Just like adults, children also face bouts of anxiety that can completely take over their day and lives. When you’re an adult, you usually have the vocabulary to describe the way you feel and sometimes we can identify what the feelings and thoughts are about. Children, on the other hand, don’t always have the words they need to describe the anxiety, and sometimes all we need when we feel anxious is for someone else to understand how we’re feeling in that moment.
If your child is experiencing anxiety, you may be wondering how you can explain it to them, especially in a way that they can really understand. “Anxiety” on its own isn’t a very descriptive word to someone who doesn’t have that word in their vocabulary yet! Today, I want to give you three different perspectives and ideas you can use to help make the concept of anxiety easier for your child to understand and apply to their life.
The Monkey Mind
Oh, the monkey mind! Swinging restlessly from branch to branch (thought to thought) without taking a rest or choosing the branches carefully. When our inner monkey mind is jumping and swinging all over the place, we sometimes forget that we can choose to just sit in the tree. The branches will still be there, swaying around us, but we don’t have to grab onto them.
The same goes for racing, unwanted, scary, or mean thoughts. If we listen to each and every one of them and allow them to fill our minds, we will become exhausted! Instead, when it seems like there are a lot of branches swaying around us, we can practice taking one at a time. Taking a deep breath, and taking one thought at a time. Like the monkey bars at the playground! One bar at a time.
Calming the monkey mind is a great analogy for children with racing thoughts. To introduce them to the practice of “choosing” their thoughts (a great mindfulness practice), have them pretend to be a monkey, sitting however they think a monkey should sit, in a tree. What thoughts can they let pass them by? Which are some great, empowering thoughts they can hold onto?
Taking a few moments to slow down and calm the monkey mind when thoughts are racing a little too fast can help children learn when their body is experiencing anxiety, and giving them a tool to use to help mitigate it.
The Fire Alarm
The part of our brain that triggers our feelings of anxiety is called the amygdala. While you don’t necessarily need to name the exact part for your child, especially if your child is still very young, you can explain that the brain acts like a smoke detector, always scanning our surroundings for trouble or danger. It wants to keep you safe!
But like a smoke detector, when it thinks there is danger near, it begins going off like a fire alarm! The thoughts and feelings that make anxiety feel so scary are just the brain’s way of telling you that it thinks something is wrong (fear). Sometimes, it is right and we can try to avoid the danger. Other times, the danger it thinks is there, isn’t actually there, or the scary thing ends up being totally okay for us.
When the fire alarm in our mind is going off, we should stop and first make sure that we aren’t in real danger. A great way to do this is to have your child tell an adult (you, a caregiver, a teacher) when their inner fire alarm is going off. With the help of the adult, together they can decide if the fire alarm was correct (there is something to be afraid of) or if it made a mistake (the perceived danger isn’t real).
By taking the time to analyze why the child began feeling anxious, you’re helping them to realize that not all anxious thoughts are connected to actual dangers, an extremely helpful tool for learning how to cope with anxiety.
The Worry Monster
We all know that voice. The voice that tells us we aren’t good enough, we can’t do something, that no one likes us, or that everything is scary. As much as we try to build the self-esteem of the children in our lives, every now and then, even the most confident child encounters this mean voice. It is completely normal because it is just that amygdala finding creative ways to protect us!
Another great approach to tackling this mean, old voice is to externalize it. Or, to take it from something inside of the child, to its own entity entirely! If your child is struggling in their day-to-day life with an unkind voice in their mind or a voice that is telling them to be afraid of everything, you can make a worry monster! No, like actually make one, just like Colleen’s daughter did.
Have your child draw a picture or make a craft of what their mean “Worry Monster” looks like. Being descriptive will help to make it seem more real and make it easier for the child to identify it as something outside of themself. Give it color, details, a name, anything that will help your child perceive it as something different than themselves.
By creating an actual little “monster”, you’re helping give a face to the voice, which can help your child to differentiate it from its own, rational, kind thoughts.
Calm Yoga for Relaxation
Incorporating relaxation and winding down into your child’s nightly routine is a great way to help calm their monkey mind before bed. Our Calm Yoga for Relaxation class is a combination of Yin and Restorative Yoga poses, mindfulness practices, and breathing techniques that promote relaxation. This 50-minute class is designed to be safe and comfortable for children ages 8-13, as it guides them to a place of relaxation.
I hope that these strategies help you help your kids to more easily identify and talk about their anxiety. By using vocabulary they’re already familiar with and examples they can identify with, it will help to make something unseen and scary something that they can face confidently!
Have any suggestions for future posts, or questions about mindfulness practices for kids? Let me know!
Which of these practices do you think your child will like best?