Help Children Break The Cycle of Anxious Thoughts and Re-Center With a Sensory Scavenger Hunt

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Children are naturally gifted with vivid imaginations and creativity, which is usually a wonderful attribute. However, when it comes to worries and fears, their active imaginations can sometimes lead to anxiety and repetitive or intrusive thoughts.

It’s not uncommon for children to become fixated on a particular fear, no matter how illogical it might seem. In other instances, they might find themselves in a constant state of worry without understanding the reason behind it. These fixations and the repetitive nature of anxious thoughts indicate that the brain’s fear center is activated, which in turn suppresses the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of logical thinking. Despite this suppression, the brain doesn’t stop thinking; rather, thoughts race, searching for solutions to perceived threats.

Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety and Racing Thoughts

When children are anxious about something like a friend, school, or even a pandemic, fleeing, freezing, or fighting aren’t practical responses, nor are continuous racing thoughts. It’s important to help them break this cycle and re-center.

Step One: Validate Their Feelings

Start by acknowledging your child’s fear or worry. Marc Brackett from the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence advises that labeling emotions is crucial: “If you can name it, you can tame it.” This could mean helping your child articulate their fears if they’re struggling to do so. Remember, anxiety in children can manifest in various ways, such as anger, sadness, or clinginess.

For example, you might say:

  • “I see you’re upset and throwing things. Are you feeling angry?”
  • “You seem to want to stay close to me. Are you feeling worried?”
  • “You’re moving slowly and seem distracted. Do you feel worried without knowing why?”

This approach serves three purposes:

  1. It normalizes and validates their feelings.
  2. It helps children identify and name confusing emotions, making them less frightening.
  3. It allows children to see their worries as separate from their identity.

Step Two: Have a Conversation

Children’s imaginations can lead them to envision scenarios worse than reality if they lack factual information. Tailor the information to your child’s age and understanding. For instance, if your child fears tornadoes, find an age-appropriate book about them, read it together, and discuss a family plan for such an event. This helps shift their focus from imagined fears to tangible, controllable facts.

For children with generalized anxiety, explaining how anxiety functions in the brain can be enlightening. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this topic.)

Step Three: Engage in Mindful or Sensory Activities

After acknowledging and discussing their fears, guide your child to reconnect with their core self through mindful or sensory activities. These immersive experiences can break the cycle of repetitive thoughts. Activities like a sensory scavenger hunt, mindful breathing, or enjoying a warm drink can be effective.

A Sensory Scavenger Hunt

This grounding exercise, recommended by play therapist Renee Johnson, LCMHC, helps children re-engage with their environment. The scavenger hunt uses the five senses to reconnect children with comforting and enjoyable aspects of their surroundings. It can include finding favorite visual items, textures to feel, pleasant smells, soothing sounds, and favorite tastes.

The Role of Re-Centering Activities

Such activities ground children in their environment and their core self, breaking the cycle of anxious thoughts. They’re not just about managing emotions but also about returning to a sense of self.

If your child’s anxiety seems persistent, it’s advisable to consult a pediatrician or seek counseling. Professionals have various methods to assist children in managing anxiety.

Hopefully, these strategies can aid your child in coping with anxious thoughts and worries, helping them to harness their imagination in positive and healthy ways.