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Coping Skills for Kids with Anxiety: Teach Your Kid to Face Their Fears with Scaffolding

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In this video, you’re going to learn about coping skills for kids with anxiety. You’ll learn how to coach your child through anxiety and help them overcome it.

We’ll talk about the skills to break tasks down into steps they can accomplish and then feel super proud of themselves as they grow and develop an internal sense of resilience. And I’m going to give a bunch of examples of how I coached kids to overcome their anxiety. 

The Fundamentals of Teaching Kids to Cope with Anxiety

OK, so just to summarize- In the first video in this series, we talked about the foundation of your greenhouse, your mindset- you can model for your kids “It’s ok to feel anxiety, but we can choose our actions”.

In the second video, we talked about creating a safe environment for your kid to face their fears and the #1 most important thing is to create emotional safety for them. This is like the plastic cover on a greenhouse.

It provides warmth while the plants grow and face challenges. You do this by connecting with them as they go through their fears, not shaming them, not trying to change how they’re feeling or protecting them from having those feelings. 

Connecting with your child is the ultimate form of safety as you demonstrate to them that they can handle challenges. 

In this video we’ll take it to the next step, you’ll learn how to help your child grow through anxiety.

So let’s stick with the Greenhouse analogy for a while, remember the goal of a greenhouse- it’s not just just to keep plants safe.

And our goal as parents isn’t just to prevent our kids from feeling anxiety. The goal of a greenhouse is to help plants to grow up to be functional, healthy, and productive on the outside. And the way gardeners do this is by creating safety for plants from extreme temperatures in the short term while building plants’ strength in the long run. 

If plants grow up in an environment that is too “Safe” if there’s no wind, they become “leggy”, long and tall and thin. They seem to grow fast, but in reality, they are very fragile. They won’t function well on the outside. 

So instead the gardeners in a nursery gradually introduce more and more challenges to plants as they grow to help them be ready to live outside.

This is called “hardening off”. They use fans to constantly force the plants to grow stronger, the wind helps the stalks grow thicker to be more resilient.

They let the greenhouse get gradually colder to strengthen its stems and leaves, they separate the plant from other plants by repotting it so that it can stand on its own, and they decrease the humidity so that the plant can go longer and longer between waterings.

Finally, they gradually start putting the plants outside, for short periods initially, and then for longer and longer periods which helps the plant adjust to bright sun, cold dark nights, and hot days.

Eventually, the plants have grown strong and tall and are ready to thrive when they are transplanted into the outdoor garden. The same thing goes when parenting a child with anxiety, the goal is to structure tasks around growth. 

How to coach a child through anxiety with scaffolding

There are 4 main steps to coaching our children through anxiety and helping them develop coping skills. 

  1. Connect with them emotionally, this means validate without judging them or their feeling (we talked about this in the last video)
  2. Break the task down into baby baby baby steps
  3. Help them practice the skill
  4. Give them plenty of attention when they face a fear

So now I’m going to teach you all about how to break tasks down into baby steps and as we do that, there’s 4 keys. 

Key #1. The best accommodations help people accomplish the task, not escape it. For example, if your child has test anxiety- Instead of asking for accommodations to avoid tests, help them learn the skills to take tests (and manage their fears around failure). 

To do this, it’s really important for you as a parent to learn to break tasks down into small, baby steps. We often assume that they already know how to do whatever challenge they’re facing and they’re just being dramatic or trying to get out of something, but they often don’t know what to expect and they don’t have simple skills to manage the situation. We’re going to go into a lot of detail on how to do that.

#2 is to structure tasks so that children spend more time in the learning zone.

We don’t want our kids to get stuck in their comfort zone, where they’re avoiding difficulties as this can make them less resilient over time, but we also don’t want them to get thrown into tasks too big for them to handle all at once, this can lead to feeling overwhelmed or panicked. It’s not that getting overwhelmed or panicky occasionally will harm them in the long run, but it simply doesn’t help them learn and be more resilient. 

#3. It’s totally ok to feel nervous while doing something new, it’s actually great because it primes your brain to learn.  When your child feels nervous, but then succeeds at facing their fears, her brain is more plastic and rewires to believe that she is capable. And her anxiety decreases over time. Your mantra here is “It’s ok to feel scared, anxious, or nervous. But we can choose our actions”  

#4. Practice and repetition can be key. Don’t move on to the next step until they’ve mastered the first one and it’s starting to be a bit boring for them. Sometimes they learn a skill quickly, and with some tasks, it takes a lot of slow repetitions. 

Break Down Big Tasks Into Tiny Skills To Practice

OK, so how can we break down big tasks into tiny skills to practice? Here are a few ways. 

  • Watch examples of other people doing it
  • Pretend play with characters doing
  • Imagine yourself doing it
  • Practice the skills in their tiniest forms, so that you build competence, break the task down into very small steps or decrease the duration or intensity of a task
  • Add in support to accomplish tasks instead of building in escapes or distractions. So, for example, “I know you feel nervous to talk in front of the class by yourself, what if someone held your hand while you do it?” They’re still facing the scary task, but they can do it with support for a while and then 
  • Eventually, they can do the entire task on their own. 

Remember, you and your child can learn the skill of facing fears. It’s a skill that can be learned. But it may take practice. With one of my daughters we have literally practiced it hundreds of times for various situations, but she’s totally becoming more and more confident with time. 

Practice each tiny skill over and over again until it is easy, boring, and slipping into the comfort zone,  pay close attention to what zone your child is in then you can take it up a notch. 

Here's How You Can Coach Your Kid Through Anxiety

OK, so let’s go through some examples of how you could practice these steps.

Here’s what I did with my own Anxious Child.  

Once when I had a newborn and a 3-year-old, we went to “Free Day at the museum” it was packed, super crowded, and as we took the elevator to the 5th floor, I’m navigating all the people and getting the stroller with the baby out, and before I knew it, the doors closed on the elevator with my three-year-old in it and it went straight down, I didn’t know which floor it stopped on, where she got out or how to find her. We were reunited in about 5 minutes, but of course, this was pretty scary for both of us! And my daughter never wanted to ride an elevator again. She would literally cry and scream if we saw one, and she always wanted to take the stairs. So we practiced with baby steps.

  • We looked at pictures of elevators
  • We talked about elevators and the time she got separated
  • We played elevators with her toy characters
  • Then we were getting ready to go to the library, which has an elevator and I thought, this would be a good chance to practice riding in an elevator. So I predicted it, I told her beforehand everything that we would do, what to expect, etc. 
  • Now I added support while doing the task: 
    • We tried riding the elevator while I carried her.
    • Then I gradually removed the support. Then we tried it while holding two hands. I’m constantly checking her to see if she’s in the growth zone, she’s doing good. 
    • Then we tried it while holding one hand a few times. Each time I said to her “Wow! You were nervous, but you did it anyway! I’m so proud of you!” Great job!” 
    • Then we did it without holding a hand. 
  • Now she’s not afraid of elevators anymore. 

Another Example of Teaching a Kid to work through Anxiety

Let’s do another example. A 3rd grader is afraid of presenting in class. He gets terrified, he gets sick to his stomach, and says he never wants to go back to school. How can his parents and teacher help him? As parents, your instinct is to ask the teacher to not make him present in class, but resist that urge. Instead, help him rise to the occasion. The first step is to show him empathy, say “Yeah that makes sense to feel anxious, it’s really hard for a lot of people to present in public” or “I felt like that when I was a kid too.” But we will help you. You can do this.” And then you break the task down. 

Here are some ways you can help him develop the ability to cope with anxiety and overcome those fears. 

  • Let him watch other kids do it and make observations
  • Watch some youtube videos of kids doing presentations or teaching how to give a presentation
  • Practice presenting at home in front of parents. And you might have to break this down into tiny tiny steps- what to put on the board, how to use notes, how to stand, whether or not to make eye contact, etc. 
  • Practice in the classroom without students
  • Practice with just the teacher there. 
  • Practice answering a question that he and the teacher arranged ahead of time
  • And remember, what you’re practicing isn’t necessarily the “perfect presentation” it’s actually practicing tolerating a big emotion and saying it’s ok to feel that, look you handled feeling anxious and did the presentation anyway.
  • You could choose to add IN some support- like having a parent, peer or aide sit up there with him. 

Make a a big deal when your child does something courageous

It’s important to give them tons of attention (which is a child’s currency) when they face their fears. Highlight it. The way the brain works is what you pay attention to, you get more of. 

Wow, how does that feel? You did it! What was that like for you? You faced that fear and did so well! You went to preschool- did you do anything fun?

Remember how from the first video we talked about mindset, how our kids look to us to know how to interpret a situation? When you show them that they can handle their fears, and praise them for facing their fears, they begin to really prioritize courage as a trait. They feel excited to face their fears and happy when they do it and this builds resilience in them over time. This is the opposite of prioritizing “Not feeling anxious” as a life goal which leads to a lot of avoidance and more anxiety. 

Long story short – this process works. Before long, they’ll start coming home from school excited to tell you about the challenge they faced that day and how courageous they were. 

You got this mom and dad, you can totally do this. 

OK, in the next post,  we’re going to talk about a handful of other tools you can use to help your kid with anxiety, so stay tuned. 

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