8 Activities for Treating Anxiety in Children

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8 Activities for Treating Anxiety in Children

As a therapist working in a school-based therapy job, you may be charged with helping to calm the nerves of children battling anxiety.

According to Daniel B. Peters, Ph.D. and Huffington Post contributor, “Teaching kids about how fear and worry work in their bodies, and specific thinking and doing strategies to fight the ‘Worry Monster’ empowers them to take a stand against this bully.” We fully agree with this sentiment…and recognize that by infusing activities into your lesson plans, you can make a strong impact toward diffusing anxious thoughts, beliefs and feelings.

To help turn young worriers into warriors, here are 8 activities that have proven to be effective:

  1. Make Mind Jars

These are great to have on hand in your office or school therapy setting. They’re also fun to make. Typical Mind Jars or “Calm Down Bottles” include glitter and liquid. When shaken or overturned, the glitter swirls around—not dissimilar from crazy or uncontrollable thoughts. When angry, anxious or upset, a child can be taught to sit and watch the glitter settle. As a school-based therapist, you can incorporate with deep breathing for an even greater effect

For this activity, you’ll need:

  • Small Jars or Plastic Water Bottles
  • Glitter Glue
  • Food Coloring
  • Hot Water
  • Glitter and/or sequins (optional)

Mix about 1 tablespoon of glitter glue with 1 cup of warm water.  Use a bit more if your jars are larger. If you’d like, add food coloring and extra glitter to make it even more colorful and sparkly. Fill the bottle the rest of the way with warm (or even hot water). The warmer the water, the better the glitter will dissolve without clumps. Don’t forget to hot glue the tops on the bottles to prevent spills.


  1. Happy Brain, Worry Brain Activity Coloring or Writing Activity

Happy BrainThere are a variety of ways to conduct this activity, including pre-designed printables you can download. To make it personalized, use a flashlight to project each child’s profile onto a large piece of paper. Trace it twice, so that it looks like the silhouettes are facing each other in mirror image. Label one side “Happy Brain” and the other side “Worry Brain.” Have kids write, collage, or draw things that fit into each category. This activity allows students to identify their worries, and notice how much time they spend thinking about them. It’s also a great way to help individuals develop coping skills by identifying what makes them happy.


  1. Create Worry Cans

Worry Cans can help children identify and discuss their worries by providing a safe place to write and store anxious thoughts. Receptacles with lids are best—think oatmeal containers or other types of jars. You can cover the outside with construction paper and have kids personalize their Worry Jars. On the jar, they might want to write “Fears,” “Worries,” “Scary Things” or whatever best fits their situation. Kids can then write or draw what concerns them, and drop the slips of paper into the jar. Depending on preference, children may want to talk with an adult about the thoughts in the can, or they may simply choose to use the Worry Can as a dumping ground for thoughts they would rather get out of their heads.


  1. Blow Bubbles

To help children learn deep breathing techniques and experience the benefits, use bubbles!  Deep breathing can be universally helpful for reducing anxiety. In her article, 3 Deep Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety, Author Therese J. Borchard says, “The practice of deep breathing stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), responsible for activities that occur when our body is at rest. It functions in an opposite manner to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight response.”

Demonstrate first and then have children use bubbles while focusing on how they breathe to create a big bubble. Remember to highlight how doing so impacts their body, and how it can train the body to feel relaxed (rather than worried or nervous.) Encourage children to practice their deep breathing skills – even when they don’t have the bubbles on hand!


  1. Paint for Relaxation

Creating artwork can be both relaxing, and therapeutic. Invite children to paint/draw designs or pictures of things that make them happy or calm. This can be accomplished during a school-based therapy session, and/or you can encourage children to engage in artistic activity at home. Children who are engrossed in an art project may be more open to sharing their innermost feelings and struggles. By allowing the conversation to flow in a low-pressure atmosphere, those in therapy jobs can foster a non-judgmental environment where students can feel comfortable talking as they express themselves through art.


  1. Start a Journal

For some, keeping a journal can be very therapeutic. Reflecting on events through writing can help an individual view their feelings and anxieties in an objective way.  Even young children can engage in this form of self-exploration—whether through words or pictures. There’s no right or wrong way to journal.  And kids shouldn’t feel like they need to write every day. What’s important is that children trust and understand that their journal is a safe place to reveal anything – including their deepest secrets, fears, or desires. And yes, this means no parent peeking!


  1. Create an Emergency Checklist

A great way to reduce anxiety in almost any situation is to have a plan! In the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to think clearly, especially when feelings of anxiety rise to the surface.  Encourage the young people you work with to anticipate what might happen in a situation they’re nervous about, and chart a step-by-step method to calm down. Perhaps, the first step is to stop and breathe. A second step might be to evaluate the situation. Next, they may want to look for a person they trust (parent, friend, mentor, teacher, etc.) to ask for help. Some children may want to have a hard copy of their checklist that can be easily stashed in a pocket or backpack for safekeeping.


  1. Create a Gratitude Box

Those in school-based therapy jobs can help students cultivate gratitude by introducing the concept of a gratitude box. What you’ll need:

  • An empty tissue box
  • Paper
  • Decorating items (e.g. stickers, white labels, colorful markers, patterned duct tape)

Have the children affix a label saying “Gratitude Box,” “Why I’m Grateful” or a similar label. They can decorate the label with colored markers and/or place and decorate other plain white labels on the box. Stickers and patterned duct tape (there are even variations at craft stores with penguins!) are a nice touch that will help each child personalize his or her box.

The idea is for the child to write on a small piece of paper something for which they are grateful. This can be whatever is relevant or important to the child. Children in speech therapy, for example, might feel anxious about how they talk; to combat anxiety, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can encourage them to be grateful for their voice, ability to speak, ability to listen, etc. This will help them to appreciate their present situation and reduce anxiety. Occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), behavioral therapists, counselors and social workers can try this with students on their caseloads as well!


What activities have YOU used with success to combat anxiety?  We’d love to know what you’re doing in your school therapy settings, and if any of our ideas have inspired you. Please comment below!


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