Anxiety Triggers: Coping Without Avoidance
Updated: Mar 2
Children (like the rest of us) may have certain anxiety triggers that set off their big or uncomfortable feelings. These triggering events or circumstances can make them feel stressed, angry, sad, or worried. While a trigger can be something concrete like an upcoming test, it could also be something like having to sit still for extended periods of time, or feeling hungry. If you help children with anxiety to recognize their triggers, you can then work with them on coping with their feelings before they get too strong. Many times kids (and even parents) want to avoid what makes them anxious because they don't want to be in an uncomfortable situation, but long-term this just makes the anxiety worst.
Identify Anxiety Triggers
When working with children, it will be important to explain what a trigger is and how they may feel as they experience one. Sharing appropriate examples from your own life will make it more clear, while also showing them that everyone experiences anxiety and uncomfortable feelings sometimes. That is why you are there - to help them develop the skills to handle their big feelings!
Some children may be unable to pinpoint specific triggers in an outside conversation or session. In my Skills for Big Feelings book, you can find an activity that will help you go through potential triggers and allow the child to rate several options. Most importantly, make sure children consider whether something bothers them or not. There are no right or wrong answers and in fact, everyone will have different triggers. If you’re working with children in a group setting, they may even want to share out to see where there are similarities and differences among the group members.
How to Help Kids with Anxiety
In order to help kids with anxiety, they need to know they will be supported and encouraged with realistic expectations. If you know their triggers, you can remind them of their tools for handling uncomfortable feelings when you know one will be on the horizon. They can also start to recognize what is going on around them and in their own bodies when they are confronted with a trigger.
It is important for kids with anxiety to understand their triggers. If something is hard or upsetting for them, they can start to plan in advance to use a coping strategy. For example, if a child knows that loud noises upset her, she can plan to bring noise-canceling headphones to a school assembly. A problem-solving approach, worked out before the trigger occurs, rather than avoiding it, helps the child to feel more in control. They can learn to rely on themselves for regulation rather than depending on other people or blaming outside circumstances for their behaviors.
Help Children with Anxiety to Cope Without Avoidance
A common response to anxiety triggers is to avoid that which makes us anxious, upset, and uncomfortable. We’ve all done it! It may be effective in the moment, but it does not solve the problem. Temporary relief, for children and adults alike, does not promote long-term coping skills. We often just pass the buck until the next triggering situation, and the anxiety is maintained or even made worst next time around.
When we give in to the natural inclination toward avoidance at the onset of anxiety triggers, we may be cultivating anticipatory anxiety. This is the reason why we encourage parents not to linger at drop-off, even if a child becomes upset. It prolongs and reinforces the child’s anxiety-related behaviors.
Anticipatory anxiety can be even more difficult to cope with than the initial anxiety. Children quickly learn that they have the option to avoid their triggers rather than face them head on. The anticipation of something happening can lead to unhelpful thoughts ruminating in their minds and they might have trouble letting them go. Allowing kids to avoid what they're anxious about signals to them that there is no need for them to learn alternative coping skills.
Affirmations to Help Children Cope with Anxiety Triggers
You can validate a child’s feelings without allowing her to avoid or escape her anxiety triggers. Let her know that you understand how she is feeling and why, and then encourage her by saying a helpful thought that is affirming. Remind her that she is able to calm herself or that she has the tools to deal with her big feelings.
Some helpful thoughts and affirmations you might use for kids who worry are:
I can handle this.
This is a feeling. It will pass.
This is just anxiety. I have dealt with it before and I can deal with it again.
I can choose my thoughts.
I will think about something funny like...
I choose to let my worries go and focus on...
I can deal with all of my feelings.
I will use my coping skills.
I feel proud when I calm myself down.
I can relax my body.
I choose helpful thoughts.
I breathe in relaxation, and I breathe out tension.
I breathe in peace, and I breathe out stress.
I am safe. I am calm. I am brave. I am loved.
I believe in me.
I accept and love myself right now, in this moment.
I can be calm.
I choose to feel relaxed.
I will be okay.
People care about me and I can ask for help when I need it.
Instill Confidence as a Response to Anxiety Triggers
Make sure you use helpful thoughts and affirmations that are positive, realistic, and applicable to the child’s triggers and to the current situation. While you cannot promise that a child’s fears are unfounded (he may really be picked last in dodgeball or get a question wrong on a quiz), you can communicate your confidence that he is going to be able to cope with all of his feelings. Facing these fears will be manageable, and they will become less triggering over time!
Using these kinds of affirmations boosts children’s self-esteem by reinforcing their own agency and autonomy. They will feel as though your expectations are realistic and that you aren’t asking him to do something that he can’t handle. He has the skills to face the anxiety and make the best choices for himself (childmind.org, n.d.)
Anxiety Triggers Cannot be Avoided
It is so important to remove avoidance as a child’s go-to coping mechanism! If the child has a clinical phobia, they will benefit from working with a professional directly in order to address it. Otherwise, take a look at the activities below. These coping activities allow children to practice their responses outside of a triggering situation.
If you need more ideas to help kids with anxiety, teach them that they cannot avoid their triggers. Instead, they can learn to cope with them in healthy and adaptive ways. With the Skills for Big Feelings resources, you can even make it fun!
Activities for Coping with Anxiety
While teaching children that they cannot avoid their triggers, it’s important to make sure you are providing opportunities to practice their coping skills. Again, opportunities for practice before they become triggered is crucial as they generalize their skills from a counseling session to dealing with big feelings outside this safe space. I developed a 4 step strategy called F-B-T-S which is short for: Feeling-Breath-Thought-Skill that many children throughout the world have used with success. You can learn more about this technique in my book Skills for Big Feelings!
Step 1: Naming Feelings
Once they pinpoint their anxiety triggers, you can help kids to name the feelings that go along with those triggers. How do they feel at the outset? Their feelings usually start as something else before escalating to the anger or emotional dysregulation that we see once their anxiety has fully ramped up. Acknowledging and naming one's feelings involves self-awareness, but even young children can learn this! This really the first step in building emotional regulation skills as well. You can pick up this free feelings poster to help kids identify feelings by subscribing to my resource library at the top of this page.
Step 2: Breathing Techniques
Taking slow, deep breaths is vital to regulate the nervous system and bring back the child’s mind/body balance and connection. We have all witnessed children who seem “out of control” in the midst of a meltdown, and they may not even remember everything that has occurred once they are able to regulate again. Breathing techniques help children to ground themselves in a stressful situation that they feel may spiral out of control.
One breathing technique I'd like to share with you today is called Spaghetti Breathing! Pick up these free printables to help kids relax and self-regulate by subscribing to my resource library at the top of this page.
Step 3: Changing Thoughts
Help kids with anxiety to recognize when they are having an unhelpful thought versus a helpful thought. Again, this level of awareness will only come with direct instruction and repeated opportunities to practice. They will not be able to access this kind of higher-level thinking if they are in a highly anxious state. Naming their feelings and centering themselves with breath work may be necessary before asking them to do an activity like this. Once they recognize an unhelpful thought, you can support them as they choose a more helpful and positive thought. Teach them to encourage themselves in their self-talk (e.g., “This is just a feeling. I will be okay.”
Step 4: Practice Coping Skills
As you introduce different coping strategies to children, they will find the ones that they prefer. Some may not work well for them, and others will become their go-to coping skills when triggers appear. Asking them to choose a skill they want to utilize can help them to feel like they are regaining control of the situation.
Pick up these free activities to help kids deal with worrying by subscribing to my resource library at the top of this page.
Skills for Big Feelings
If you want a more comprehensive resource for following this 4 step framework, and helping children cope with anxiety and other emotions, please check out my Super Ultimate Skills for Big Feelings Growing Bundle at Whole Child Counseling. You will receive the book (available in paperback or eBook formats) as well as my Coping Skills Craftivities book, activities, games, MP3s, digital interactive notebooks, printable poster pack, trauma-informed guided relaxations, presentation slides, editable documents, schedules, family handouts, coloring coping skills workbook, and MORE! As more resources are added to this growing bundle, those who have already purchased will get access to the updates at no additional cost.
Child Mind Institude (n.d.). http://www.childmind.org