Raise your hand if you have a child who struggles with anxiety! Anyone looking for tools and resources to knock out childhood anxiety?  Just recently, I posted the following question to a Facebook group.

If you could solve one major problem that you are currently navigating with your child, what would it be?

The answers to that question revealed a lot of common issues that these parents are struggling with. The top problems that these parents wish to magically solve according to this non-scientific polling data were:

  1. Childhood Anxiety
  2. Child’s Lack of Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation Skills
  3. Child’s Lack of Friendships

Interestingly, I have found this to be true of my personal experiences within my own special needs community. Honestly, I don’t really like to use the term special needs. I believe there is a general misunderstanding about who special needs children are. For lack of a better term, I will use the term SN to describe all children who struggle with cognitive differences that significantly impact their daily functioning.

How to Define Special Needs?

For all intents and purposes, the following brain differences give us a general idea of how I am using the term Special Needs.

  • ADHD,
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder,
  • Aspergers (I know DSM-V has changed this but I believe it is still a useful term),
  • Sensory Processing Disorder,
  • Auditory Processing Disorder,
  • Visual Processing Disorder
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
  • dyslexia
  • dysgraphia.
  • General Developmental Delays
  • speech and language processing delays
  • anxiety or depression (including PANS/PANDAS)

Symptom Overlap (Comorbidity)

The above list is not all-encompassing. Interestingly, this list of diagnoses share common symptoms. and are not mutually exclusive of one another.

Think about children on the Autism Spectrum. Many of them are labeled High-Functioning (in-line with an Asperger’s diagnosis). Sadly, these kids tend to struggle terribly with focus and attention. Additionally, these same children often have anxiety and depression.

Children who were at one time labeled Dyslexic, today may also be diagnosed with Visual Processing and Auditory Processing Disorder.

A child with speech-delays often has an underlying Auditory Processing Disorder (whether officially diagnosed or not).

The point is that all of these cognitive “brain” differences share many of the same symptoms. Therefore, they also have the potential to share many of the same solutions.

Now the term “solution” may seem a bit flippant and inappropriate. Those of us with kids who struggle in any of these areas know that these symptoms are not easily “solved”. We are aware that resolving the symptoms in our children are not easily achieved. In fact, for most parents and children, the road to improvement is often one step forward and two back.

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Hope in Numbers?

Knowing that so many of our “differently-wired” children share similar daily struggles actually offers hope for our kids.

Why would I be hopeful when so many children are struggling? I am hopeful and encouraged that our children are not alone in this. I am grateful that more and more people are aware of the need for children and parents to have tools to support them in the journey.

The reality is that our children (whether or not they have a diagnosis) are bombarded by so much stimulation. Whether through screens, ear buds, school, sports, and social dynamics, the increase pressure and stimulation is overloading and stressing them out.

On a Saturday morning just a couple of months ago, I sat with a group of 9th grade girls from my church. We had just begun a Bible Study about their Identity in Christ. So many of these ladies honestly shared about their fears and stresses. As I looked around this table of 7 typical teenage girls, it hit me. Every single one of them struggles with pretty intense anxiety.

Anxiety Hit Our Home

My own family has navigated anxiety issues. I absolutely understand how debilitating anxiety can be and how much it can negatively impact life. Coping with anxiety is hard enough on adults. Pushing through life with anxiety is beyond exhausting. As our children begin to show signs of debilitating anxiety in greater and greater numbers, we need to take note.

Here is the reality, anxiety in children does not necessarily look the same way that it presents in adults.

Anxiety in children can show itself in many ways. If we are not careful, we will perpetuate the cycle of anxiety if we don’t stop to recognize it. How often do we see…

  • A child who is throwing a “temper tantrum”
  • A child who cannot stop talking
  • The sensitive child whose feelings are so easily hurt
  • The destructive child who cannot keep his hands to himself
  • Little Johnny who appears to be not listening in class
  • Tween girl who is struggling to turn in homework
  • Student who bombs a spelling test that they were confident about the night before
  • The child who complains of headaches and stomach aches
  • The child who cannot sleep at night

Messages Sent to Anxious Kids

In our culture, we very often jump too quickly to demand that a behavior is eradicated.

“Stop biting your nails. It is a disgusting habit.”

“Keep your hands to yourself or you will lose recess.”

“You are so irresponsible. You forgot to turn in your homework again!”

“Snap out of it! I told you to pay attention!”

These are messages that children often receive because of outward negative behavior. However, many times these outward behaviors are symptoms of big feelings such as fear, angst, embarrassment and shame (ANXIETY).

Kids Need an Emotional Vocabulary

Because most children do not have the vocabulary to identify what they are feeling, they often act out negatively. These outward symptoms are reflective of what those emotions and thoughts “feel like” in their bodies and minds. If we only focus on the behaviors, the cycle of anxiety is likely to spiral out of control. This, in turn, increases and continues negative behaviors.

We must equip our children emotionally, socially and academically. As a nation, we understand the need for academic success. However, we have failed to educate our children in the other two areas. As I have shouted from my soapbox many times, ignoring the emotional well-being of children only perpetuates inconvenient and disruptive behaviors. Parents need to be equipped with resources to combat childhood anxiety.

Emotional Education is Power

As with all learning, emotional (and spiritual education) must start at home.

Listed below are some of my top choices for equipping our children to identify and verbalize their feelings. These materials work to support children in their understanding that their thoughts and beliefs impact how they feel.

When we give our children a vocabulary to describe and understand the physical sensations, thoughts and feelings, we give them an incredible advantage. As we offer them techniques and strategies to process and self-regulate. These resources are all phenomenal tools for families and educators.

Turnaround: Turning Fear into Freedom by David A. Russ, Ph.D. & Christopher T. McCarthy, M. Ed.

This resource is phenomenal. When my daughter suddenly developed severe separation anxiety overnight, we immediately began counseling. In the process of navigating her debilitating fear that something bad would happen to me, her counselor recommended this curriculum.

The Turnaround curriculum is an audio drama (think Adventures in Odyssey), and follows a group of children as they attend camp. The group of children all struggle with some area of anxiety for one reason or another.

Children using this resource are to listen to the audio drama. Following the audio session, they complete exercises inside of the accompanying workbook.

The workbook guides them through exercises that help them identify their fears and how those fears make them feel physically as well as emotionally. Examples are drawing exercises and exercises that ask the child to label and illustrate their fears in the form of a character.

Because the child is able to hear the voices of other “kids” who also have navigated anxiety, the child is able to relate easily and feel more invested in the strategies provided. The strategies introduced to the child equip them to combat the thoughts and feelings that lead to anxiety. This gives these kiddos a greater sense of control.

Personal Success

My daughter was 12 years old when she used this set of materials, and while she was very apprehensive of its ability to help her, after the first day she was already feeling more equipped. By the end of the ten-day program, she was much better able to combat her anxiety.

Turnaround: Turning Fear into Freedom is recommended for children ages 6-13 and I highly recommend it for any child struggling with any form of anxiety.

Praise God that my daughter was correctly diagnosed with PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) and was treated quickly and is back to her old self. More about PANS and PANDAS later.

 

Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers, MA Ed., OTR/L

Another resources to help with childhood anxiety is The Zones of Regulation chart. The Zones were introduced to me through my son’s developmental pediatrician, Dr. Yasmin Senturias of Atrium Health in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Senturias has been a godsend to my family as she has walked alongside us as we have been desperately trying to find help for our son.

The Zones of Regulation materials were developed by Leah Kuypers who is an Occupational Therapist and has an education background. She created this resource as a way to help children learn to develop emotional and self-regulation skills.

The materials are often used in schools as well as in mental health settings. The Zones are a visual representation of what a child may be experiencing internally at any moment-in-time.

By providing children with something as basic as the Zones of Regulation chart, kids are much better equipped to process their feelings and emotions. The Zones chart is a chart with color bands each representing specific feelings and thoughts that all people experience on a daily basis. By giving kids a visual representation and vocabulary for emotional states, they are able to move through tough feelings and bring themselves back to a “regulated state.”

Zones are Neutral

The way the Zones are to be presented is in a way in which no Zone is a bad zone. These are zones that all people navigate. Knowing which Zone he or she is in helps them understand why they may be struggling to learn or hang out with a friend in the moment.

This Zones of Regulation chart and other Zones of Regulation materials are geared toward younger children and elementary-aged children. Excellent tool for the anxiety toolbelt. They also have a Zones of Regulation song that would be a wonderful addition to helping younger children understand the concept more fully. (I will be purchasing the What Zone Are You In? song for my 5 year old son.)

I highly recommend the use of the Zones of Regulation Chart (or some modified version) in every home. This is a wonderful childhood anxiety resource. It is especially helpful for young children who need visual cues.

Check out this video where I discuss practical and actionablt strategies to use this tool at home today.   

Anger Iceberg

This childhood anxiety tool, like the Zones of Regulation Chart, is a great tool to use to help children understand the multitude of ways that anger displays itself. All adults would benefit from an understanding that anger does not always look the same. In fact, anxiety is a form of anger according to the chart.

By simply walking alongside your child and discussing what the “under the water” terms mean, you will be empowering your child in his or her ability to release and process emotions. Choose a few emotional labels and share some of your life experiences in which you have felt that particular emotion.

If your child does not know what the term “offended” means, explain it and share a story from your life in which you either were the one who was offended or when you were the one doing the offending.

Just allowing these conversations to happen naturally will yield fruit. There is power in knowledge. 🙂

Praise God that there are so many amazing resources available to equip our children.

The Social Thinking Company

Honestly, I cannot more highly recommend Michelle Garcia Winner and her team over at the Social Thinking Company. The heartbeat of this organization is to equip children for life via social and emotional thinking instruction.

This collection was originally created for children with social skills deficits. ADHD and ASD, for example, both of which often display a lack of social and emotional understanding. In my opinion, these social and emotional skills books should be read to every child.

Every parent of any child who struggles with anxiety, fears, ADHD, and any brain differences that are inhibiting friendships, should utilize this incredible site. There are several webinars that are completely free and will educate a parent on the social nuances and skills that their child may be struggling with. Often we don’t realize that children need concrete instruction in social and emotional awareness.

Social Skills to Reduce Social Anxiety

We all know how much stress results when a child feels ostracized. The social awareness presented in the materials written for kids are life skills to be used throughout life.

Titles for kids include:

Fortunately, there are so many resources available for kids on the Social Thinking Company site. Just go check it out! You will soon wish you had all of these resources available to you when you were a kid. 🙂

Another Resource that Deserves Mentioning

  • What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner
    • This workbook series is an excellent way to help children navigate many issues including Anxiety, Complaining, Fear, etc. 

Identity in Christ

One last thing to note. If you are a Christian family, may I encourage you to flood your child with the confidence that he or she has in Christ? Download FREE Identity in Christ Printable Downloads to be printed and hung on your kiddos’ wall. Read them aloud daily and pray them over your child.

God has chosen each one of us on purpose to raise these precious kiddos in this delicate time. Let your kids be confident of who they are because of Jesus. 🙂