Easing Anxiety With Play-Based Cognitive Behavioural Activities

Imagine how frightening it must be to sit down to take a test and find yourself literally blanking out, unable to remember a math formula or the spelling of certain words. “It makes sense at home, but when I go to write the test my mind just freezes.”

This is a common complaint from students, and brain science can help us understand why: the rise in anxiety levels can cripple our capacity to learn and disrupt the natural curiosity that is so imperative for children trying to manage in school. Stress and anxiety make it hard to think straight, and can affect every aspect of a child’s life. Chaotic heart and brain patterns interfere with the ability to process information, making these difficulties even more acute at school.  And while subtler signs of anxiety can be overlooked, missing school because of stomachaches, headaches, or other ailments are significant red flags that something is wrong. 

But when parents and caregivers use the power of their connection alongside our children’s natural language — play — we can help to significantly reduce anxiety and bolster Heart-Mind well-being.

Fact: Four children in every classroom will be diagnosed with clinical levels of anxiety by the time they reach adulthood. Of those four, only one will receive treatment. (National Institute of Mental Health)

Fortunately, the remedy for anxiety is clearer and more accessible than for other serious childhood problems. Backed by decades of scientific research, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) helps to limit the degree and persistence of anxiety and, more importantly, can prevent re-occurrence: kids get better and stay better.

This evidence-based approach deals with the interrelatedness of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It is built on the premise that by changing one, we can transform the other. Essentially, if we choose to think differently, in turn we’ll feel and behave differently. And if we behave differently, we’ll think and feel differently, and so on. When we consciously think and act in positive ways, the result is an integrated and sustainable improvement in our overall well-being.

CBT teaches children to challenge anxious thoughts rather than accept them as truth. It arms them with a new mindset and tools to disrupt negative thinking habits, as well as coping skills that cue the body’s relaxation response.

Here are the core techniques of CBT:

1. Understand that anxiety involves three things: thoughts (cognitions), behaviours and feelings (both emotional and physical);

2. Identify unhelpful and negative thought patterns and beliefs. These thoughts are called “thinking errors,” but with kids we call them “thinking traps”;

3. Replace these thinking traps with more helpful thoughts to essentially change their mindset or inner dialogue;

4. Identify unhealthy behaviours that contribute to anxiety; and,

5. Replace unhealthy behaviours with self-supporting behaviors, such as deep breathing and progressive relaxation, and systematically confront the things that trigger their fear.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of Play-Based CBT is that it is solution-focused. The parent-child relationship is the most significant catalyst for building resilience and happiness in children who experience anxiety and stress. With easy-to-use play-based cognitive behavioral tools that support Heart-Mind well-being, you can help to limit the degree and persistence of your child’s anxiety and, more importantly, prevent it from coming back. The result is that kids feel better and stay better. 

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Michele Kambolis, MA, is a Child and Family Therapist, Registered Clinical Counselor and Parent Educator known for raising awareness about the needs of children and parents. She maintains a private practice, is the founder of Chi Kids and writes a national parenting column called “Parent Traps” for the Vancouver Sun and other Postmedia newspapers. Her book, Generation Stressed: Empowering Children in the Face of Stress, was published in Fall 2014.

Michele will be giving a lecture and question and answer session about Generation Stressed at UBC Robson Square in Vancouver on April 23, 2015, and in Surrey on May 13. For tickets and more information, visit: michelekambolis.com.






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