We all look forward to summer. Being able to enjoy the sunshine, the fresh air, and the quality time with family and friends. Taking vacations at the shore were some of my favorite childhood memories. I have vivid memories of staying in the cold ocean until my feet were numb and tingly. Or laying in the sun until I was roasted like a chicken:)
While vacation can be really fun, for some people, especially kids, it can cause a lot of anxiety. These kids may tend toward anxiety already, so an experience that’s new and unknown can be very overwhelming. They are outside their comfort zone, their routine, and their familiar surroundings. You may need to fly to your vacation which can cause some fear and panic. Maybe you have a long car ride ahead of you and they tend towards car sickness which can cause anxiety about getting sick. They may also be worried about the people and things they are leaving behind.
Here are 7 ideas to help you manage your child’s anxiety:
- Give their anxiety a name– Kids don’t fully understand what they are feeling or have the ability to put words to it. All they feel is out of control. This can look like panic or it can also look like anger, irritability, or inability to concentrate. Helping your kid put a name to what they are feeling can help decrease some of the distress they are feeling. When I do anxiety counseling with children, I often let them choose what they want to call their anxiety. I usually get names like Mr. Butthead or Mr. Poopypants. Once their anxiety has a name, we can create a dialogue with it. For instance, “I see you’re really anxious. What is Mr. Butthead telling you today?” If it has a name and they can identify what it’s saying, it takes some of the power away and becomes a little less scary.
- Make a list of worries- Anxiety is tricky because once the object of anxiety is removed, it usually just shifts to something else. However, it can be helpful to help your kid make a list of things they are worried about. For example, the plane ride, the dog being left behind, forgetting to pack something important, etc. Writing their worries out can help get the swirling thoughts out of their mind and onto a piece of paper. You can then talk through with them how they can address each worry in a calm way. Children’s books can be helpful with this, especially books about flying. It helps kids know what to expect (i.e. when they hear the plane make that scary noise, it’s actually just the plane’s wheels coming down to get us ready to land safely.)
- Help them challenge their thoughts– Our anxiety usually tells us that the worst is going to happen. It creates every “what if” scenario we can imagine and then paralyzes us with fear. One way to challenge those thoughts is to help your child remember times when those bad things didn’t happen. For instance, “Remember last year when we went on that trip and you ended up having a good time. OR Remember when you were scared to swim in the lake, but then once you tried it, you ended up really liking it.” Point out how much courage it takes to do something despite their fear. Explain that their anxiety might not go away completely, but they can choose to not let it keep them from doing hard things.
- Make a calendar– Kids have no concept of time. Everything feels longer and farther to them. This can create anxiety because they feel like they are going to be away from home forever and don’t have any way to keep track of their days. Making a simple calendar print out for them to keep with them is a great way to give them a visual of what is going on. You can include any special activities on it that you plan to do on certain days. They may even like to write on it themselves or draw a picture of the activities and then add a special house picture on the day you go home. Then bring a marker or pencil with you so they can cross off the days as you go.
- Pick a calm activity the night before– If it is possible, try to finish packing a little early so you can help create a quiet night for them to de-stress. So often before vacation we are in a frenzy trying to pack and clean which may be adding anxiety to your child. Allowing them to pick the activity might help give them a sense of control. Maybe they can pick the movie you watch or what to make for dinner. The idea is to calm them down and to provide a healthy distraction so you can set them up for success on the day you leave.
- Breathe– Teaching your child breathing exercises is a great way to help them calm their bodies down when they are anxious. It is also another good way to give them some control back. One exercise is to ask your child to imagine their favorite food and then breathe in the smell deeply. Then ask them to imagine their birthday cake and blow the candles out. Another exercise is to lay on their bed with a stuffed animal on their stomach. Ask them to watch the stuffed animal go up and down as they breathe in and out. The deeper they breathe in, the higher the stuffed animal will go. There are so many great breathing exercises for kids. Pick one that works for your child and then do it together.
- Share with them that you struggle too– You may be prone to anxiety too so you understand what your child is feeling. But even if you don’t, we can all remember a time when we felt afraid or unsure. Drawing on those experiences can help you put yourself in their shoes. This is important when we begin to lose our patience or feel frustrated (which is absolutely normal!). For instance, you could say, “I remember the first time I went on a plane, I was a little scared too. OR I get anxious when I have to try something new too.” Normalizing your child’s feelings and letting them see you struggle is a great way to ease their anxiety and help them know they are not alone.
It is important that you DO NOT promise everything will be OK. You don’t want to make a promise that you can’t keep. Not to mention, it will make them feel like they can’t trust you. We need to acknowledge that sometimes hard things do happen. We can’t protect our kids forever from that reality as much as we want to. But we can help them choose to believe that most of the time things work out OK. And if it doesn’t, we will be there with them to help them deal with it.
You may be feeling overwhelmed or like your child needs more help than you can give. Our trained counselors at Lime Tree Counseling would love to help your child or teen deal with the anxiety they are struggling with in a healthy way. We want to see them be able to thrive and not be missing out on life because their anxiety keeps getting in the way. And let’s be honest, our children’s anxiety increases our anxiety because it hurts us to see them in pain. Or maybe you have anxiety as well and you can barely keep your own head above water let alone someone else. Getting support can help you both feel like you aren’t alone. You can come to our office located in Ambler, PA or you can try online counseling in Pennsylvania or online counseling in Colorado. Schedule an appointment with us today.