This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for details.
It can be hard as a parent to help know what activities your children with anxiety could benefit from, and what might make it worse. It’s so hard to see them suffer, and that can lead to you feeling powerless. If you’re the parent of a child struggling with anxiety, let me offer you a big internet hug and some comfort. Things can get better, even when it doesn’t feel like it. There are a number of activities (and tools!) for children with anxiety that help them cope better and you feel like you’re helping.
Before I continue, let me first add a disclaimer that I am not a mental health expert, just someone with personal experiences and many years of teaching children with anxiety. Children can experience varying levels of anxiety, from mild to severe. They also can experience periods of anxiety after traumatic events or for seemingly no reason at all. Regardless of why your child is struggling however, it’s never wrong to seek help from a trained professional. The information presented below is not intended to diagnose, supplement, or otherwise take the place of advice from your child’s doctor or counselor.
Breathwork Activities for Children with Anxiety
Concentrating on breathing is probably the first coping skill a child dealing with anxiety should learn. First, because it gives the child something to focus very intently on besides their worry. But possibly more important, having a child focus on breathing slow and steady “tricks” the body into calming down faster. Anxiety forces the body to take short, quick breaths, to prepare to run or fight, and the goal should be to override that physical symptom.
One breathing exercise is called “square breathing.” The way it works is by visualizing a square (or perhaps by using an actual square object or on a piece of paper). When imagining tracing the left-most line from bottom to top, breathe in while counting to four. When “tracing” the square’s top from left to right, hold the breath for a count of four. Breathe out while “tracing” the right side from top to bottom for a count of four. Finally, pause for a count of four while tracing the bottom line from right to left. Have your child repeat their journey around the square as many times as they need.
Keep a “Worry Book” or Journal
One excellent activity for children with anxiety is to keep a worry book. Ideally, you want to use a book like this one, since it houses a few different components. First, there’s tons of space for children to write or draw what’s bothering them, allowing them to process their feelings.There’s also different pages where they can break down anxieties based on location, time, etc. Finally, there’s a section for coping skills as a written reminder of how they’ve dealt with anxiety in the past.
“Sit and pay attention”
Sometimes, anxiety gets worse because your child’s body reacts physically and out of their control. That can be scary for a child! Have them learn what anxiety feels like in their body by asking them to “sit and pay attention.” Go through their body parts from head to toe and ask them to notice anything that’s feeling weird or uncomfortable. They might mention their hands are shaky or sweaty, their heart is racing, or they’re breathing fast. Once they’ve finished doing this body scan, stay sitting with them for a while. You can do other activities like breathwork or 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. After a while, ask them to do another body scan and notice how the physical sensations have reduced or gone away. This allows them to see the “other side” and feel like they can successfully get through anxious feelings.
The “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” Activity for Children with Anxiety
When you notice your child starts feeling anxious (or they tell you), have them do this grounding activity. This activity asks them to find…
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can feel
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
Once students have worked their way through this exercise, their focus will be on more external things and less on the stressor. This is especially good for children who deal with any kind of dissociation.
Think It Through
What’s the worst that can happen? This question is often asked flippantly, but when speaking with an anxious child, it can be a great teaching tool. Oftentimes, children’s (and adult’s) worries are magnified far beyond what’s logical or prudent. Having them speak their worries out loud and imagine worst-case scenarios can help them think through how they’d handle certain problems. It also can help children feel more in control of their feelings once they can name them and properly verbalize their worries.
For example, many children are anxious about going to the doctor’s, and especially about getting shots. If your child expresses this fear, ask them what might happen if they need to get a shot at the doctor’s. What coping skills can they use during the few seconds of pain, and few minutes right after? It’s especially important to have the child come up with the solutions themself, as that can really boost their confidence. But if they’re struggling to remember something, you can prompt them with memories of similar, past successes (even non-doctor related).
Create a “Worry Monster”
If you have a very imaginative, creative child, this might be the perfect activity for them. A worry monster is a physical creature/art project that a child uses to verbally process their worries. They could create one using scraps of fabric or yarn, paper, 2 liter bottles, duct tape, whatever! When anxious, they can grab their worry monster and have dialogues between the monster and themself. The monster verbalizes the child’s worries, and the child tells the monster why it’s wrong. In this way, it’s similar to the “think it through” exercise, only it’s done without an adult coaching the child. Here’s a sample conversation:
“Other kids won’t like you at your new school,” says the worry monster.
“Maybe not right away,” the child might respond, “but I know how to make friends.”
“It’ll be too hard. You should just stay home forever.”
“I can do hard things! I’m going to try.”
Before you forget, let me remind you of the awesome worry book I talked about above. If you don’t necessarily want a fully printed book, there’s also a PDF printable of the worry book. Help your child process all their worries and start to feel better!
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.