Does mindfulness help child anxiety?

Mindfulness is a big buzz word these days especially around anxiety and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it here so thank you to the listener who sent this question my way. They asked not only “does mindfulness help child anxiety” they also asked, “And if so, how?” 

All right, first let’s define mindfulness and for this I’m going to head to the Oxford Language dictionary and share the second definition, which describes mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

I’d say that’s pretty dang accurate so that’s the definition we’re going to go ahead and use for this episode. 

Now let’s go back to the question. Does that help child anxiety? Does achieving a mental state by focusing one’s awareness not etheh present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations” help child anxiety?

Well, that depends on how you’re going to define help.

Lots of people when they first begin working on child anxiety are focusing on stopping the anxiety. They call me and say, “My child is anxious and I’d like to help them learn how not to be anxious.” Or they say, “I want them to learn how to cope” but as we dig into their situation it’s clear that the proof of coping will be the eradication of anxiety.

I get that. That’s the way I thought about anxiety, too, before I had my clinical training. That’s why we say things to our kids like, “You don’t have to be nervous” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

We see tears or tantrums or meltdowns and we think, “Oh gosh, this is failing. My child is feeling their anxiety and something has to change.”

Mindfulness doesn’t mean not feeling. It’s right there in the definition. It means feeling and being aware of the feeling. It means noticing thoughts. It means noticing that your stomach hurts with worry. It means noticing that and accepting that, not necessarily fighting it.

When I say that, I’m curious. What’s your reaction? When I say, your child is just going to have to sit with that tummy ache. Or just sit with that feeling of wanting to run away. Or just sit with their anger that you’re not helping them. I imagine you’re feeling a lot of yuck. Noticing that yuck, noticing that perhaps you feel resistance to allowing your child to suffer, that’s mindfulness.

I think paying attention to the similarities of our experience with our child’s experience is incredibly helpful when it comes to child anxiety. So when I talk about mindfulness and child anxiety, first I want the parents to explore their anxiety. I want them to work on their own mindfulness skills because through that they will be able to help their child. 

Let’s say our child is anxious about a new babysitter. You have plans to go out to dinner with your partner and you know you’ll be back kinda late. There’s a new baby sitter, you know them and you trust them — let’s say they’re your neighbor’s niece who is getting her degree in early childhood education. You trust your neighbor, you’ve talked to this young woman on the phone and you really like her, but you haven’t met her yet and neither has your child. You also know your child doesn’t like anyone else around at bedtime so you’re nervous. 

You want to go out, you have special tickets to a big thing, a big show that you’ve been looking forward to. You’re excited to put on grown up clothes and eat at a grown up restaurant and see this show but you’re nervous. 

You’re nervous that your child won’t talk to the babysitter. You’re nervous that they’ll meltdown when you try to leave. You’re nervous that the babysitter won’t be able to build any kind of rapport. You’re nervous that your child will be constantly texting you during dinner and during the show and if you turn your phone off or on airplane mode during the performance that you’ll miss an emergency call. 

So you’re just kind of a mess about it.

Your mess about it mirrors your child’s mess about it. Your worry about your child’s worry is a helpful lens into what’s happening for your child. 

If you can take care of your worry, you will be helping your child to find a way out of their worry.

Let’s bring mindfulness into it.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you ignore your worry or distract yourself away from it. It means you sit and you notice it. You don’t do anything else. You don’t try to talk yourself out of it or try to manage it, you just notice it. 

Noticing helps you step outside of yourself. You can try narrating what you observe, doing this literally can really help. 

That might sound like saying out loud to yourself, “Wow, when I think about walking out the door, I can feel my breath get more shallow. I think my heart rate goes up. I catch myself trying to talk myself out of going or into going. I feel like my mind races.”

You could journal your way through it. 

You could talk it out with someone who is willing to listen and not try to solve things. 

In mindfulness, you allow yourself to be in two places at once. You have the experience and you NOTICE you’re having the experience.

You might feel yourself drawn to look back — like at the last time you tried to go out. Or you might feel yourself drawn to look forward — projecting into how the night might go. And when you notice that, you can bring yourself back.

You can say, “Ok, I’m having all of these feelings. I notice all of these sensations in my body AND I notice the feeling of the sofa cushion I’m sitting on, the rough fabric of my couch. I notice that I can hear the wind chimes outside or the traffic. I am aware that the light in this room dims when the sun goes behind a cloud.”

That brings us back to the present. We notice the pull away, and we notice that things here that bring us back.

So how does mindfulness help? It helps by letting us sit with the feelings until they pass. 

There are different ways to be mindful. IT doesn’t have to be sitting quietly; it can be walking and tuning into the walking. 

You know how some people think more clearly when they listen to background music? It’s the same kind of thing. You’re not doing mindfulness wrong if you do it differently than someone else. The goal is to be with feelings. 

Movement can help us be in two places at once. It can help us look at our experience more objectively. 

For some kids, especially anxious kids, it might be easier to be with a feeling when they’re moving. I used movement a lot in my clinical work with children. Asking them to sit with their feeling might be overwhelming but we could pace around my playroom or play toss or they could even cartwheel and then come back to whatever they were feeling.

Again, there’s no wrong way to learn how to engage with our feelings. Remember anxiety is about avoidance and the avoidance is focused on helping us NOT feel uncomfortable. But we do need to feel uncomfortable to overcome our anxiety and mindfulness is a tool to do this. It gives us the opportunity to step into being anxious, being uncomfortable and not running from those anxious, uncomfortable feelings. It’s fine to dip in and dip out. It’s fine to build up our tolerance a little bit at a time. Mindfulness does not have goal posts. It’s a practice, which means we practice it. 

By the way, if you’d like some help in bringing mindfulness to your day to day, you can head to my site and take the Parenting Pitfalls quiz. AT the end you’ll have the opportunity to sign up for my free 7-day Get Yourself Grounded email course. Just go to Child Anxiety

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