Techniques that yoga and meditation teachers have long taught to adults also can do wonders to help children with anxiety slow down and relax. There are many ways kids can learn to achieve a more relaxed state, depending on what resonates with any given child. “I believe in the shotgun approach, so Ill train just about every kid I see with at least five or six different ways to achieve a relaxed, comfortable, balanced state of mind,” Culbert says.
Offering that many options is important since many kids will not be at all interested in, or able to use, some techniques. For instance, many children have a tough time taking slow, belly breaths. By giving kids choices, they usually can find one or two techniques that work for them. For children, the most popular relaxation-inducing techniques on the smorgasbord include:
Diaphragmatic or belly breathing. Depending on the age and lung capacity of the child, she can count to five or seven as she breathes in, first to her belly, then to her lungs. She then exhales at a slow, even pace, counting again to the same number.
Progressive muscle relaxation. Working from toe to head or head to toe, children can squeeze each muscle group in their body for ten seconds, then relax for ten seconds. Culbert follows this practice with what he calls a body scan. With eyes closed, a child will do a mental check of his whole body, checking which muscles are relaxed and which are not. Then hell repeat the squeeze-and-relax technique until his whole body is relaxed.
Visualization. Children close their eyes and form an image in their mind of a favorite place or activity that makes them happy. “The idea,” says Culbert, “is to bring up a positive emotional feeling or state like care, appreciation, love or support.” This is often combined with slow, rhythmic breathing.
Biofeedback. For anxious children, biofeedback can be a life-saver. It works in two ways, says Joanne Yeaton, the clinical social worker who treated Sofia Wright in Oakland, Calif. The fact biofeedback uses a computer that contains interesting animation and graphics captures the interest of todays wired generation, but the softwares slow pace and Yeatons calm discourse slows them down. I like the irony of using a computer-based intervention because its a way of using some things that can be a problem for kids and use it to bring them back to themselves. It also gives her a chance to teach them deep breathing, visualization and other standard relaxation techniquesand then have them see the results instantly. Today, software programs such as The Journey to Wild Divine, a biofeedback game promoted by Deepak Chopra, MD, and Dean Ornish, MD, can be used at home to engage kids who might never otherwise be interested in attempting deep breathing or guided imagery.
One thing to remember: Mind-body techniques are great for kids with anxiety and can help children with sleep disorders get to dreamland, but they are not particularly helpful for depressed children–unless their depression is mixed with anxiety. For some people with more severe depression, certain forms of relaxation like hypnosis or biofeedback are contraindicated because you dont want to bring them into states of deeper depression, Culbert says.
Is it really a problem?
From the terrible twos to the turbulent teens, childhood naturally involves some emotional volatility. That can make it difficult for parents to distinguish between normal mood fluctuations in their children and more serious health conditions such as depression. The Mayo Clinic identifies several possible warning signs for depression in adolescents. When evaluating a child, therapists consider the number of these symptoms the child demonstrates, as well as the duration, frequency and severity of these symptoms.
What to Look For:
Decreased interest in playing
Cries easily and more often than usual
Listlessness and moodiness
More irritable than usual
Complains of boredom
More distant with friends and family
Difficulty with schoolwork
Talks about death
Drops out of favorite activities
Has more arguments with parents and teachers
Refuses to do chores or homework
Engages in harmful behavior, such as cutting himself or herself
Has suicidal thoughts
The Latest Research
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the understanding of antidepressant treatments in youth, though growing substantially, remains limited when compared to what is known about treatment of depression in adults. According to the NIMH website, Recently, concerns have been raised that the use of antidepressant medications may induce suicidal behavior in youths. In fact, following a thorough and comprehensive review of all the available published and unpublished controlled clinical trials of antidepressants in children and adolescents, the FDA adopted a black box label warning that antidepressants were found to increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children and adolescents with major depressive disorders. A black-box warning is the most serious warning on prescription drug labels.