As the holidays approached and we were getting ready to visit family and friends, I was tempted to create a festive and sparkly sign to hang around my daughter’s neck.
As we visited a new-to-her preschool last week I wanted to do the same thing again. I wanted to create one that could be seen from the front and one that could be seen from the back.
The sign I wanted to make would’ve said, “Please don’t touch me,” “I am really overwhelmed right now” or “I am really nice if you give me some time to warm up.” Another main sign that I’d love to hang on her neck would say, “Be kind. I’m trying to hold it together.”
Do you have a child who experiences a lot of emotions and anxiety like I do?
Does spending time with family and friends and new people sometimes cause a lot of anxiety for you or your child?
How do you prepare for so many unfamiliar situations, people, and routine changes? How do you help alleviate your child’s anxiety?
Here are a few things that I do to help alleviate my child’s anxiety in new settings or in high stress one (lots of people)…
1. Stay in close proximity when around new people.
I usually like to have 1:2 or 1:1 ratio with my child to give optimal attention when she is especially anxious… at least initially. My husband and I usually tag team so that if there is an event we are at (or hosting), one of us is with her while the other mans the other two kids. As she gets more comfortable, we can ease up.
2. Have low expectations and allow for choices… recognizing child is just trying to hold herself together.
For example, I don’t make what she eats for dinner also become a battle when we are in a stressful environment, I just let it go for that day.
3. Model appropriate language to use.
When my daughter is stressed out she may cry and not communicate in helpful ways… like hiding behind me, yelling NO and GO AWAY or just screaming at other kids. I used to just say “use your words” but now I try to give her the words to say and that seems to help a lot. When she is stressed out her brain seems to shut off and she’s unable to think of the right things to say to communicate what she wants effectively. I also talk to her in short phrases, not big long sentences and I keep the language positive. I also try and tell her what I WANT her to do, not what I want her to stop doing.
4. Recognize that the new faces, routines, situations can be uncomfortable/stressful/scary and acknowledge that verbally and offer emotional support.
I give hugs, hold her hand, and say supportive things.
5. Be realistic with amount of time you spend with new people/new situations or in situations that cause anxiety.
This part is hard for me. My other two kids are super social and love new people and love spending time with family members and friends. I can’t avoid situations that cause my daughter stress or else we might never leave the house or hang out with friends/family. I have to remind myself each time that it is going to require a lot of work to have a good time with friends/family. I do try and limit the time frames so that we don’t stay in stressful situations for too long. I’d rather keep it short and positive… and increase the length over time than keep things super long and have it be a negative experience.
6. Try and stick with bedtime/naptime routines
Kids who are already anxious will have an even harder time if they are overtired or off schedule. We try and stick to bedtime schedules when we are visiting family for this reason.
7. Bring a familiar object or find a comforting activity when you arrive at a new setting
I love finding blocks, legos, little people, calico critters, or any other toys that we have at our house. They seem to be great calming activities for my daughter when we get to new places. Sometimes we’ll even bring a toy with us that is a comforting object.
8. Encourage people to give child space and wait for him/her to come to them/initiate interactions with them.
This is super hard. Many adults touch kids without thinking and grab them for tickles, hugs, pats on the head, etc. Some just get too close for comfort and invade personal space too quickly. For my daughter this typically causes an immediate negative reaction which can lead to an hour of being upset and completely ruin a visit/social event. If my daughter is given space at the beginning of a stressful or new situation she will typically come around after a little bit and be totally ready for hugs, tickles, etc.
9. Don’t require expressions of affection- offer choices– hug or high five, don’t push it. Be respectful.
Many older adults can have a hard time with this. They get a little offended and feel that expressions of affection should always be given. I am of the camp that you have to earn those expressions of affection and kids have moods just like adults do. If my daughter is having a rough day, the last thing she wants to do is give her friend or grandma a good-bye hug. I definitely can see how it can be hurtful to ask for a hug and not get it. I always try to encourage my daughter to give some sort of expression of affection… but somedays it might just be a high five instead of a big hug.
10. Prepare ahead of time.
Before we head to a social event (or have friends over) we try and talk about what is going to happen, who is going to be there, and appropriate ways to act/talk. Last week when we visited preschool we talked about how to greet the new teachers, how to take turns with toys, and what to do if she was feeling nervous. Talking about it helped alleviate a lot of anxiety! It wasn’t perfect, she still was stressed out, but we had several positive interactions and experiences too.
11. Take breaks
If you are in a stressful social situation with your child and it is hard, take a break. My husband is great about taking my daughter off to a quiet room away from people and letting her play. Sometimes a few minutes of that is enough to help alleviate her anxiety so that she can return and interact more positively and happily. Over time she is learning to take breaks without one of us initiating it which I think is a great coping skill.
12. Change your attitude.
As I mentioned before, I’ve had to change my attitude about social situations. For me they are events that give me energy, are fun, and make me happy. For my daughter they seem to cause anxiety and are draining for her. She loves friends and being social, but on a smaller scale. As I spend more time preparing her ahead of time and managing my own expectations about the events, I am able to have a better time too… and I dread social events less. I have also learned to keep events that I control smaller so that she can have more fun and be happier.
I have to remind myself that the work I am doing to help alleviate anxiety and help my child will help her feel secure enough to try hard situations in the future… and not just avoid or escape them. Sometimes I am even surprised by situations like the one below when she’ll go on stage and dance her little heart out in front of other people… despite being nervous.
I am not a therapist or child psychologist or counselor. I am just learning along the way. I don’t know if what I am doing is the best possible thing for my daughter… but I am trying. If you have any advice or are more experienced in this area, feel free to share your tips with me!
How do you help your kids in social situations where they feel anxious? Any tips for me?