Everyone gets nervous, has fears, and has experienced anxiety at one time or another. Heart pounding, racing thoughts, shakiness – we have all been there. Anxiety is not supposed to be a bad thing. It can be beneficial in preparing us to handle difficult situations, such as taking a test. The true purpose of anxiety is to prepare our bodies for a threat. Except with chronic anxiety, it can feel like a “threat” is constantly there. This is when anxiety is no longer beneficial to us, and rather, a draining condition. Children as young as 6 years of age suffer from anxiety. The Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health reports, “1 in 10 young people may suffer from an anxiety disorder.”
Often, people ask me what an occupational therapist’s role is in mental health with children and how it differs from a clinical psychologist’s role. The American Occupational Therapy Association describes our role as, “Occupational therapy practitioners can play an important role in addressing anxiety disorders in children in a variety of settings, including schools, communities, and home. In each setting, intervention may focus on a number of areas, including establishment of routines and habits, enjoyable activities that promote optimal levels of arousal or relaxation, and strategies for managing symptoms to enhance occupational performance. These services can help children build self-esteem and establish supportive relationships with family members, school personnel, and peers.” Occupational therapy is all about function. So, if something interferes with a child’s function in everyday activities, occupational therapists step in. Children’s primary occupations are to play and learn. If anxiety interferes with these occupations, occupational therapists can intervene with tools and strategies to help children alleviate their anxiety in these specific areas.
I have been an occupational therapist for under a year and have already seen several children at Fingerprints Therapy Services, Inc. (http://fingerprintstherapy.com/index.html) who struggle with anxiety. Every therapist has a different approach in helping children with anxiety.
I have put together some of my “go to” techniques I use for helping children with anxiety and ideas you can implement at home:
When your child is anxious, the first thing to do is to encourage them to breathe – smell the flowers, blow out the candles. You can make breathing fun by purchasing whistles (https://www.therapyshoppe.com/category/P2191-whistle-kits-oral-motor-ot-therapy-tools-sampler-kit), blowing through straws moving pom pom balls (http://www.pbs.org/parents/adventures-in-learning/2014/01/racing-activity-straws-pom-poms/), blowing bubbles, or blowing through straws into soapy water for more bubble fun (http://bouncebackparenting.com/calm-down-kids-blow-bubbles/).
When I’m feeling anxious, exercising always helps decrease my tension. When we are stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone, cortisol, which if chronically released, can cause long term damage to the brain. Exercising has the power to destroy the cortisol that was released from stress. When your child is anxious, encourage any activity that will get them moving!
As I spoke about in my last guest post, http://nooneaskedmebut.com/sensory-proprioception-vestibular/, I incorporate activities that involve lifting, pushing, pulling, and weight bearing to provide input to our clients’ proprioceptors, which is calming and organizing for their systems. Anxiety is truly a sensory experience. It can make our limbs numb and tingly; it causes our pupils to dilate, which can make us more sensitive to light or cause blurry vision; it can make us more sensitive to scents, so people who are anxious notice a scent that others may not notice at all. Incorporating heavy work activities will help regulate your child’s sensory system to decrease some of the uncomfortable systems of anxiety. With that, children with sensory regulation and modulation difficulties are prone to anxiety.
Something I like to incorporate in therapy sessions is having my kids draw what their anxiety looks like. Maybe it is a monster, maybe a sad face. Any drawing to give them a visual of what is causing them to feel symptoms of anxiety. Our bodies have so many physiological responses to anxiety that we cannot control. Our minds race from one thought to the next. Sometimes having a picture that symbolizes all of those abstract feelings helps make anxiety less scary and gives us more control.
Research has found that the essential oil, lavender, can have a therapeutic effect on decreasing anxiety symptoms (http://www.livestrong.com/article/365229-lavender-and-anxiety/). I am a big proponent of lavender. The internet has several resources for how to use lavender. Lavender must be diluted when used with children (http://www.joys-of-lavender.com/diluting-essential-oils.html).
A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (http://effectivechildtherapy.org/content/cbt-anxiety) technique I often use with children is to write the worry on paper and then write and discuss the reasons we think this is scary and the reasons we should not worry about it.
For example: “I am worried about my test.”
What might happen/Why is this scary? “I might fail. It is timed.”
Why shouldn’t we worry/What really will happen? “I will study as hard as I can and do my best.”
It is always tempting to tell someone with anxiety, “Stop worrying.” or “Don’t be silly” or “It’s not a big deal.” These are the last things I want to hear when I am anxious! If you are a clinician or a parent, it is important to respond appropriately to our kids’ anxiety. We want to validate their feelings while also helping them to see that they are safe and in control of their anxieties. “Me too” – two of the most powerful words we can ever use to help others feel safe and understood. (Brown, 2012). When my clients tell me about their worries, I think of some of my worries and help them to see that they are not alone. Remind your kids that you are in it together.
Thank you for reading my post about anxiety. Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below!
Another awesome guest post by Kaitlyn Vokaty, Occupational Therapist, loaded with some great resources! Make it a great week everyone!
Brown, B. (2012, March). Brené Brown: Listening to shame. (Video file). Retrieved from
Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health (n.d.). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from http://www.schoolmentalhealth.org/Resources-for-Students/
The American Occupational Therapy Association (n.d.). Occupational therapy’s role in mental health promotion, prevention, & intervention with children & youth anxiety disorders: Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.aota.org/-/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Children/SchoolMHToolkit/Anxiety%20Disorders%20Info%20Sheet.pdf