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#42: Anxiety Coping Skills for Kids with Jessica Bradshaw

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Having a kid at home who’s struggling with anxiety can be tough. As parents, especially if we’ve dealt with anxiety ourselves, we want to protect our kids and tell them it will all be okay. (That’s how I felt with my son. Like, if I could just get a big roll of bubble wrap for this child, that would be great!) But as I learned while recording this week’s episode, what we really need to do is approach their anxiety head-on, and help them work through it.

Today on the podcast, I sit down (virtually) with my good friend and expert Jessica Bradshaw to talk all about anxiety coping skills for kids that you can start using today. We talk about what’s considered normal nervousness and fear versus what is true anxiety; when you should seek help for your child; and she even shares some really simple, impactful techniques to help your kid cope with anxiety more effectively. Let’s jump in!

Meet Jessica Bradshaw, School Counselor!

Jessica has 12 years of experience in education and 22 years of experience working with children. She was recently named school counselor of the year in 2021-2022 for the Richardson School Division, a large school district in Dallas/Fort Worth. Currently, she works with children from Pre-K to sixth grade or four to twelve-year-olds. Her passion is teaching students coping tools for anxiety and helping them better understand how their brains work. In addition to counseling, Jessica also shares lifestyle and wellness tips through her Instagram and blog at Love You More Too.

In This Episode, We Discuss…

  1. Defining Anxiety For Kids (02:40)
  2. Signs And Symptoms Of Anxiety In Children (04:10)
  3. When To Seek Help For Your Child’s Anxiety (06:20)
  4. How to Help Your Anxious Child (08:45)
  5. Should You Talk About Your Child’s Anxiety In Front Of Them? (09:06)
  6. Techniques To Help Your Kids Manage Their Anxiety (10:15)
  7. The F-E-E-L Technique (14:45)
  8. The Laddering Technique (16:25)
  9. The Mindfulness Technique (17:39)
  10. Anxiety Tools For Kids (19:30)
  11. Activities For Children With Anxiety (23:25)

Listen to the full episode here:

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Episode #42: Anxiety Coping Skills for Kids with Jessica Bradshaw (Complete Transcript)

Kacie: Jessica, hi, welcome.

Jessica: Hi, thanks for having me.

Kacie: I’m so excited to talk to you. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Anxiety is something that we have dealt with in our family, and to me personally. I’m super open to talking about that on my social media, ’cause I think it’s something that can have a big stigma around it. And I’m really glad we’re talking about it for our kids. We actually talked to you a couple of months ago when we were noticing signs with Teddy. I was just like, “Ah, what is your opinion?” And so I’m really glad to have you here today talking to us. I think this episode is going to be really helpful to parents, especially ones who maybe have anxiety themselves or parents who are seeing some signs in their kids but they’re not quite sure. So let’s dive right into it. First off, can you just tell us as a guidance counselor and as somebody who works with kids, what is anxiety for kids?

Defining Anxiety For Kids

Jessica: Absolutely. So I actually work with Pre-K through sixth grade, so I have a variety of ages that I deal with. I start as early as talking to four-year-olds about their brains and how their brains work. I think that really helps kids to understand what having worries or anxieties might look like. We talk about our amygdala and how it’s kind of like a switchboard. When we’re in danger, our amygdala just lights up and we have that fight, flight, or freeze response. They know that sometimes our amygdala will switch on when we’re not in danger, but it thinks we’re in danger. That is really what anxiety is. It’s that amygdala lighting up and kinda taking over and shutting down the rest of the brain. It’s saying, “Nope, I’m taking over right now.” They know that this happens to a lot of people and that it’s very common, but sometimes it can happen more often, and then it doesn’t really keep us safe anymore. It starts to become something that provides a lot of fear when we start having those symptoms of anxiety. And so I think that that’s the best way to explain it.

Kacie: Yeah. I think that’s really helpful. I love teaching kids about how their body works and how their brain works and having them understand it without any judgment. You’re just like, this is what’s happening in the brain.

Jessica: Yeah.

Signs And Symptoms Of Anxiety In Children

Kacie: So how can it show up in kids? What are some of the signs or symptoms that we might see, and what age might this start at?

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. So you can actually start noticing it as young as six months to three years. You see that in separation anxiety. You see it going to daycare for the first time and them crying and having a really hard time self-soothing. This is not uncommon, and there’s nothing necessarily to be concerned with, especially if you have repeated exposures. Most of the time, kids grow out of this by the age of two or three. You sometimes start seeing this moving from separation anxiety to maybe more school-related anxiety as they reach school age. This looks like they’re not wanting to go to school, maybe having some social phobias or fears of things that might happen. Symptoms look very different in every single kid. So often, parents don’t even know their kids are having anxiety because they are complaining of a stomach ache or their head’s hurting, or maybe their muscles are aching, and they just can’t describe it. They just don’t feel well. You see a lot of crying and anger outbursts, which seems very interesting, but that’s actually a very common way that kids show anxiety. Getting angry out of nowhere, not sleeping, or waking up with bad dreams. They may start wetting the bed, worrying, having negative thoughts, and having appetite changes. These can all be related to anxiety.

Kacie: Yeah, okay. That’s really helpful to know. I’ll share personally. With Teddy, we really noticed that it was social related. If he went somewhere new, he was really scared, like crying, would not leave my side. And for me, I was like, “Okay, this seems like more than what other kids might be going through. This seems like a lot because it’s happening all the time.” It was very extreme like he wouldn’t talk in a new setting, and that’s when I was like, “Okay, this feels like something that I need to talk to somebody about.” It can show up in so many different ways. How would a parent know what the difference is between experiencing anxiety–because everybody experiences anxiety from time to time–and having an anxiety disorder or something that needs to be treated?

When To Seek Help For Your Child’s Anxiety

Jessica: It’s also good to note that a lot of the symptoms of anxiety can look like ADHD or a behavior disorder. Sometimes you might think, “oh, they’re exhibiting some of these things,” but it might actually be something different. Like you gave an example with Teddy, where he is unable to participate in activities that other children are, and you’re noticing that that is a huge red flag.

Every kid is gonna have some sort of phobia or be afraid of either the dark or something, and those are normal and typical. It’s when it becomes unrealistic that it can become a problem. So an example might be that your child is worried about getting sick from a disease that they have had absolutely no exposure to, and they are consistently washing their hands because they’re so afraid of getting some weird flesh-eating bacteria that they might have heard of once. And there’s not anybody they know of that has been exposed to it. 

It’s normal for a kid to have test anxiety. They have testing coming up and are getting kind of nervous–but maybe a child refuses to even go to school. Or maybe they’re a third-grader worried about the SAT—a test they don’t even have to take ’till they’re in high school. This would be something out of proportion. It could also show up as them being overly self-conscious. A boy being nervous to talk to girls in his class is typical, but someone with social anxiety might be afraid to even say their order at a restaurant. So if the waiter comes around and the kid is talking, and then they just shut down and can’t speak to another person, that’s unwanted and uncontrollable. Or a kindergartener crying at school ’cause he misses his mom, that’s typical, but a boy with separation anxiety might cry because he can’t stop thinking that something will happen to his mom if he’s away from her. So it’s these very outlandish, out-of-proportion things that can be really hard to understand but are ultimately making your child’s life harder than it should be by limiting the experiences they should have. If participating in soccer or going to school is causing these types of outlandish behaviors, then that’s definitely a huge red flag to talk to the doctor, get some help, and find out what’s going on. Is it anxiety, is it ADHD, is there a behavior issue, and so on…

Should You Talk About Your Child’s Anxiety In Front Of Them? 

Kacie: Would you say that it’s okay to bring it up to the doctor in front of your child? Like, talk about it with them present?

Jessica: It depends on the age. I think part of a kid with anxiety might be terrified to go to the doctor. Having those conversations of, “Hey, you have these big worries, and it’s okay to feel worried, but they’re so big that you feel this way when it comes time to go to school or go to soccer, and it makes you feel really sad. Let’s talk to the doctor about that.” And you can ask them, like, “Do you want just the doctor and me to talk? Is it okay if you’re in the room so that he can ask you questions and you can describe how your body’s feeling?” Just kind of having them be a part of the conversation can be helpful. I think as early as even kindergarten, kids can be more autonomous and speak for what they feel most comfortable with. Ultimately the doctor needs to know, so you have to have that conversation. Allowing a child to know that you’re gonna talk about this with the doctor, can help. Allowing them to talk to the doctor as well can be beneficial, but if they have a meltdown beforehand and it’s a scary moment, you can say, “Okay, you know what, we’re gonna just put that aside for another time,” and you can just talk to the doctor privately about what’s going on.

Kacie: That’s really helpful. Other than reaching out to the doctor and going that route of seeking some help, what are some ways that parents can help their anxious children?

Techniques To Help Your Kids Manage Their Anxiety

Jessica: I think the first thing is just talking to your child about how they’re feeling. Acknowledging that their feelings are valid, that you’re there to support them, and that you wanna keep an open conversation about how they feel can all be very beneficial. You can say, “I know you’re feeling really worried right now,” or, Wow, you seem really scared.” Just acknowledging the way that they’re feeling goes a long way.

Kacie: Before you go on, I just wanna dive into that a little bit more. I feel like growing up, I remember it was so common to hear like, “No, you’re fine,” or, “Don’t worry about that.” And I’m sure people still do that now, ’cause it’s like you don’t want your child to feel upset or worried. I think it’s natural for a lot of parents and adults to wanna say, like, “Don’t worry about that,” or, “You shouldn’t be scared of this.” Is that still common?

Jessica: Yes. It is common. It’s actually a huge what-not-to-say. If you have said it before, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s all about re-educating and re-learning different language to use instead. I think in the past, people have said things like, “Oh, stop worrying, it’s okay. This isn’t a big deal.” I’ve even heard parents say, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re so worried about. It’s fine.” And that is a normal reaction as a mom, a dad, or a caretaker. It’s normal to wanna comfort your child, but if you think back to when you’ve had hard conversations with people, you’ll remember that it’s usually more comforting when someone says, “I’m here for you. Let’s work on this together. How can I help you through this? I know this is hard. You’re safe. I am here. Let’s take some deep breaths together. What is your worry telling you?” One of the biggest techniques I use with kids and parents is personifying worry so that when they get into a worry monster, they give it a name. And so just asking, “What is Phoebe telling you to do? What is Phoebe saying to you right now? Or what is your worry telling you?” So instead of trying to immediately shut down how they’re feeling by comforting them, comfort them by saying, “I’m here for you. You’re okay, we’re gonna work through this together. How can I help you?”

Kacie: I really love that because I do think we have this fear sometimes that if we do validate it, it’s gonna make it bigger, it’s gonna make it stronger, it’s gonna make it keep happening, but I think maybe the opposite can be true.

Jessica: Absolutely, and so just letting them know that what they’re going through is okay and that you’re gonna work through this together. Another technique that’s really helpful is to establish a time a day or week to discuss what your child is worried about. I have a lot of families that make little worry jars. The kid will write down what is worrying them and put it in the jar. Obviously, they’d have to be old enough to write down things. So, whenever they are worried, they put it in the worry jar. Then, at the end of the week, you discuss their worries, you talk through what happened and how it’s going. I know a lot of parents–I think you mentioned this–blame themselves because they have anxiety themselves. So I think that helping get management for your own anxieties is so helpful, so you can model that for your kids. When you’re feeling nervous, you can say, “Cool, I’m feeling really worried about this. I’m really anxious. Let’s take some deep breaths together.” Practicing some of those coping strategies and coping skills together can really show, like, “Hey, I’m going through this too, and I’m gonna name it, and then I’m gonna show you how I’m gonna help myself get through this,” and that helps model it for your kids.

Kacie: That has been huge for me too. By working on my own journey with therapy and working through my own anxiety I’ve noticed that the calmer, more centered, and okay I am, the more energy he feels that way too. And so I try not to blame myself, even though I sometimes do because I’m like, “Ah it’s just like something that’s been with me for so long, and I’m only now learning how to really manage it and work through it, and that’s okay. It’s good that I’m here now.” Even though I am already noticing these signs in Teddy, I’m still able to help. I have noticed a huge difference in calming my own anxiety, and also just being able to separate what is mine and what is his. Do you know what I’m saying?

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely.

The F-E-E-L Technique

Jessica: I like to tell parents to FEEL, so it’s like F-E-E-L. F is for freeze. So, if your kid’s in the middle of feeling anxious, ask them to just freeze, take some deep breaths together. Then E, the first E stands for, empathize. So, empathize and understand it’s scary and let them know you get it. The second E is evaluate. So once you guys have taken the deep breaths together and you’re calm, then you can start to work through some solutions to whatever they’re feeling worried about. And then L is for let go. Let go of your own guilt, this is not you. There’s nothing that you can do but just be there for them and help support them. That is the best that you can do. 

So to just freeze, empathize, evaluate, and let go.

Kacie: Freeze, empathize, evaluate, let go, FEEL. I love that. I think that also can help prevent that escalation. For example, for a naturally more anxious person like me, when he’s having moments of anxiety he could be feeling one way and then I naturally react to that, and then it’s like we climb up this mountain together. But that’s not gonna help diffuse the situation.

Jessica: Yeah, yeah. And you can use it for yourself too. Just taking those deep breaths, freezing and figuring out what the next steps are gonna be, and moving on. 

Kacie: Absolutely. Those are really great tips. 

The Laddering Technique

Jessica: Another technique is laddering. That’s when your kid has a specific fear or something that they’re worried about, and you gradually expose them to it. So, if they’re afraid of dogs, right, you would start off by showing them a photo or a video of a dog online. So you start exposing them to it, and each day you show them a photo. Then after you do that for a bit, you maybe start to read stories about a dog. After that’s feeling good, you can take a walk in your neighborhood, and maybe you see a dog across the street. That’s as close as you get that day. Then just each time, you get a little closer, or a little more familiar to maybe the point where they’re standing in front of the dog. Then that’s it. That’s as much as we’re gonna get. You don’t push it. You just kinda let it happen. Then the next time, maybe you encourage them to use the back of their hand and pat the dog. This technique takes a lot of time, but it really is helpful if someone has a specific fear.

Kacie: Yes, I’m so glad you brought that up. I think that it’s hard to know where to fall within, exposing them to the thing that’s scary. You don’t want them to totally freak out and shut down, but if you’re avoiding it altogether–then they’re not making any progress. Knowing that there are steps that you can take is so helpful. So it’s like they’re confronting a little bit of fear at a time.

The Mindfulness Technique

Jessica: And then mindfulness is huge. If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, I tell all parents to practice it themselves, ’cause it not only helps you, it is also so, so helpful for kids. We do a lot of breathing. We do a lot of yoga together. When a kid’s in the middle of an anxiety or worry attack, my favorite thing to do is grounding. They all think they’re in trouble at first, Like, “Oh, no, I’m grounded.” I’m like, “No.” So you name five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. At that moment–because it tricks your amygdala to kinda shut down and use that prefrontal cortex–you’re out of that worry part of your brain.

Kacie: Yes. Okay, I learned that too, and I can never remember the number of all the things. I get to like five things I can see and then on like four things I can hear. I forget which one is which, but I’m like, “Yeah, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just go with it.”

Jessica: Exactly, At that point, you’re already thinking about it, so you’re kind of getting yourself out of that worry mindset. I always think it’s easier to say the things you can see first, and then the things you can hear, and then touch. It can be your clothes, or how you feel if you’re hot or cold. And then the taste and smell are the hardest, so you kinda have those at the end.

Kacie: Yes, yes. Okay, that makes sense. You know, it reminds me of the work that I do with picky eaters too, ’cause a lot of them experience a lot of anxiety around food, and doing the laddering that you’re talking about can help. So, a person being able to just be near the food and then we’re gonna touch it before we can actually taste it, that is kind of the progressions that we work through too.

Anxiety Tools For Kids

Kacie: So something else I wanted to touch on that I found really helpful with Teddy, and I’m wondering if you recommend this to parents as well, is like, we found and used kid books that talk about anxiety to talk to him about it. I felt like that was an easier way for me to bring it up with him because it gave me the words to use basically.

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. I’ll send you a list that I share with my parents that have age-appropriate books for different age groups. So Pre-K through third grade and fourth through sixth grade, and then books for parents to help understand anxiety, ’cause if you don’t experience it yourself, it might be challenging for you to understand exactly what the kid’s going through. And if you do have it, it can also be helpful for you to understand how you can work through it with your kiddo. So I have some of those books that I will give to you to add to share.

Kacie: Awesome. Yeah, we’ll link those here for people. That would be really helpful. There’s one that Teddy really likes that’s called ‘Anxious Ninja’ because he loves ninjas.

Jessica: I love it. That’s awesome.

Activities For Children With Anxiety

Kacie: But I’m sure you have such good recommendations for us. Are there any other activities that you would say are good for children with anxiety?

Jessica: For sure. I think creating a worry monster can be a good one, and that’s something you guys do together. Whether you draw it, create it out of a paper sack, or just talk about it. You can describe it and give it a name together, or even take a stuffed animal and be like, “This is gonna be your worry monster. So when you’re feeling worried, you can sit down and talk to this monster and kinda get that out.” I think it can be really helpful, especially for younger kids, to have a personified version of their worry. Parents can also help create a checklist of cool-down instructions for when their kids are experiencing anxiety. So, things like taking a deep breath, remembering mindfulness, and a tool that they love to use, whether it’s going outside for a walk, doing some jumping jacks, eating their favorite snack, or drawing a picture. Have different tools that specifically help your kid and list them out in order of 1) take a deep breath, 2) do a mindfulness exercise, and 3) do an activity that you enjoy can help.

Kacie: I love that I just love that we have so many tools and resources available for parents now. I remember reading something about the earlier that you can help them understand and work through their anxiety, the easier time they have with managing it throughout their whole life. It’s like the less ingrained those neural pathways are, the easier it will be to manage.

Jessica: Of course. And so that’s why having these conversations, talking to your kid about their brain, and finding the right books to describe it really helps them understand. It helps them feel like they’re not alone in what they’re going through. It can be something that you work through and overcome together and have strategies that they can use for the rest of their life.

Kacie: Yeah, I didn’t even know the word anxiety probably ’til I was in college. I didn’t even know that it existed.

Jessica: Yeah. Well, and I think it’s just becoming a lot more prevalent. I think the CDC says that 7.1% of kids three to 17 are diagnosed with anxiety. But because a lot of people don’t take their kids to the doctor for whatever reason, it’s actually closer to 20%. So one in five kids have anxiety and are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I think that really puts it into perspective. It’s only growing. And, with everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, it’s increasing even more.

Kacie: Yeah, we tried calling around to find a therapist just to do a consult for Teddy, and people don’t even have waiting lists they’re so full.

Jessica: Yeah. It’s crazy. You’d be surprised at some of the things that just a school counselor can do. Right now, I’m going through testing kids with anxiety in small groups ’cause we have the STAR testing coming up in May. So we are doing a six-week program with the kids. I work with them one-on-one and help parents get some tools, especially since it’s really hard to get in to see a counselor or a psychiatrist. Right now, it’s so important to reach out to your school counselor to help. We’re licensed counselors that you can use to get tips. I think a lot of parents may not even know that they have that resource available.

Kacie: That’s amazing advice. I don’t know why I never even thought of that with Teddy. I think ’cause it’s the first year he’s in an actual school. You don’t even think about what they can provide, even though I talked to you and I consider you an expert.

Jessica: I have parents all the time tell me like, “Oh, I didn’t know you did that, I thought you just talk to kids about schedules, or… ” And I’m like, “No, this is what I love to do, this is what I am here for.”

Kacie: Well, you’re doing such important work. I’m so grateful for you and all the other people like you who work with kids and help kids. I just wanna thank you so much for talking with us today.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Kacie: You are online as well, so where can parents find you?

Jessica: I have a lifestyle vlog and can be found on Instagram at @loveyoumoretoo, where I sometimes touch on kids’ stuff and counseling stuff so you can connect with me there. You can also reach out to me for resources. I do a ton of stuff, and I’m happy to provide any resources to parents that might need them.

Kacie: Well, you are so kind. And this is awesome. Thank you, Jessica.

Jessica: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me.

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