I’ll never forget the time when I was a small child and I lost my mom while we were shopping in a mall. A paralyzing fear took me over. It was like a heavy scratchy blanket was closing in around me, and I felt like the world might be ending. Many young children would have a similar separation-anxiety reaction. Moments of fear and anxiety are normal for every child to experience. An increasing number of children, however, are experiencing chronic and debilitating anxiety. The difference between regular anxiety and an anxiety disorder is when the intensity and consistency of the anxiety interferes with a child’s life and causes them to have disproportionate responses to things most others cope with easily.1
In the past ten years, there has been a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnosis for children under the age of ten2. All the while, about 1% of children receive treatment during the same year their symptoms surface – an alarming statistic, given the strong correlation between the presence of an anxiety disorder and increased likelihood of failing out of school and/or abusing substances.3 So, what can we do to reverse the trend? How do we reduce the presence of anxiety among our youth and help those children suffering from anxiety get treatment and support?
Tools to Help an Anxious Child
Firstly, it needs to be mentioned that only a qualified mental health care practitioner should assess, diagnose, or treat an anxiety disorder. There is not a quick or simple fix for the growing levels of anxiety in our culture or in our youth. The factors involved in our societal mental health are complex and beyond the scope of this post. However, a few key themes emerge in the relief of anxiety and can be implemented by anyone working with a young person suffering from anxiety:
The Child Mind Institute found that kids with supportive families that practice positive communication styles tended to do better in their recovery from anxiety.4 It is critical to provide a safe and stable home with a reliable routine.5
It is important to pay attention to and engage with a child’s feelings. Praise the child for their accomplishments and avoid doling out consequences or punishment for their anxiety. Positive affirmation goes a long way in the face of anxiety.
It is important to encourage positive coping skills and build up a child’s self-esteem. Intentionally pursue activities and communication that builds self-confidence.
A great way to dispel the strength and rapid growth of anxiety among youth is to educate yourself on how anxiety works, how to identify it, and how to handle it. A few good online resources include:
The National Institute of Mental Health
The Role Improv Plays in Anxiety Relief
The primary components that can help relieve anxiety – connectivity, engagement, growth and education – are all social skills that can be strengthened by practicing applied improvisation. The Yes/And principle in improv, the commitment to accepting another’s ideas in a scene and positively adding your own, demonstrates the practice of unconditional positive regard.
Unconditional positive regard has massive therapeutic benefits for those suffering from anxiety, which is why many therapists – like Mark Pfeffer, the director of the Panic and Anxiety Recovery Center in Chicago – incorporate applied improvisation into the treatment plans of their patients. Beyond the therapy of play that improv provides, improvisation groups and workshops can help children and the families of children suffering from anxiety exercise the skill sets that have proven most effective in the treatment and relief of anxiety and anxiety disorders. I would love to help you bring these tools to your location, simply reach out.