Worried orange? … Happy yellow?”
- Pose the following question, “What can you do to make your uncomfortable feelings shrink and your comfortable feelings get bigger?” Help your child come up with some ideas to reduce the uncomfortable feelings and increase the comfortable feelings.
- Draw an outline of a body and ask your child to draw where she feels certain feelings in her body. Identify different body sensations associated with different feelings, such as sweaty hands, fast heart, hot face, dizzy, butterflies in tummy, lump in throat, jumpy, no energy, etc.
Sand and Water Play:
Sensorimotor play activities will help to sooth and comfort children. Sand and water are “sensory” materials that will support the development of your child’s nervous system and encourage self-regulation skills.
If you are able, a tray or container of children’s play sand can be very fun and is excellent for sensorimotor play. If you want, a tray or container containing a limited amount of water can also be provided. Add a funnel, sieve, shovel, pail, containers for pouring and dumping, and toys that are okay to be played with in sand and water (miniature people and animal figures; small cars, trucks, boats, planes; miniature trees and plants; small rocks, pebbles, decorative stones and sticks, etc.). For indoor messy play, it is important to set up an area where this messy play can happen, such as on a plastic tablecloth laid on the floor or on a protected table.
- Get your child’s attention and provide clear instructions for the activity by saying, “Here’s a tub filled with sand and a container of water that you can mix into the sand if you want. You can put any of these toys in the sand or water also. The rule is that the sand and water have to stay in the tubs or on this big plastic sheet.”
- Now switch into a child-directed playtime style. Watch your child, take some deep breaths, and relax and enjoy what your child is doing. Notice the calming effect of the sand and water on both you and your child. Remember, don’t tell your child what to do, just “be with” him as he explores the sand.
- Describe what your child is doing by saying things like, “You’re putting the dog in the corner … Now you’re burying the rock … I can see you like the feel of that sand … Looks like you’re going to fill up the bucket … You’re feeling curious about how the sieve works in the sand.”
- If your child starts to throw sand or water, or take sand or water away from the messy play area, remind your child of the rule to keep things within the messy play area or else the activity gets put away for the day.
Structured Imaginary Play:
Sometimes, children become anxious about some future situation, for example going to the doctor, going for a sleepover, or starting school. With Structured Imaginary Play, which is a parent-directed play strategy, you can make up an imaginary story to support your child in various ways.
Use various toys or other items as props for the imaginary play story. For example, use stuffed animals, puppets, or miniature figures as characters in the story to act a certain way or to solve a problem. Use blocks, cardboard boxes, and popsicle sticks to represent a clinic or hospital. You can also take on a role directly yourself also by using toys or other items as props. For example, use the items in a toy medical kit to pretend to be a doctor.
There are many children’s books that deal specifically with anxiety, fears and worries. These books can be very helpful to base Structured Imaginary Play stories on as these stories will often model various ways of coping with fears and anxiety.
- You would first decide on a specific theme, for example, an upcoming visit to the doctor.
- Next, you would make up the story. The plot will parallel what is actually going to happen at the doctor’s office and would include a character that your child could identify with, for example, “Once upon a time there was a cute little puppy … ”
- Details of the story should be similar to match your child’s experience however some things would not be identical because you want to disguise the fact that the story is about your child specifically. You are representing your child’s experience symbolically through the imaginary story, for example, “This puppy had to go to the vet for a check-up … ”
- Identify the feelings you think your child would experience from this situation and assign these to the character that your child identifies with. What do you think it is like for your child? Basically, you want to mirror your child’s feelings and experiences in this situation, for example, “This puppy was feeling a little bit scared and worried about going to visit the vet … he was also feeling confused because he didn’t know what to expect.“
- Next, bring up the points you want to stress. What information do you want to provide in the story, for example, how will the doctor visit unfold? What brave behaviors or coping skills do you want the characters in the story to model? What positive themes do you want to get across, for example, how are others supporting the anxious character? Are there any unhelpful thoughts or behaviors you want to challenge? You want to structure the story so that the character your child identifies with will go on to master her fears and that there is a positive ending or outcome to the story.
These are only three examples of play activities that would help anxious children. There are many more fun games and play activities that you and your child can discover. Any play activities that help to identify and acknowledge feelings, soothe and regulate the nervous system, or teach relaxation skills or coping strategies are excellent for any child, but especially those that tend towards anxiety.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
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