It's hard to imagine that your young child (dependent and with few responsibilities) could have anything to 'stress' about. But the truth is, as much as adults experience mental health challenges and anxiety, so do little people. Our experiences are all relative and, unfortunately, mental health doesn't age discriminate.
As your child grows, they experience change at a rapid pace - and change, as we know, isn't always comfortable. Fear, worry and anxiety tend to show up wherever uncertainty looms. Each individual processes and deals with uncertainty in different ways, and some tend to get more anxious - and hold on to their anxiety for longer - than others. The good news is that there are ways you can support your child as they navigate all their big little feelings. Learning to cope with worry from an early age will help them greatly as they grow and progress in life.
Here are a few activities to try, strategies to put in place, and books to share when your little one is feeling uneasy...
Blowing bubbles is a really simple and fun way to invite some cool and calm energy into your child's world. This activity allows them to focus their attention on the action of blowing the bubbles, as well as on watching the bubbles float away and pop in the distance. The blowing of the bubbles is also a wonderful way to get your little one to take some much-needed deep breaths, which helps to calm the nervous system.
Butterflies in the Belly
Butterflies in the belly is a creative activity that allows you to engage in some conversation with your child about the feelings they're experiencing. By taking the 'butterflies' out of their belly and into the world, it offers them the opportunity to outwardly express their fears and concerns. The exercise involves either cutting out a butterfly shape from a sheet of paper or simply drawing a large butterfly on a piece of paper. Once the butterfly is ready, ask your little one: "What's giving you good butterflies?" and write those down in one of the butterfly's wings. Next, discuss and write down "what's giving you worried butterflies?" in the other wing. This is a great way to verbalise and identify feelings, as well as how they affect the body.
Worry stones are smooth, oval-shaped stones, usually made of clay and often have a thumb-sized indentation in the centre. If you're child tends to be fidgety, these worry stones offer them a tactile point of focus during nervous moments, in which they can rub their thumb back and forth, side to side, or in circles across the surface of the indention. Using a worry stone helps your little one to self-soothe in a way that replaces negative and counterintuitive comforting habits like hair-pulling, lip or nail biting, or scratching and picking. This simple action also helps trigger the brain to release endorphins, which in turn, soothes the mind and body.
Mind jars are incredibly simple and easy to make but have a big impact on children who are stressed. The mind jar, which is a mason jar filled with water, glitter glue and food colouring, behaves similarly to a snow globe and serves as a beautifully calming visual aid. When your child is feeling nervous or in need of a mild distraction, a mind jar does just the trick. Children love to watch the glitter swirl around as they manipulate the jar. The glitter being shaken up, and then slowly settling is also a great metaphor for explaining to your little one how big feelings can surge within our minds and bodies, but given some time and space, eventually settle.
Worry dolls, also known as trouble dolls, are miniature handmade dolls often wrapped in yarn. These dolls originated in Guatemala but have become beloved by children all around the world due to their worry relieving powers. The idea is that children share their worries with their tiny doll, then place it under their pillow right before bedtime. In the morning, all their troubles are gone and have been replaced by the wisdom and courage to overcome them. Having your child make their own worry doll, with your assistance, is a fun and sweet way for them to create a personalised little friend. You can also shop a wide variety of worry dolls online.
Help Create Calm
When you notice the behaviours that signal your child is becoming distressed, the best way for you to support them in that moment is to remain calm. If you can, bring them to a space that is quiet and without too much external stimulation where you can have a calm and private conversation. If your child becomes stressed often, you could create a Calm Corner together in a quiet part of your house, with blankets or objects they find soothing.
Validate Your Child's Feelings
When your child expresses their feelings of stress or worry, no matter how rational or irrational they may be, it's important to demonstrate that you're listening and taking them seriously. This helps to build trust between the two, which will keep conversations flowing and help your ability to support them appropriately.
Help Them to be Brave
It's important to try and strike the balance between encouraging your child to overcome their fears - building their emotional and mental resilience - and pushing them further into despair. First, validate their concerns and reassure them, then suggest small, bite-sized actions that could help lead them to overcome their worries.
Create an Action Plan
Mapping out a plan for your child to overcome their fear or worry is an effective strategy. This plan, containing multiple bite-sized actions, will help you to stay patient and steady in your approach, and allow your child the time and experience to build confidence around the activities and circumstances that cause them stress.