Six-Year-Old Daughter Overcome With Anxiety When Faced With Anything New

Filed under: Expert Advice: Big Kids

Dear AdviceMama,

Help! We need some advice about our daughter's anxiety. She is 6 years old. Whenever she starts something new (pre-school, kindergarten last fall, summer camp) she is anxious in the morning, crying and sometimes throwing up. We try to help her with positive thinking, but the anxiety continues. Any suggestions for helping her calm down?

Worried Momma

Dear Worried,

Some children embrace change, eagerly anticipating life's next new adventure, while others cower in the shadows, hoping that whatever new experience is waiting will just "go away." Clearly, you have a child in the latter category!

When a child is upset, imagine that they're in the midst of an emotional storm. In that moment, it's as if your daughter's belly has a swirling mass of feeling that's flipping and flopping in her tummy, causing her to feel an almost primal, survival-related fear. It doesn't make sense that something so relatively harmless -- and potentially fun -- could have such a big effect on her, but that's how it is for children (and adults) who suffer from anxiety.

Trying to calm her down with positive thoughts in the thick of that emotional mayhem would be a bit like trying to hang pictures on the wall in the middle of a hurricane.

Rather than trying to get your daughter to relax before she heads off to do something that terrifies her, I suggest you desensitize her to these new experiences ahead of time so she can gradually ease her way into becoming comfortable, without feeling overwhelmed by all the new children, teachers, rules, play area, smells and sounds.

Take her to the nursery school, kindergarten classroom or camp venue at least a few times before she begins attending so she can wander around when it's quiet (and later, when there are children attending) so she can get to know the room, playground, and staff. Ask her teachers' help in forging a connection with your daughter -- perhaps even having lunch together, or going for an ice cream -- so she can begin to develop an attachment without the stimulation and distraction of lots of other children competing for their attention.

One calming trick you can teach her is something I call Bear Belly Breathing. Have her lay down and put one of her stuffed animals on her tummy, and ask her to make the little animal rise and fall as she breathes in and out. This deep breathing will help her relax and get out of the "storm" of those wild emotions that descend upon her when she starts feeling anxious.

If you ask your daughter to tell you why she's anxious, and focus on using logic to convince her that there's nothing to be afraid of, you won't get very far. (I think you've discovered that!) Instead, be that captain of the ship that recognizes that your daughter is wired to be more sensitive to change, and work with her to develop the skill of adapting to new experiences.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.