Three Questions to Ask Your Anxious Child
Kids with sensory processing disorder often are anxious because of their sensory processing differences—and their SPD can worsen any anxiety they already have. That’s because they are constantly working to make sense of the signals they’re getting from their environment (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations) and from inside their bodies (vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive senses of movement, body awareness of muscles and body parts, body awareness of internal sensations).
Also, kids with sensory issues have poor self-regulation of energy level, focus, and mood. If they get anxious, it happens quickly and the anxiety is intense. Coming back to their starting point is very difficult.
When your child is anxious, they can also be angry and defensive. They might lash out, withdraw, or run away. Your child’s anxiety might manifest as controlling, demanding behavior or as lowering herself to the ground, lying on her back, and refusing to move or respond to your request that she get up.
How do you help your anxious child develop better self-regulation and better understanding of her anxiety and what to do about it? Here are three questions to ask your anxious child that can help.
Question 1: “What are you feeling in your body right now?” Fear is an emotion we feel in our bodies. By tuning in to that sensation of tightness in the throat, muscle tension in the torso, or shallow breathing, a child discovers two things. First, she learns that her body can clue her in to an emotional experience. Second, she learns that there is the self that is having the experience of anxiety, shallow breathing, and tightness in the throat and there is the self that is observing what she’s experiencing. That second self is the one who can make a conscious choice to deal with her anxiety with techniques she has learned to calm her system. Mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices are terrific for helping awaken this observing self, and even small children can be taught to use these practices.
Question 2: “What emotion are you feeling?” You might have to guess at her emotion if she can’t find a label for it. “You’re upset right now. Are you anxious?” might be your follow up question.
Question 3: “What do you need to do right now to feel better?” No one likes the feeling of anxiety. It’s stressful and unpleasant. If you’ve taught your child simple breathing techniques for self-calming, or he retreats to a quiet spot or does heavy work to calm himself quickly when anxious, a simple reminder can cue him to do what he needs to do to alleviate his anxiety.
If your child has difficulty answering any of these questions, you might offer her some simple answers. You might just wait quietly. Silent pauses while you sit with her can be powerful tools for helping her to self-regulate. Model the calm you want to see in your child. She will feel supported as she lets her anxiety wash through her or uses her anxiety-busting techniques to calm down.
Teaching our kids self-regulation techniques and emotional intelligence is a huge part of discipline (from a Latin word meaning “to teach”) and parenting. If you’d like to learn more about self-regulation and helping your child with sensory issues to self-regulate her mood, focus, and activity level, check out the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.