Helping Children with Anxiety
It can be incredibly painful to watch your child struggle with anxiety. My experience is that anxious children are often very bright and sometimes even quite successful in school. However their parents know that what one sees on the outside isn't always the whole story. These smart, popular children may be having troubles with fears at night, avoiding social opportunities, and struggling to get out the door to school each morning. Any time you have to say good-bye to them—whether for a few hours or night out—they may become overwhelmed. They may even have physical problems such as headaches or stomach aches for which their doctor can find no medical reason. Depending on the age of your child, he or she may have problems even letting you know what is wrong.
Don't despair—there is good news. My experience is that childhood anxiety usually responds well to treatment. My approach typically makes use of three therapeutic elements: 1. art and play therapy; 2. cognitive behavioral therapy; and 3. parent coaching.
Whereas adults are facile with words, play is how children express their inner experiences and can be a powerful vehicle for adult-child interaction. Play allows me to create a world with the child that provides safety as well as connects with the child's own interests. Through play and art, experiences can be recreated but with the child in charge of the story. He or she can try out different scenarios. Feelings can be expressed, amplified, and soothed. I have used play therapy with children as young as four and find that children as old as 12 have made good use of this modality.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can open up new paths for a child to discuss his or her inner lives. When blended with art and play therapy, there is lots of exploration of feelings, learning words for feelings, identifying where in the body they may feel their emotions, and trying out the expression of different feelings. I try to help the child to befriend their anxiety—to understand it's role in helping to keep them safe. It can also help to learn to tell the difference between a thought in one's head and a feeling in the body. I may help the child to develop new thoughts to pair with the feelings of anxiety so that they have a new script to tell themselves when anxious. We may explore how, by engaging in different activities, we can actually feel different and I may teach the child ways to calm their body. All of these concepts, while quite complex, when explored in the medium of play and art, can allow even young children greater ability to regulate their strong emotions.
The last element in my approach to the therapeutic treatment of childhood anxiety is parent coaching. As parents, our children's anxiety can elicit our own anxiety as well as other feelings. Part of my work will be to help you to make sense of your own feelings about your child's behavior. This may help you to feel less reactive and more reflective. We will think through together what seems to be helping and where things seem to be stuck so I can tweak our treatment. We can also discuss what sort of homework may be helpful for you to engage in with your child in order to reinforce concepts from therapy.