Are there techniques for teaching emotional regulation to anxious children?

 Hey everybody. This week’s question for the Child Anxiety FAQ is, “are there techniques for teaching emotional regulation to anxious children?” And of course there are techniques teaching emotional regulation for all kinds of kids, including anxious kids. It’s going to be a little bit different for anxious children, because we tend to focus on their anxiety.

We tend to focus on when they are not regulated and that makes sense because that’s what we’re trying to fix. So let’s take a step back and look at our anxious child and let’s think about when they are emotionally regulated. Let’s look for those times in the day where both of you are feeling a bit calmer, where they’re experiencing some contentment or pleasure or joy. And let’s start with that. Because when we ask children to do something like calm down, they’re not going to be able to do that if they don’t even know what calm is. So let’s find the places in their day where they are calm. For lots of anxious kids this means finding specific things that make their bodies feel better. So that could be swinging; that’s super regulating. It can be going for a walk. It can be building with their Legos.

It can be listening to music. It can be reading. What is it that your child likes to do?

Are they very active? Are they getting enough activity in their life? Are they kids who like to slow down and focus and curl up on the couch? Are they getting enough time with that?

Just for the next week, I would encourage you to look and see when is my child finding calm. Is it in the car ride with you on the way home from school? Is it when they’re curled up in bed and telling you about their day at the end of the day. Is it when they’re eating lunch and chatting with you. Start talking to them about their feelings in those good moments. Also observe yourself.

When are you getting moments of calm and clarity and contentment? Because this will also help you figure out what do you need more of? When we’re looking at anxiety, of course, we have a laser focus on those anxious moments, those problem moments. But when we only focus on those, we start to think in that way. We start calling attention to those only, and we’re not going to ignore them.

I’m not saying it’s all in your head because it’s not. I’m saying that we need to shift some focus.

If your child is calmer when they get activity, how can you get them more activity? If they’re calmer when they get more quiet time. How can you help them get more quiet time? As they tune into those, you can start using that as their coping tools for anxiety. Before their anxiety is out of control when you’re approaching something that creates anxiety, how can you bring more of that calm coping in?

It’s not just take a deep breath. It might be, “I know you’re worried about the spelling test. Why don’t you go take a break and go play with your Legos for a little bit, because I know that helps you calm your mind down.” Or “why don’t you go out and pitch to the pitch back…”. I tell you those pitch backs, you know, those square nets that you can put in a backyard and the kids can throw or kick a ball into it and bounces back. For some kids that is incredibly regulating.

You get to throw really hard. You get the satisfaction of catching and it’s rhythmic. So maybe you say. “Why don’t you go and play with your pitch back for a little bit, and then come back in when you’re feeling better.”

you might teach them to make themselves a cup of tea when they need to have some quiet, calm downtime. Or kids might need to chew gum as a calm down tool.

I’m thinking about some kids that I’ve worked with, who are maybe stressed about homework or times tables. Chewing gum while they’re doing it can actually stave off some of the anxiety because it lets them work out some of that nervous energy.

Now here’s why it’s important to look beyond the anxiety for other things that help our child regulate it’s because our child is more than their anxiety.

Their anxiety is just a part of them that they need to learn how to manage. If we look at the rest of their functional life to find places that we can build on and grow with and bring that to the anxiety, that is often more helpful than thinking of the anxiety as a discrete event in their life that we are trying to eliminate.

Does that makes sense? I hope that makes sense.

The other thing to know is that emotional regulation is a skill and it takes practice. This is not going to work right away. And for children who are accustomed to going into their emotional dysregulation and exploding, and that’s the way that they manage it, we are going to have to work a little harder to help them turn that around. We can let them know that this is part of growing.

That there’s nothing wrong with them. That they are a person who is learning how to be a person, just like we are all learning how to be people. Very often anxious kids think of themselves as people who cannot handle things. They think of themselves as people who disappoint the adults around them, they think of themselves as out of control. Shifting that image of themselves is going to take time. We can’t give up on them.

We just need to keep leaning in to helping them learn how to regulate. And also help them learn how to stay safe and keep other people safe when they are dysregulated. So that might mean if you have a child who really is going to melt down, how can we help them be safe when they do that? There was one family that I worked with that I encourage them to build an outdoor space that their child was free to flip out on.

That family built something that they called an anxious garden and when their child is feeling dysregulated and needed to yell and scream, They were allowed to go out there, hit that tree with sticks, stomp around, even throw rocks at the fence. The family told the neighbors, “Hey, if you see our kid out there flipping out, it’s okay.”

That’s an agreed upon way for them to manage their big feelings and the child felt safe to do that and was able then to feel less attached to that behavior.

This is fine to navigate and negotiate with our kids because we are all learning how to handle big emotions. It may be messy until you come up with solutions that work for you and likely as your child grows and develops, you will need to revisit those solutions because they’ll stop working and your child will need new things. There’s something else I wanted to say about the dysregulated anxious child is it can be helpful to keep a journal of how things are going, because it’s easy to miss progress when you’re in it. I can remember working with another family who their child used to punch holes in walls.

And for a long time, we were working on that and their child very successfully stopped punching holes in walls. It was fantastic. But one day during a meltdown, after many, many months of not hurting things they punched another hole in the wall and the family understandably was really worried. Is this a slippery slope?

Is this our downfall? And because we had been keeping track, they were able to look and say, Nope, this is a one-off and our child is usually doing a great job. And we are continuing to grow, and this is not a sign of anything, except that we had an especially bad day. If you’ve got questions about this, please let me know.

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