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Ways to Turn Anxiety Around

by Ronica O’Hara

It is difficult for children to make sense of what’s happening in response to COVID-19 as schools close, sports and extracurricular activities stop and many people wear masks. Before these unsettling circumstances took place, one in eight children experienced anxiety disorders, but now parents are reporting that even happy-go-lucky children that skipped through life have turned clingy; regressing to playing with old toys or becoming withdrawn. “The dramatic change in schedules, reduced social contact and worry about the illness itself can all contribute to the anxiety,” says Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D., director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center. “Some children will also have relatives or friends directly impacted by the virus.”

As the situation improves, so should children’s emotional well-being, but if anxiety lingers, parents can take heart in new research from the center that shows how childhood anxiety can be reversed before it becomes a crippling adult condition. The study of 124 children aged 7 to 14 with anxiety disorders found that when parents made simple behavior changes, their kids’ symptoms sharply decreased 87.5 percent of the time and disappeared completely 60 percent of the time. Parents drew closer to their children and felt less stressed themselves, and the kids continued to improve even after the study ended.

According to Lebowitz, lead author of the study, the key is to reduce parental accommodation—actions that parents take to soothe and protect their anxious children, like texting to provide constant reassurances, speaking for a child with social fears or staying with a child that fears separation until they fall asleep. These actions may not be a problem in the short term or in tough times, but when used repeatedly, the child often becomes more fearful, less confident and unable to function in a normal manner.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, parents learned in 12 weekly sessions how to slowly pull back from accommodating actions while validating the child’s emotions and conveying confidence in their ability to handle challenges. Notably, a parent-focused program, Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions, produced better results than the control group, in which the children underwent 12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. More information on this program for parents and therapists can be found at SpaceTreatment.net.

Everyday Anxiety-Busters
Here are some other straightforward strategies that can lower childhood anxiety.

Getting physical. “Encourage your child to do any kind of exercise: jumping, swinging, running, catch, tag, hopscotch, biking, hiking, skateboarding. These activities are all considered weight-bearing because they place deep pressure on the joints and muscles, which calms their sensory systems that help regulate emotions,” advises Brittany Ferri, a Rochester, New York, occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics and mental health.

Getting outdoors. Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D and mood-boosting serotonin, and studies show that even brief nature walks can lower anxiety and improve focus in kids.

Giving them seeds and a shovel. Planning and working in their own garden give kids a healthy dose of fresh air, physical activity and a sense of accomplishment, and growing their own vegetables makes them more likely to enjoy eating them.

Breathing deep. “Parents can teach children coping skills such as relaxing their body or taking slow deep breaths to help them regulate their anxiety,” says Lebowitz. For example, a child can lie on their back and pretend to blow up a balloon. Or using a fresh flower, a child can breathe in the scent through the nose for a count of four, hold the breath for the same amount of time and then breathe out slowly through the mouth.

Playing it out. “Parents can help a child role-play what they could do in a situation that they’re nervous about,” says Leigh Ellen Watts Magness, a clinical social worker and play therapist, in Athens, Georgia. “They can create a puppet show where the characters have a similar problem, create a poster about some strategies they might use to relax or have their figurines talk to other toys about how they feel. All of these things help kids process feelings of anxiety.”

Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.

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