Strategies for Reducing Anxiety: A Coping Skills Toolbox
It’s Friday morning, and your daughter, like clockwork, comes down to breakfast and says “I’m not hungry at all. I can’t take my mind off my math test. I’m worried I’m going to fail and then I’ll fail the whole year and never pass 4th grade!” She puts her head down on the kitchen table and starts to cry.
Kids can react in a variety of ways when they are dealing with anxiety and stress. When some kids are anxious, they may get stomachaches or headaches or get teary. They may yell at their siblings. Some kids fall apart as soon as they get home from school. These are not the most ideal ways for kids to deal with such overwhelming feelings. They need effective coping techniques for anxiety and stress.
How can you effectively teach your child to “calm down”?
One simple, yet quite effective strategy is to work with them and create a coping skills toolbox.
What is a coping skills toolbox?
A coping skills toolbox is an actual physical container that houses items kids can use to help calm down and express their emotions in healthy ways. There are a ton of strategies your child can use to calm down, and having a toolbox is one way to keep several of these tools readily available to use.
How do I determine which coping techniques for anxiety will work for my child?
What works for each child will vary, depends on their temperament, their favorite activities, and their energy level at that moment. One of my children loves to draw, craft and read to relax and calm down. My other child loves to do jumping jacks, scooter or do wall push ups. Each child is different, even within a family. What works for one person may not work for another one.
Use a coping skills checklist as a jumping off point, and figure out what your child likes (and doesn’t like) to do to deal with stress and anxiety. To use the coping skills checklist, go through each strategy with your child. Check off the ones that they like, cross off the ones they don’t like, and circle ones they’d like to try. Encourage your child to be brave and try new things too. You never know what will work.
It’s good to have a variety of strategies to use because you can’t use every coping skill everywhere. Some work better at home, and some work better at school. Some work better indoors and some are better outdoors. The longer the list of coping strategies for your child, the more ways they’ll have to cope in healthy ways.
How many items should I put in?
You want to have at least 3 or 4 items in a coping skills toolbox. Some of my favorite items are things like fidgets, bubbles and coloring books with colored pencils or markers.
What about tools that aren’t physical items – like taking a deep breath?
Make a visual for those types of coping skills. Taking deep breaths or imagining a calm place are incredibly helpful coping strategies, but not easily placed in a box. What you can do is create visual cue to take deep breaths or imagine a calm place and place that in the coping skills box.
You can make your own visual reminders for coping skills:
- Take several index cards or small pieces of cardstock
- On each one, write or draw one coping skill
- Hole punch the cards and place them on a keyring (to make them extra sturdy, you can laminate them)
- Put them into the coping skills toolbox for easy access
Using visuals is a powerful way to help kids. When kids are overwhelmed, sometimes it’s hard for them to figure out what to do. By having cue cards, your child can have a visual reminder of what calms and relaxes them.
To make things a little easier, I’ve created ready to use coping skills cue cards for you. There are three different sets: Calming, Physical and Distracting.
OK, we’ve made the toolbox. What next?
Practice, practice, practice. Review the coping skills that are in the toolkit when your child is calm and relaxed. Have them try out the skills to see how it feels. For example, have them take deep breaths, or hold the fidget for a few minutes. It’s good to have that practice time so they know how it will feel to try the coping skill when they are calm.
Next, be prepared for the next time they’re starting to feel anxious or worried. When you start to see their signals, that’s the time to speak up. Give them a gentle reminder to use a coping skill from the toolbox.
Better yet, if you know they’re about to go into a stressful situation (like a huge test), encourage them to use one of their skills to calm down before the actual event happens.
Where should I put this toolbox?
Find the place where you think your child would most easily be able to access it. Maybe that’s their room. Or perhaps it’s in your living room. Another good place to put it could be near a calm down spot. Figure out what will work best for your child and where they will be most likely to use it.
We tried a coping skill, and it worked for a while but now my kid doesn’t like it. What do I do?
The items in your child’s toolbox will change over time. Trying different coping skills over time is great. And sometimes, what worked for a bit will lose its magic. Then it’s time to find another way to help kids cope.
A few years ago, my son had a coping skills toolbox that included a stress ball, a big soft ball, puzzle erasers he could put together and bubbles. His toolbox today has bubble wrap to pop, silly putty, wall crawlers, and a different stress toy. Add and subtract things as you need to so you have the most helpful toolbox for your child.
After a moment, you respond gently “I know you’re worried about your math test. You’ve studied really hard and I know you want to do your best. Every week you worry that you’ve failed, and then you always get at least an 80%. Let’s try to figure out something you can do to relax before you head into school. Let’s take a look at your coping skill toolbox. What do you want to try?”
She takes a shaky breath and says “Bubbles make me happy. Let’s try that.”
After a few minutes, she grabs her backpack, calmer and ready to take on her day.
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