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Child with sock puppet scaring grandparent

There are six universal emotions that can typically be agreed upon: sadness, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. These can be thought of as the six foundations to all the other more nuanced emotions that we can feel throughout our lives such as disappointment, curiosity, guilt, and amongst others, anxiety. The intention for today is to focus on anxiety and how to playfully engage with it with children of all ages (adults, I’m looking at you too!).

Anxiety is a word that floods news headlines, books, and podcasts without much conversation around its definition. It’s hard to work out what to do about anxiety if we can’t define it for ourselves! This lack of a widely accepted definition in popular culture may be, in part, because the feeling of being anxious can be hard to explain in words outside of sensations: fast heart beat, sweaty, stomach ache, fidgety hands or legs, or other feeling words such as worried, concerned, nervous.

Anxiety’s foundational base from the six universal emotions is fear. This is particularly important to remember because our bodies are designed to respond in certain ways to fear in order to keep us safe. Anxiety activates parts of our brains and nervous system that have historically been there to help us avoid danger (think: fight-flight-freeze). Unfortunately, because anxiety is an “old” part of our brain so to speak, it doesn’t have the capacity to help us figure out how serious the danger (someone is disappointed with me vs some might kidnap me) is or if we are truly unsafe (this feeling is uncomfortable vs my body will get hurt).

Children and adults alike with consistent feelings of anxiety can be thought of as having a brain that sometimes views the environment as being more dangerous or scary than it is. How do we then use play to help our bodies recognize we are safe and reduce our anxiety level?


Activities for Anxiety with All Ages

. Rhythmic two person activities: Tossing, rolling, or kicking a ball back and forth, cuddles where the child can hear your heartbeat and feel your breathing pattern, tic-tac-toe, a few rounds of “Simon Says”. These activities play on the research around mirroring - matching someone’s speech, attitudes, or movements - that helps the brain move away from fight-flight-freeze. 

Puzzle of solvable game/activity: Encourage your child to do an activity that will promote a sense of accomplishment or confidence such as solving a puzzle, colouring in a colouring book, make a snack for themselves, or build a castle or house. Consistent feelings of anxiety can lead to a child feeling out of control or incapable of handling the world around them. These playful activities promote confidence and a feeling of completion or solvability.

                           

Board game routine: Particularly useful for children who have a hard time adjusting to routine changes (i.e. transition back into school term or a new schedule between co-parents) Draw out an empty board game on paper, white board, or make one digitally. Sit down with the child / children and create a step-by-step board game for each part of a routine. This can be a daily schedule to encompass the whole day or for a part of a routine that is hard for a child (e.g. bedtime). Allow the child to colour or draw pictures (images are better for younger aged children) on the board and make it their own - including a game piece that they can move around at every step. Again we are working toward safety and a perceived lack of danger. 

Making a playlist: This can exist in many different forms!

  • Have your child make a playlist of their favourite songs to dance to (moving the body/ dancing helps send the brain signals that the body is safe and not in danger)
  • Have your child listen to a few songs with different tempos and have them decide what tempo is the best to listen to when feeling anxious and create a playlist with songs only of that tempo (can be used to have a child check in with their heartbeat or breathing, noticing sensations helps identify emotions)
  • Have your child make a playlist with song titles that talk to their anxiety - it can function like a long message between all the song titles or each one stands alone (ideal for older children)

These are some jumping off points for playful activities for anxiety, and not each or every one will work for your child, family, or circumstance. That’s okay! It’s also important to remember that what works for your child at one age, may not work later on, and being able to cope or regulate through feelings of anxiety takes practice and flexibility and adjustments! The mindset of playfully engaging is often what is most important.

* A small note on anxiety versus anxiety disorders: anxiety is part of the human experience for all of us. It is important for your child to experience anxiety and the subsequent emotions around the ability to work through it on the occasions it shows up. Anxiety disorders refer to a diagnosis given by a mental health professional for chronic and pervasive levels of anxiety that affect a person’s daily life. For more information, explore Young Minds Anxiety or Child Mind Anxiety.


Check out our flyer about these activities here