Over the years, I've taught my children the difference between our thoughts and ourselves. This very important principle of Buddhism is important for anyone who wants to live a more peaceful life. Our brain produces thoughts; those thoughts create feelings. Then we have SELF, which is the soul inside there listening to those thoughts, reacting to those feelings. Thoughts, feelings, and self. Our self is naturally at peace.
I teach my daughter, Lola, that when she is having thoughts or feelings that are scaring her, to feel her own separate self inside, and with that self name what is happening. Here are some other tips for helping to alleviate anxiety in a child:
1. Observe what's happening.
Don't run from it. Pema Chodron talks about this in When Things Fall Apart. She recounts the story of a child who defeated her recurring nightmare about monsters chasing her by turning around in her dream and facing them. They slowly dissolved. Trying to immediately distract ourselves from scary feelings means we will never learn how to handle them, or learn that they won't kill us, or to learn that the more we face our fears, the less scary they feel.
2. Set time limits.
A neurotic mind will run in self-defeating loops. A powerful tool for children (or anyone) can be to set a time limit on mulling over a distressing idea.
3. Follow your fear to the end.
My therapist taught me this by asking me repeatedly, "What if that did happen?" Especially to a child, it feels like if the adults won't face fully the fear you have, it MUST be unbearable.
4. Laughter is a fear killer.
My mother drove this point home after I had returned from the hospital with our fourth child, and my Lola was struggling with anxiety. I had a number of reassuring talks with her, but my mother reminded me that joy and play that could powerfully move Lola forward. It was the laughing that really helped her turn the corner.
5. Make lists of What To Do.
Lola has a list taped up on the wall right now. Making this list not only helps her remember what to do, but is a reminder that there IS something she can do when facing anxiety issues.
6. Express fears through creativity.
Creating is a powerful way to acknowledge and work through things that are hard to articulate. Signing up a child for an art class can be a good motivator, or you can simply ask her daily, "Have you journaled? Want to draw a picture with me?"
7. Adopt a Buddhist attitude toward death.
I talk to Lola about the Buddhist story of how a leaf falls from a tree, dead, is absorbed into the dirt, into the roots, back into the tree. Energy never dies. Yes, we die, we leave Earth, and of course that's scary, but it's a natural part of life, like birth. Repeating the simple ideas that every single thing dies and yet, the same energy remains forever, is comforting. I found the most comforting thing for Lola's fear of death was a balance between embracing life joyfully and being in the moment, and talking about and facing death head on.
8. Have a routine.
When Lola is very anxious, I get more rigorous with her routine. I see it relaxing her within days. I make sure a warm bath and reading out loud are part of this routine. The basics are crucial when a child is full of fear. Sleep. Eat healthy, whole foods; avoid sugar, caffeine and too much bread. Take fish oil because it can help regulate mood and anxiety. I give my kids fish oil every day from the time they're two.
9. Create an environment for peace.
Once when Lola was very anxious, she said, "I'm going to make my life beautiful!" and set about hanging up art she drew, making a beautiful fort. I play beautiful music, fill the house with something that smells good, and let in lots of light. This has nothing to do with money; it's about creating an environment that reflects how you want to feel. Everyone responds to this!