Like adults, anxious children and teens prefer to have a sense of control in their lives. They do not cope well with a disorganized, "spontaneous" family style. They feel calmer when:
- Life is predictable
- Expectations are clear
- Consequences are immediate and consistent
Setting limits and creating routines are 2 ways to help make life more predictable for everyone in the family.
Setting limits is a challenge for parents, especially when the anxious child or teen becomes upset, moody or has a “meltdown”. If limits are repeated and enforced, they help everyone feel more secure and, usually, a child or teen's behaviour will improve. It can be a relief to have adults in charge. Be clear about what is expected of your child and what will happen if that expectation is not met. Ask your child to explain what is expected so you know s/he understands. Remember to praise or reward your child when s/he meets that expectation. Follow through with the consequence when the expectation is not met. Every time!
Routines also help to reduce anxiety. But anxiety tends to disrupt routines. You need to work hard to build family routines so life is more predictable for your child. Help your child adjust to new family routines by preparing him/her in advance. Ask your child to help plan the new routine and introduce it gradually. Making an attractive schedule for the fridge provides a sense of control and order. The following are several common areas where routines can be used:
A bedtime routine involves doing the same things, in the same order, at the same time, just before going to bed. This ritual helps your child gradually relax and wind down. For both your child and the rest of the family, a routine that lasts about 15 to 30 minutes is best. However, stimulating activities should start to wind down about an hour before bed (e.g. turning computer games off). Even teens can benefit from developing a bedtime routine.
Optional bedtime routine activities for younger children:
- Bubble bath
- Choice of what pajamas or nightdress to wear
- Read or tell a story
- Tuck in your young child or snuggle time with a blanket, teddy bear or some other thing that makes him or her feel secure
- Warm milk or a snack
Optional bedtime routine activities for older children and teens:
- Listening to some soft music
- 1-on-1 time to talk about the day
- Practicing some relaxation tools on the audio page
- Reading together
- Warm milk or a snack
Note: It is important you do not get into the habit of permitting your anxious child to sleep in your bed unless this is something you have always done and enjoyed. Having an anxious child sleep in your bed against your will can quickly become a hard habit to break. For more information on how to handle this situation, see What to do when your child insists on sleeping in bed with you.
This needs to be a regular part of the schedule, as anxious children tend to put things off. Anxious children can easily become overwhelmed with routine tasks, thus, it can be helpful to:
- Allow for some down-time after school before starting homework
- Refuel the body with a pre-homework snack
- Set a specific time and place to work
- Agree to a post-homework activity to give your child something to look forward to
- Break the task into small, manageable steps
- Schedule in mini 2-5 minute breaks, if homework will take more than an hour
- Praise and rewards for each step completed
Physical activity routine
For the anxious child or teen, exercise may help reduce stress and induce relaxation. They often feel "tired all the time" because they are always exhausting themselves with worry, and don't feel like exercising. But exercise will improve energy and reduce worry. Try to find something fun to do together rather than making this a chore. Ongoing participation in a physical activity program encourages self-discipline, leadership and opportunities to socialize with peers. Get the whole family involved. Examples include:
- Bike riding
- Dance party
- Go for a swim
- Playing tag and other running games
- Scheduled aerobic classes
- Shooting hoops, street hockey, tennis, baseball, soccer…
- Walk the dog
Food and nutrition routine
While not exactly a routine, making healthy eating a daily habit is key. No one copes well when they are tired or hungry. Anxious children and teens often forget to eat, don't feel hungry, or have upset stomachs. Thus, it's okay for your child to "graze" as long as the snacks cover the basic food groups and the total amount consumed meets the required daily nutritional intake. Offer frequent, nutritious snacks. Instead of stocking up on chips and soda, have fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy foods available in your fridge or kitchen. Quick protein boosters can include hard-boiled eggs, pieces of cooked chicken, or nut butter on toast. As much as possible, make meal time "family time" and sit down and eat together, tuning into everyone’s day.
Note: Be a good role model. One of the first steps in creating a positive and predictable environment is to take stock of your own daily habits and ways of coping with anxiety. If you procrastinate your own work, opt for fast food on your way back from the office, and stay up all night on the computer, it should not be surprising if your child begins to adopt those habits. Use the coping tools to manage your own anxiety and share appropriate examples with your child. After all, you are the single biggest influence on your children.
Remember... a good routine can take several weeks to establish but everyone will feel better once it is in place.