Inside: A sensory scavenger hunt for kids to help them break the cycle of anxious or repetitive thoughts. Three steps to help children work through anxious feelings in a healthy way.
Children are wonderfully imaginative and creative. Most of the time, that is a positive thing. However, when children are worried, that same active-imagination can lead to anxious feelings and repetitive and/or intrusive thoughts.
Sometimes children can get fixated on a specific fear, even if that fear makes no logical sense. Other times children can be fixated in a place of worry without knowing exactly why they feel that way.
The fixation on a worry and the repetitive nature of anxious thoughts are two signs that your child’s fear center in the brain is activated. When that happens, the pre-frontal context, the home of rational and logical thought is suppressed.
But that doesn’t mean thinking stops. Quite the opposite. Thoughts race through the brain.
When you think about this from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. Faced with a threat, the brain speeds up, running through all possibilities, even the outlandish ones, and prioritizes thoughts associated with freezing, fleeing, or fighting. Those thoughts are not often solutions for modern worries and so thoughts continue to race as the brain looks for a solution.
How To Help Your Child Reduce Racing Thoughts or Worry
When your child’s fear is about a friend, a worry about school, or perhaps a pandemic, freezing, fleeing, and fighting aren’t the best solutions. But neither are ongoing racing thoughts.
We want to help our kids break the cycle of their racing thoughts, to re-center or ground themselves, and to help them learn how to manage their anxious feelings in a healthy way.
Step One: Acknowledge Their Feelings
Acknowledge your child’s fear or worry. Whether it is a specific fear or a generalized fear, help your child name that worry. Marc Bracket from the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence states that “… labeling your emotions is key. If you can name it, you can tame it.”
This step might begin with you naming what you see if your child is having trouble verbalizing it themselves. And remember that children’s anxiety can take many forms — anger, and sadness, or “clinginess” being two of the more common forms.
“I see that you are banging and throwing things around. It looks like you are mad, is that how you feel?”
“I see that you are wanting to be right next to me. I see that you need extra comfort. Do you feel worried?”
“I see that you are moving slowly and seem out of sorts. Sometimes I can feel worried and I don’t know why. Is that how you feel?”
Acknowledging and naming your child’s emotions helps them in three ways.
- First, it normalizes how your child feels and makes them feel understood.
- Second, it helps your child put a name to confusing feelings, making those feelings less scary.
- And finally, naming a feeling can help children distance themselves from the emotion: This is a worry I have, but this worry is not who I am.
Remind your child that thoughts and feelings come and go. That who they are, their core-self, is more than their thoughts or feelings. This helps children distance themselves from their anxious thoughts and regain a sense of control.
Step Two: Talk About It
Children have amazing imaginations and if you don’t give them factual information, they may make up things that are worse than reality.
Be sensitive to your own child’s age and developmental stage. Give them just enough clear and factual information to satisfy their questions.
For example, let’s say your 4-year-old has developed a fear of tornados and worries about tornados hitting your house. Check out a book from the library that is appropriate for your child’s age about tornados. Read it together and answer their questions.
Talk about how you would know that a tornado is coming and what your plan would be as a family. Involve your child in creating that plan. Maybe even practice that plan together. Help your child focus on what they can control and the factual information instead of their imagined fears. Then, move on to Step 3 to help them immerse in a mindful and sensory activity to break the cycle of anxious thoughts.
This last step is the one we often miss (Step 3 below). Immersing your child in a mindful or sensory activity can help children transition from a place of anxiety to a state of play. And play is the most therapeutic state for them to be in.
If your child does not have a specific fear but instead has a generalized fear, it can be helpful to discuss how anxiety works in the brain. That will give them factual information about anxiety and take away some of the ambiguity of how they feel. For more about that, stay tuned for my post next week where I will write all about anxiety and the brain.
Step Three: Re-Center with Mindful or Sensory Activities
Once your child has been able to acknowledge their worries and they are starting to feel a little more in control and comforted, build on those feelings of strength and comfort by helping them tap back into their core-self. Mindful and sensory activities can help kids re-center because they are immersive experiences that can help to break the cycle of repetitive thoughts.
Mindful breathing, enjoying a warm drink, snuggling with a favorite stuffed animal, or doing something like the sensory scavenger hunt below are all types of activities that can help engage their wonderfully creative minds.
Often, centering activities are sensory — playing in water or taking a bath, exploring nature, doing art, dancing or listening to music– all of these are on my list of re-centering activities.
A Sensory Scavenger Hunt for Kids with Anxious Thoughts
A friend and play therapist told me about this activity, she said “[this is] a “grounding” exercise to help reestablish children in their environment and get out of the boundless world of creativity in their minds that might lead them to worry.” – Renee Johnson, LCMHC
The Sensory Scavenger Hunt takes children through their environment using their five senses and helps them to re-connect to things they enjoy or take comfort in. Invite your child to go on a scavenger hunt using their five senses, “let’s find all of the things you love and love to do using your five senses!”
- First, find five things you love to look at. Write or draw them here. Let’s walk around and take a picture of these five things. This could be things like a stuffed animal collection, a Lego collection, the trees outside, or a drawing.
- Now let’s find four things you love to feel. Things that feel snuggly or things that have different textures. This could be things like a favorite blanket, a pet, or sand in a sandbox.
- Next, let’s find three things that are lovely to smell. This could be fresh laundry, a warm drink, a candle, or a flower.
- What are some sounds around the house that you like? This could be birds, wind chimes, or music.
- Now, what is something that you love to taste? This is a nice end to the hunt because you and your child can share a snack and enjoy thinking about the hunt together.
Put The Printable in Your Calm- Down Center
You can extend this activity by keeping it in their calm-down center or bin. You could put the printable on the wall and along with the five pictures that they took of what they like to look at. Or laminate the printable with the pictures on the back and add it to a calm-down bin. Maybe add a few things from the scavenger hunt to the calm -down center — like a favorite stuffy they liked to feel and some headphones to listen to music.
One key aspect of re-centering activities is that they “ground” your child in their environment and into their core-self. In the places and activities, literally and figuratively, that they take comfort in. This helps to break the cycle of anxious thoughts and brings them back to themselves.
Re-centering activities are an important component of emotion-regulation. It isn’t just about the modulation of the emotion, it is the coming back to oneself and feeling centered that is the important step we often forget.
I hope these activities can help your child with their anxious thoughts and worries. If you are concerned that your child’s anxiety is a more consistent state of mind, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or find a counselor in your area. There are many ways that professionals can help children manage anxious thoughts.