My 5 best strategies for calming anxiety in kids without using medication.
“20 years of being a Special Education teacher and parent of an autistic child with anxiety, has allowed me the opportunity to discover ways to reduce anxiety in kids without using medication. Childhood anxiety can be crippling for those involved. Read on to discover my best methods for maintaining calm in young people that anyone can use themselves with limited costs.”
“Imagine a household with no anxiety or a classroom without stressed teachers or students. An environment where fears don’t exist, but skills and confidence do ………. Read on, you just might be able to experience it”.
Over the past 20 years I have seen up close and personal how a child’s life can be affected by anxiety. At first, I would see it each day at work in my role as a special education teacher, but since having a son diagnosed with autism and anxiety, I now get to witness it all the time. I have seen first-hand how it can play a crippling part in the lives of school children, both from a teacher’s point of view and through the eyes of a parent.
Wow how things can change!
Once upon a time it was me speaking to the parent of a child who hugged mum’s legs and wouldn’t let go at classroom drop off time. I would watch the angst on a parent’s face as they watched many of the other kids wander into class and happily play with their friends whilst their own child would cling to their leg and not let go.
And then wham!
I suddenly became that parent! Trying to drop my own clinging limpet, with separation anxiety clearly evident for all to see, off to their class teacher before madly trying to get to work on time with a clear head and an ability to focus on my job. Not an easy task after already experiencing an emotionally draining morning at home with an anxiety riddled child.
As a teacher, I would then watch and empathise with parents of my students who were going through the exact same thing that I had just experienced with my own child.
And the stories could go on. From both a teacher and parent’s perspective. Taking my son to basketball and not making it out of the car to even walk on the court! Even after I said, “hang on a minute, you got out of the car last week and played. So why won’t you this week?”
It made no sense to me at all!
He would put up a wall and the conversation would go nowhere.
After work, I would drive to the local soccer ground and set up training drills for the commencement of my daughter’s Under 10 soccer team, of which I am the coach. When training starts, I’m approached by a mother looking distressed. “I’m sorry” says the mother, “but I can’t get my son out of the car. He has spotted kids in the group that he doesn’t know and he is refusing to come and train”.
Now I won’t bore you with more and more stories about my time watching fear and anxiety unfold over the years as the list goes on. I think even my dogs have it, but that’s another story 😊
Does this make me an expert in diagnosing children with anxiety and guaranteeing the best solutions to “cure” them?
But it has made me determined to find the best sensory products and methods to improve children’s abilities to live with, manage and reach their potential whilst constantly facing the battle that anxiety presents.
What I did learn pretty fast over the years was that I needed to look darn hard to find things to not only help my own son manage his autism and anxiety (yes, the two often go hand in hand), but also help me manage students in my own class so that I too did not go stark raving mad by being surrounded by this whole anxiety thing both day and night.
And for all you teachers out there,
I am sure you will agree………. If the class is loud, crazy, jumping around and up and out of their seat or running around the room, then it makes for long tiresome days at the coal face!
How do I know this?
Well, I’ve been there! And it isn’t fun! So, teachers you also may want to read on as many of the effective products that help deal with a child’s anxiety, may also assist in calming and focussing a child with adhd or managing an autistic student in your class.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s normal response to stress and can be your body preparing itself for something to come. So, in small levels anxiety can be a good thing.
So, when is anxiety not good? When does anxiety become a “bad” thing?
Some words from people who live with it every day……….
“The altered breathing, the extreme level of nervousness and uncertainty”
“Not wanting to leave home and explore new things, home is my safe place”
“The constant tightness in my chest, the voices in my head, the thought that people are always judging me about what I’m wearing and what I’m looking like”
“Not wanting to go places because I don’t know what the place look like”?
“The lack of confidence in myself and always putting myself down, worrying that I’m not good enough”
Child with Anxiety Symptoms
It is normal for children to feel worried or anxious in certain situations such as starting at a new school or moving to a new home. However, when anxiety and worry is constantly present and affecting a child’s social life, schooling and home life, then it is time to seek some professional advice.
If it’s affecting their thoughts and behaviour every day, then it’s time to seek help.
Child with anxiety symptoms – look out for these!
- Has difficulty with concentration
- Always crying
- Clinging to parents/familiar adults often
- Frequently going to the toilet
- Constantly worrying or thinking negative thoughts
- Having bad dreams
- Waking in the middle of the night
- Wanting to sleep in parent’s bed
- Bad dreams
- Not eating properly
- Gets irritable easily, fluctuating emotions, limited coping skills and being out of control in outbursts
- Often feeling tense, fidgeting and unable to keep still
- An elevated heart rate and rapid breathing
Anxiety- It is more common than you may think!
Research conducted by Roy Morgan in 2019 involved in depth interviews into the homes of 50,000 Australians.
It discovered back then the alarming mental health issues of Australians by age group.
Source: Roy Morgan Single Source Australia, July 2018-June 2019
The “big 3” were stress, anxiety and depression.
The study by Roy Morgan also looked at the number of Australians with mental health conditions over the last decade.
This study found stress was the most prevalent mental health issue, but anxiety was the fastest growing.
That has continued to grow.
Anxiety is now the most common mental health condition in Australia, affecting approximately 25% of teenage boys and 30% of teenage girls.
- 5-16% of school aged children have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – anxiety is most common in children with SPD.
- Nearly 1 in every 50 children have autism (ASD) – although anxiety may not be considered a core feature of ASD, studies show that nearly 40% of young people with ASD have clinically elevated levels of anxiety or an anxiety related disorder.
Parents if you don’t have a child with anxiety, there’s a good chance you know someone close who does.
Teachers, if you don’t have kids in your class displaying symptoms of anxiety then I dare say you are not looking closely enough.
Again, for teachers……. if you do not have an autistic child in your class then you sure will soon! 1 in nearly 50 have it!
Remember also that nearly 40% of those autistic children will have an anxiety disorder.
So, teachers and parents get prepared.
How to help your child with anxiety
It is important to know that many children will have anxiety at different stages in their lives but most of these times things will sort out themselves after some reassurance.
However, seek professional advice for anxiety in children if things do not get better, get worse or it is affecting their school, family or friendships. This will also give you as the parent some reassurance.
If your child is suffering anxiety there are things you can do to help.
It is really important that you talk to your child about their anxiety and worries.
Read here for more information about how to help an anxious child, including information on the six most common types of anxiety disorders in school aged children. mental-health
In 20 years of teaching and 11 years of parenting, here are 5 ways I have managed anxiety in my own children and calmed anxiety in kids at school.
How to calm anxiety?
Create a sensory space – By far one of the most important things to construct is a sensory room or sensory space.
This will be a game-changer for both parents and teachers!!
If you are a parent this space may involve all of your child’s bedroom or at the least a part of it. For you teachers out there this may be a small sensory space in a corner of your class.
Either way, it is a space where a child is not only able to retreat to be alone, but a secluded area where they can relax, feel safe and have sensory things on hand to give them the sensory input their bodies often crave when anxious.
The important thing to remember when creating your sensory space is exactly that:
– make it sensory.
By that I mean it must appeal to the senses which are either touch, taste, smell, sight or sound.
The key is to provide sensory options so that each individual can look after and satisfy their own unique sensory requirement.
For example, a set of headphones in a sensory space may be used by one child to block out noise, whereas another student may use these for soothing music or even a loud sound.
Once again, provide choice!
Along with this, the space should be secluded and private, or at least offer some degree of privacy where the child can detach and remove themself from the environment they are in, which may be causing the anxiety.
In most homes the ideal place is the child’s bedroom, whereas at school this may be a sectioned off corner in the classroom which can easily be created by using corner walls and bookcases which can make an enclosed, secret space where observation from a distance by the teacher is not too difficult.
The “reading corner” has been a key component of classrooms for ever and a day. Now just go ahead and utilise that space and transform it into a “sensory reading corner”.
You will get the double benefit of providing further motivation for kids to read.
Trust me they will be begging you for the chance to be in the top 5 children in the class to complete activities or read books in the “sensory cave” or even perhaps the “skull cave” (this name was chosen by a group of boys with behavioural issues who had previously suffered trauma, that I once taught in a mainstream school setting).
They loved the space and the fact they had named it themselves.
For those that don’t know, the “skull cave” is the secret hideout of the comic character Phantom which is behind a waterfall in the deep woods of Bengalla.
My point is – call your sensory space what you like, but kids love it and get some ownership over it when they name it. The more input they have into naming the space and what things go in it the better.
These sensory spaces are ideal tools to bring children down from a heightened state of anxiety, or even better…………. when you see a child beginning to get into an anxious state you can ask them to have some time in their sensory space.
Remember, prevention is better than cure.
So read the signs! If you see it eventuating (that heightened state of anxiety), get them there early!
Don’t wait until it’s a meltdown or you have lost your own cool.
To create your sensory space to calm anxiety in children at home or school try these simple steps:
- A sensory space to calm anxiety should start from the ground up. Make sure the air is cool – this may be an air-conditioner in the room or a cooling fan that blows cool air across the space. Simply by cooling the body temperature quickly you will see a huge reduction in the amount of times anxiety leads to full on meltdowns. It will also promote improved sleep.
- Place on the ground a plush pony rug – these things are the best! They are the most “ultra-soft feeling” rugs I have ever felt. You will want one in every room! Good quality ones can cost about $200-$300 but worth every cent and may even be purchased under NDIS funding for some individuals.
- In one corner of the sensory space add a Kloudsac with a faux fur sensory cover- these foam filled, sensory bean bags are great for school areas and homes. They enclose around the child giving them the perfect place to relax, rest, read or even sleep. Just watch their faces when they slump into them!
- Sensory toolbox – These are easy and a must-have for your sensory space.
Just get a whole lot of sensory items (whatever you can get your hands on) and place them in a cheap old toolbox, or just throw them in a box.
Be sure to put in your toolbox a range of items to satisfy the senses and cater for the range of sensory issues individuals may have.
If you don’t want to search around lots of different websites and would like to find a whole lot of sensory items for your sensory space in the one place, click here.
- Wobble cushions – these are tactile, air-filled sensory cushions that move and therefore engage a child’s core muscles in order to maintain stability.
Just by standing on them, or even sitting, you can class yourself as exercising!
They are also great for the kids in the class who find it difficult to sit on the mat and listen to instruction.
Once they sit on a wobble cushion, they can not only satisfy their need to move, but also follow your instruction of staying in the one spot and listening.
Perfect for those with adhd or kids we all have in our class who just “need to move”.
- Weighted toys – get some kid’s weighted toys in your sensory room.
They make great friends for the anxious kids.
In fact, get a range of weighted products in your sensory space.
Choose from weighted koalas, elephants, snakes or sloths along with other items such as weighted blankets, weighted throw rugs and weighted vests.
The bottom line is…… if it’s weighted, it will help with reducing anxiety in children.
If you want to take a look at a huge range of weighted animals and other weighted products, click here.
- Sensory swings – also called therapy swings, nest swings, pod swings and various other things but the bottom line is that they are the bomb!
They wrap around the person, soothing their often over-stimulated senses, allowing them to feel safe.
The children get instant privacy as they can wrap totally around the user, along with added sensory stimulation and pressure similar to a gentle hug.
They are the perfect addition to any sensory space and add an awesome element to “reading corners” to entice reluctant children to practice reading.
Simply hang from an eyebolt in the ceiling and it can swing in the centre of your enclosed, private sensory space or reading corner.
Sensory swings may be purchased under NDIS funding for many participants. Click here to purchase sensory swings.
- Get air conditioning:
Looking back now, this is probably the first thing I should have installed in my child’s bedroom which was also the location of his sensory space.
I baulked at the cost initially and tried other less costly options.
A good quality 2.5 KW unit for a small bedroom was going to set me back around $1000 plus installation, which is why I shied away from buying.
At the time, I probably didn’t realise the extent that it would help my child with their anxiety.
If your child suffers anxiety, over-heating, tantrums, meltdowns, then my advice is to get air-conditioning in a room now!
You will soon forget the $1500 it may have cost you when the quality of life for your son or daughter, along with your household sanity increases exponentially.
My child’s anxiety issues clearly brought on increases in body temperature.
He would lay ice packs on his tummy of a night or wrap himself in a cool gel mat from the pet store that he would place in the freezer during the day and wrap around himself at night in bed to sleep.
One day I asked some students at school with ASD and anxiety issues if they used anything to help them sleep at night.
2 boys told me they would place ice packs on their chests in bed at night. That’s when the penny finally dropped and I made the decision to air-condition the room.
It was the best decision in the world. It has been life changing for him!
It has been the one decision that has had so many beneficial flow-on effects. He now gets a better sleep at night, is more willing to go to his sensory space when he needs it and does not get agitated as much on a normal day after spending some time in this room.
The cool space is even more important when school days are on.
The anxiety that builds up from a stressful day just being at school, quickly evaporates after jumping out of the car, ripping off the school uniform to something light and comfortable and laying back in his air-conditioned sensory room.
The only problem now is making it from school to the sensory room in the anxiety fuelled car. Maybe an article on how to survive that will be soon!!
The bottom line – air-condition your sensory room now!!
- Visual schedules and cue cards – these are fantastic tools for teachers and parents.
Visual schedules allow the child to clearly see what is happening next in their day.
They allow children to look at what is happening in their day as many times as they need to.
When autistic children and those with anxiety issues can plan their day out and see in front of them how it will transpire, it reduces anxiety. This in turn reduces the chance of non-desirable behaviours eventuating, including constant questioning, meltdowns or tantrums.
At home a visual schedule may involve simply putting a weekly timetable on your fridge – this might include such things as:
“what’s on at school”
“items to pack each day for school”
“what we are eating for dinner tonight”.
Most importantly – be guided by your child. Look out for what is causing their anxiety and design your visual schedule or cue cards around that.
This may change over time as you realise new things your child is having difficulty with.
If your child is refusing a certain task, or constantly questioning you over something, then consider adding that to your visual schedule.
Remember it may seem an easy task to us – “just go and get ready for school” we might say.
But to an autistic child, the list of possibilities in choosing what to wear, which tasks to do first or what items to pack in their school bag can quite quickly become overwhelming.
As an adult we know that when we have a huge list of things to do, we can get anxious, stressed and it can be overwhelming.
Many people benefit by writing a list and ticking off our list as we complete each task.
This serves to soothe our anxiety and allow us to focus purely on completing one task before starting our thought processes on the next task.
This is no different from children, who often become overwhelmed more easily.
The “lists” that adults create serve the same purpose as visual schedules do for many children, in that they reduce anxiety by eliminating many of the things we “could” be thinking about and allowing us to focus on one task at a time before moving on to the next.
A visual schedule does not have to be expensive.
You can google them, print one off that suits your needs and then simply laminate (if you want it to be erasable each day/week/month). You can even make your own magnets and labels to custom design your own if you have the time and effort.
If you don’t have the time to do this you can purchase visual schedules online. If you are an NDIS participant many of these can be purchased free in your NDIS plans.
Read sourcekids for more information on ways visual schedules can assist children.
- Deep Touch Pressure and Compression – Deep touch pressure provides tactile sensory input. It is provided to a person most commonly in the forms of squeezing, hugging, pressing or holding.
There is research to say that it works in calming anxiety and it is widely used by Occupational Therapists for people with autism.
Deep pressure touch and compression has been proven to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) in the body.
There are a wide range of products designed to provide compression and deep pressure touch including compression clothing, weighted products, resistance bands, neck wraps and pea pods.
From a practical point of view, I have seen the amazing benefits of deep pressure in controlling anxiety and avoiding meltdowns.
As a teacher in a special school, I quickly had to learn ways to calm over-stimulated and stressed individuals who often teetered on the edge of meltdown throughout their school days.
In the early days in a primary special education classroom “bear hugs” were the go-to method when it was obvious a child needed deep pressure.
However, as I transitioned into the high school setting where there were kids bigger than me, and the need to distance oneself when administering deep pressure to older students -for obvious reasons, I had to discover alternative and appropriate ways to deliver deep pressure touch and compression in a classroom environment.
Along the journey I found some brilliant ways to manage anxiety in the classroom. A large Fitball was used to calm a 15-year-old autistic boy. He would lay on the floor face down while I sat all of my 93kg frame on the Fitball and rolled it up and down his entire body.
The heavier the better he thought as he shrieked in delight under the big weight.
We also had a supply of sensory resistance bands in the room.
Our “daily” movement sessions were conducted in the morning when students arrived at school and after every lunch break – this was discovered to be the times in the day when many students had heightened levels of anxiety, either from the worry of starting the school day or the stress and anxiety brought back in from the school yard.
The movement sessions using resistance bands were amazing. We even managed to incorporate sensory body socks and resistance bands into school literacy sessions. Students would climb inside their sensory body socks and resistance bands in order to practice writing their names with their own limbs –
movement + literacy + deep pressure = happy and more educated students.
And peace for the teacher!
A win all-round.
For teachers and parents out there:
But the list of possibilities that one can do with these simple products is endless. More about the value of deep pressure touch and compression, including sensory compression clothing can be found here.
- Best essential oils for anxiety – many essential oils do assist in helping to calm anxiety. Essential oils are not new. They have been known to have a calming affect on the brain and central nervous system and have been used for thousands of years to treat and alleviate various kinds of illnesses and ailments.
Essential oils are a natural and easy way to assist in the treatment of anxiety. They are a suitable addition to an overall, holistic treatment plan.
Many essential oils have become popular in recent times, particularly ones containing high levels of linalool https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linalool. Lavender is high in linalool and is popular in reducing anxiety, but other scents frequently chosen to destress and calm individuals include Rose, Bergamot, Vetiver, Ylang Ylang, Roman Chamomile, Sweet Orange, Frankincense, Melissa (lemon balm), Clary Sage and Neroli.
Whilst using essential oils for the management of mild anxiety might be suitable, it is not recommended that this be the only treatment method for moderate and severe anxiety. www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/anxiety/treatment/
For teachers and parents out there:
The use of diffusers in classrooms and homes can be an effective way of dispersing a calming fragrance throughout the room. But before rushing out there and filling your classroom or bedroom with diffuser scents consider these things:
- The response from different individuals will vary, so what appeals as a lovely, calming fragrance for one child may present as a repulsive, overbearing smell for another.
- many students have sensory issues and may not like any fragrances at all in the room. Best to check with them first!
- although essential oils are not considered medicine, they are “therapeutically active” so you may want to get parental permission first. This is after you have checked with your Principal!!
- Consider where you place any diffuser in your home or classroom. They can easily be knocked over in your sleep if near the bed and we all know the danger that may present if mischievous students in your class get their hands on them.
In Australia, essential oils that make therapeutic claims are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA)
So, there you have it.
The “management of anxiety road” is a long and windy one, with plenty of ups and downs along the way.
I do not guarantee the things mentioned within this article will “cure” anxiety.
The strategies and products discussed are merely those that have worked for me over the journey.
It is often a “trial and error” situation both as a parent and as a teacher, as everyone’s child is unique and will have their own triggers for anxiety.
Be guided by your children, speak to them regularly about their anxiety and feelings and most of all be a good listener.
It is not weak to speak!
If anxiety is preventing your own or children’s social life, schooling or home-life, then it’s time to seek help.
Most importantly, be aware that you are not alone in tackling the issue of anxiety. At the point of writing this article 49,500 searches of “anxiety” are typed into Google search engines every month and “anxiety symptoms”is searched 18,100 times per month.