10 Tips for Keeping Kids Calm and Cool
Most of us have felt the symptoms of anxiety: persistent fear or uneasiness, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea or disruption to sleep. It is normal for children, too, to occasionally experience anxiety. But when they do not outgrow the normal fears of childhood, such as separation anxiety, or when these fears disrupt their daily lives, they may have an anxiety disorder.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 4.4 million or about 7% of children ages 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety. Experts suggest that children with special needs are even more likely than their peers to experience anxiety. For example, according to one study, nearly 40% of young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also had an anxiety disorder. Further, anxiety may manifest differently in neurodiverse children.
According to Rebekah Hagan, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist for Sheppard Pratt’s nationally recognized Outpatient Mental Health Center in Maryland, children with special needs may be more prone to experiencing the symptoms of anxiety or an anxiety disorder.
“Children with special needs may feel like they are different and have lower self-esteem,” explains Hagan. “They can experience bullying. They may worry about being able to make friends or be more likely to be left out of the group. Also, having a disability can be unpredictable. They may have symptoms that flare up without warning, which can understandably be stressful. Finally, children with special needs often have more difficulty understanding their social environment, which makes it difficult to process what’s going on around them.”
These anxieties can also manifest themselves in school environments. Issa Kabeer, a teacher of a combined algebra and special education class at TECH Freire Charter High School in Philadelphia, explains that he provides a least restrictive environment, a setting where children who do not have special education requirements can still be in a classroom with students who do not.
As for what anxieties look like in these students, Kabeer says, “They may raise their voice, get jittery or step out of their seat.” To keep them calm, Kabeer follows the instructions in the individuals’ IEP, which may involve providing extra time on a task, making sure they have water to drink or giving kids a quiet place to work.
For families of children with disabilities, watching their child struggle with these heightened worries can be heartbreaking. To help them cope, Hagan offers the following 10 tips for children—and their parents—to remain calm and cool.
Top 10 Strategies to Help
1. Offer choices.
Offering options, like choosing between two different outfits or a few different food choices, provides kids with some positive opportunities for control in their day.
2. Teach self-awareness.
Providing age and developmentally appropriate information about their condition will help them understand what they’re capable of and ensure they are not left frustrated with unanswered questions about themselves.
3. Focus on uniqueness.
Have a positive outlook that focuses on their uniqueness rather than their disability.
4. Get social.
Seek out peer support networks in your community for you and your child. In addition to seeking broader social opportunities, try to help your child foster a few more intimate friendships by planning one-on-one playdates.
5. Learn what soothes them.
Most children have a safe person, activity or space that tends to calm them down. Learn all of the things that comfort your child and have them on hand when you notice something may be triggering the anxiety.
6. Be a bookworm.
Reading books and social stories that teach children how to navigate stressful situations can help them better handle real-world events that may trigger anxiety. Also, reading about other children with disabilities can help normalize their experience while boosting their self-esteem.
7. Validate their feelings.
Help your children understand their feelings by narrating what’s going on. Giving them the words or signs to articulate what they’re feeling will help them feel less frustrated. Even for children who are not able to verbalize their feelings, hearing you try to describe what they seem to be expressing can be very helpful.
8. Be consistent.
One of the best ways to help children experience less anxiety is to incorporate routines into every element of their day. Predictability helps them feel more in control and less anxious. When schedule changes inevitably arise, try to take time to communicate and help them process these changes in advance.
9. Seek help.
Please don’t try to manage your child’s anxiety on your own. Seek help from professionals who can provide appropriate medication and therapy. Further, seek help from your village. As much as you love and appreciate your child, raising a child with special needs takes tremendous effort. When you have bad days or seasons, be vulnerable with your friends and community and ask for the help you need. It could be as simple as having a friend sit with your child while you take a long shower. You could ask your church or neighbors for help with meals. You could seek out carpools for school or medical appointments. Your child benefits as much as you do when you seek help; you are better able to care for and appreciate them.
10. Be a calm and cool role model.
While it is certainly easier said than done, as much as possible, try to model calm. Manage your own anxiety in healthy ways by practicing self-care and seeking out support when you can. Your example can help your child understand that anxiety is a normal and natural part of life, and healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with it exist. Problem solving, seeking help, caring for yourself, knowing your limits and engaging in activities that foster your mental wellness are all healthy ways to help you manage your anxiety.
Staff writer Heather M. Ross contributed to this story.