As the child anxiety epidemic continues, so does the need for evidence-based interventions that can be readily applied in a variety of settings… even beyond the therapy office. In my new book, The Essential Guide to Treating Child and Adolescent Anxiety
, I offer more than 75 tips, scripts, and strategies that are evidence-based and developmentally modified. Many of these techniques are whole-family, meaning they consider the parent-child relationship as well as household dynamics. I believe this systemic aspect is vital to managing children’s anxiety, as their environments play a significant part in either strengthening or lessening their symptoms.
One such technique that I use consistently with kids, teens, and parents is the 3 Rs of anxiety management
. This intervention is essentially a skill set that I teach for families to gain a solid understanding of what anxiety actually is… and isn’t… and how anxiety affects the body and mind.
The first R is to Recognize
when anxiety strikes, including the form it takes in a particular child. For example, does the child begin worrying and asking for reassurance, or do they complain of a stomachache? An important part of recognition involves helping kids and their caretakers recognize that anxiety is primarily chemical
. This means we need to teach children that brain chemicals can convince them that a worry is factual or inevitable when it isn’t. Similarly, anxiety persuades kids to believe that their stomach discomfort warrants medical attention (or at least a day off from school to recover!) For this reason, the recognition of anxiety means understanding that despite very real distress, the symptoms are based on elevated brain chemistry and do not represent actual events.
The second R of anxiety management is teaching children… and caretakers… to Relax
. Relaxation is typically a big challenge for anxious kids because they often feel overwhelmed by their anxiety-based thoughts and bodily complaints. Both initially and intermittently, young kids will need relaxation assistance from a trusted caretaker or therapist who can help them to take some slow, deep breaths, stretch, and perhaps find something soft like a favorite blanket. When teaching kids to relax, it’s equally important to teach their adults similar effective self-regulation strategies—so they can keep their own anxiety at bay while maintaining the child’s distress.
Finally, the third R is Redirection
, and it can take one of two forms. If the child’s anxiety manifests as a potentially realistic concern, such as the fear of failing a test, then redirection should be a practical solution, such as creating a study plan. However, if such a plan is already in place and having little impact on reducing anxiety, or if the anxiety is unrealistic or somatic in nature, then redirection should take the form of a distraction. Distraction can be any engaging physical activity, such as a playing a game, going for a bike ride, or jumping rope. Alternatively, the distraction can be a form of entertainment, such as watching a show; however, care should be taken to limit technology as the go-to distraction, as it may not always be available and may limit the child’s capacity to develop other methods. Keep in mind that redirection can also be mental/cognitive, such as encouraging a child to imagine how they’d like to redesign their bedroom or think about what kind of snacks they should bring to an upcoming school event.
Like any skill, the 3 Rs require practice beyond the office, such as at home, school, and any other frequented environment. I also am careful to continually help a child’s caretakers self-regulate in follow-up sessions so that they can maintain as relaxed a composure as possible during times of the child’s heightened distress. The more that kids—and their caretakers—can regularly initiate use of the 3 Rs, anxiety will certainly have a much less negative impact on a child’s quality of life.