An opinion piece contributed by a caring community member.
It’s tempting to try to use logic to calm our kids down when the worry monster takes over. You may try to reassure your child that “Everything is going to be okay” or say “I’m here for you and I love you” or provide comfort with words like “There is nothing to worry about, trust me.” Unfortunately, even when said with the best of intentions, logic often fails to alleviate anxiety in the short-term.
When logic doesn’t soothe the soul, it’s time to try responding to your child’s anxiety with sensory calming techniques. In fact, you can practice these with your child when they are calm and focused, making it into a game or a regular part of your special time together.
Some of the most effective sensory techniques are based on proprioceptive input. Huh? I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it basically translates to one’s ability to sense where the body is located in relation to other things. For example, you use proprioception any time you sit down, lean against something, jump, or even chew gum. The good news is that proprioceptive feedback can often be calming to the nervous systems when a child is feeling anxious.
How does it work? There are many ways to get this kind of physical input. You will find that your child may prefer some types of techniques and reject others, which is fine—let him or her do whatever works best. In many cases, it will be most effective if you do the activity together. Here are a few suggestions to offer when your child becomes anxious:
- Swing on a swing set.
- Jump on a trampoline, or do jumping jacks.
- Lean against an adult’s leg or arm.
- Ask an adult to rub the child’s back.
- Ask for a bear hug.
- Chew a piece of gum or something that requires crunching, like pretzels.
- Wrap up in a blanket or quilt.
- Push against a wall or doorway (as if trying to knock it over).
These activities can be appropriate for preschoolers, school-age children, or teenagers, with minor adjustments depending on the environment. Preschoolers, who are too young to understand why these actions are calming, will need to be gently redirected into a sensory activity. These young children can also be taught how to do a “monster walk” with long, heavy, plodding steps, which will have the effect of giving their bodies input about the connection between ground and feet. Older children and teenagers will probably prefer to use techniques that are subtler so that their behavior doesn’t draw attention. For them, a technique like leaning on a wall or crunching on a snack can be effective without seeming obvious.
It’s important to keep in mind that during an experience of anxiety, your child may not be open to trying anything new. Rather than saving these techniques for anxious situations, the best approach is to gradually incorporate them into everyday life. For younger children, pick one or two techniques to practice together as a fun game, such as “monster walks” or pushing a wall as “the strongest person in the world.” For older children, model your own use of similar techniques. For example, let your son see that Dad chews gum when he feels nervous. Older kids might be willing to try some role-playing (together with you) or visualization (on their own) as a way to “practice” using calming techniques in an anxious situation.
Sensory calming techniques can became a routine way to address anxiety before it becomes overwhelming. The more your child practices these techniques at home, the more he or she will begin to integrate them into a personal toolbox of coping mechanisms to use out in the world. Along with a listening ear and (if needed) the support of a counseling professional, sensory calming techniques can help your child ride out the storms of anxiety and come out smiling.