Techniques to Help the Anxious Child

Dealing with social and emotional challenges is part of every day, but it can be particularly challenging for children with learning disabilities (LD). Learning disabilities can affect many skills including listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, mathematics and reasoning – skills that children must use every day to fulfill their roles as students and family members.


The consequences of their learning disabilities, however, changes. While the setting shifts from school to home and the community, the implications are equally significant. The child with learning disabilities may rely on family and school for support. If not supported, these challenges may lead to more severe mental illnesses. Anxiety is the most frequent emotional symptom reported by individuals with learning disabilities. As a consequence of struggling day in and day out at school, many children with LD perceive themselves as less competent and may become excessively worried or anxious.


A “vicious cycle” can develop, as the anxiety begins to make already difficult challenges with school and friendships even worse. Children with LDs become fearful because of their constant frustration and confusion in school. These feelings are exacerbated by the inconsistencies of their learning disabilities. Because they cannot anticipate failure, entering new situations provokes extreme levels of anxiety. Anxiety causes human beings to avoid whatever frightens them. The individual with LDs is no exception. However, many teachers and parents misinterpret this avoidance behavior as laziness.


In fact, the individual with LDs hesitancy to participate in activities such as homework or peer activities is related more to anxiety and confusion than to apathy.


Signs and signals that indicate a child might be experiencing undue stress include:

  • recurring headaches, tummy aches or neck pain
  • increased irritability, sadness, panic, anger
  • being more quiet than usual
  • trouble relaxing or sleeping
  • lethargy, daydreaming, withdrawal from activities
  • excessive energy or restlessness
  • reverting to less mature behaviours
  • nervous habits such as nail biting, hair twisting, thumb sucking, or sighing deeply
  • subtle reactions, a strained look, frowning
  • trouble getting along with friends.


Stress Management Techniques

Children who have experienced stress for some time need extra patience and reassurance. They might respond to a combination of the following:

physical contact – hugging helps children relax and builds self-esteem

listening – ask children how they feel

encouragement – help children find something they are good at and tell them how proud you are of them

honesty and openness – talk and encourage children to express their feelings openly

security – try to be consistent

balanced diet – encourage children to eat a healthy, varied diet

physical exercise – exercise helps burn off stressful feelings

role model – show them how you problem solve, organize yourself, prioritize, etc

quiet – allow for quiet time

humour – help children see the funny side of things


Teach children to recognize the symptoms of stress and the changes they feel in themselves — e.g., rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, fast breathing, headaches, tummy aches, tight tense muscles and nervous panicky feelings.


One of the things parents need to do is introduce “strengths and weaknesses” into the family vocabulary—the idea that everybody in this family has some things they’re very good at and things they aren’t so good at. So, the youngster who’s got learning disabilities—who’s got, say, serious weaknesses in reading comprehension—also has some strengths in soccer or piano playing or packing the car for the camping trip. With this approach, this child doesn’t stick out as the only one in the family who doesn’t do well.


When kids with learning disabilities start middle school, we need to scaffold them. A lot of parents think, “They’re in middle school; they ought to be able to take care of all this.” Well, often they aren’t taking care of all of this and they’re failing. So parents need to realize that, although they wish their youngster was an independent learner, they are not yet. And if we don’t provide them with some of the scaffolding – like helping them plan and organize – we’re deluding ourselves.


Parents should also keep a keen eye on a young adolescent’s social interactions. One of the primary anxieties reported in a longitudinal study for middle school was social anxiety. And that is the fear that their learning disability will be discovered by their friends and that they will not be considered cool. Parents need to shift the balance more toward “private,” clandestine remediation, and away from noticeable, or “public,” remediation.


If you’re being the disciplinarian or if you’re too invested in the homework getting done, then you lose the most important role for a parent to play. Ultimately, the child needs you as their parent, not as their tutor. They need you to love them no matter what. They need to cry and have you hold them and pat their head and say, “It’s okay, honey; I know it’s hard.” Even if they fail a test, even if they can’t do a single problem on that “stupid page,” they need you to love them. They need to know it’s okay, that you believe that they’ve made their best effort. And that tomorrow’s another day, and we’ll get up and try it again.


If parents have found particular things that are helpful to them in dealing with anxiety — whether it’s yoga, meditation, deep breathing, visualization, it’s great for them to teach those to their kids, and to do them together. Exercise is really important in both anxiety and depression control. Families can go out bicycling or jogging together.


Model peaceful living and good relaxation techniques.