A pediatrician first gave me a method for dialing down anxiety: Minimize the situation. He said if I could help my girl make it smaller or simpler, she would be better able to handle it. I wasn’t to dismiss her anxiety. Rather, it was to help her see her situation as manageable. A common example parents use with preschoolers when the kiddo doesn’t want to eat something is asking for only a bite or two. The same strategy can be used on a lot of things. A book report doesn’t have to be on War and Peace; it can be Winnie the Pooh. Getting ready to go out doesn’t have to be a “together” wardrobe. It can be PJs and slippers – something said daughter once wore on a visit to the sagely pediatrician. Break it into parts is a corollary. Since those early years of parenting I’ve spent over twenty years in elementary school classrooms, a number of them with the entire class composed of gifted children. So I have a couple of my own strategies to share.
Breaking it into parts works well with school projects, or cleaning a room, or planning a birthday party. A child that is anxious about making friends in a new situation might be coached to just say “hi” to one person or watch a few of the kids the first day out. Then the next day the child might bring something of interest to the situation to share – a game, picture, book, etc.
Don’t meet anxiety with anxiety. As soon as you respond to an anxious child, you telegraph whether or not you agree that this is a situation that merits anxiety. Respond with calm. If warranted, ask for details; help the child think it through. If it is especially serious, such as bullying, the problem might not be something the child can deal with; it might need adult intervention to reach a solution.
Offer another perspective. This is a take off of the old, ”Eat your vegetables. Children in other parts of the world are starving.” I’m not suggesting this particular example. For most of our children, things could be worse on most all fronts. However, thinking about this might just increase anxiety. Rather, one might offer other perspectives or less severe ones. The child is anxious about friends. Shift the perspective to the other children. Can he/she figure out another child or children in the class, scout troupe, etc. who might also be looking for friends? The focus shifts from self to others. Even bullies can be understood as cowards or at the very least so insecure as to need to tear others down to build themselves up. I love How the Grinch Stole Christmas to use as a lesson in point of view. What does the same story look like from the point of view of the dog, Max? For Max, the story isn’t much fun, no matter how happy the ending. Max is just worn out! Thinking about an anxious situation from other points of view can change how one feels about it.
Think of alternative strategies. I love to drive but before GPS, I was eaten alive with anxiety over driving to new locations. I have no sense of direction. Then I was told that if I got lost, I could just follow the car in front of me. The car would either get to a more major street where I might figure out where I was, or it would go home. If it went home, I could stop and wait for the next car to follow. This sounded crazy – until I tried it. Now when my GPS doesn’t get me to the right place, I use this strategy. It’s always worked – probably because it takes my mind off the anxiety. Just having a strategy for anxiety helps lessen it.
Physical exertion. I once had a fifth grade student whose single mother moved out with four of his siblings and left him alone in the world. No one could heal that hurt. But the child needed a positive way to manage it. Sometimes he would suddenly get antsy, inattentive, anxious. I would go over to him and say, “Glen, go do some laps.” He would walk out of the classroom building to an area where he could run and I could see him. I told him to run, fast or slow, until he saw my signal. I would let him run until he was spent, then signal him to come in. Sometimes this happened multiple times a day, sometimes only once. When he came in, he was calm and focused.
Have order, organization, and routines in place. Knowing what to expect is critical to dialing down anxiety.
It’s all about finding a way through anxiety, and this also may mean professional help.