My daughter is a healthy and happy child. She sleeps well and laughs often. Her smile is wide. It has the ability to light up not only our home but an entire city block. My daughter is kind. She will wipe the tears from your eyes or offer you the proverbial shirt off her back, and she is hilarious. (Sure, her knock-knock jokes need some work, but she is silly and whimsical.) Her natural state is one of fun.
But she is also sensitive: extremely sensitive. You can literally see her break. Why? Because my daughter has anxiety and her episodes look (more or less) like meltdowns.
She cries, screams, and collapses in a heap, on her bed or our cold laminate floors.
Juvenile anxiety (or childhood anxiety) looks different than adult anxiety. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, physical symptoms are common; many children with anxiety complain of headaches and/or gastrointestinal issues. Focus and concentration issues are also common, as are “negative” behaviors—including irritability—and some children with anxiety will react disproportionately or irrationally respond to criticism.
My daughter cries every time we chuckle at her behavior — yes, even her jokes — because she believes we are laughing at her, not with her. She feels vulnerable and attacked. She also struggles in school.
Her fear of messing up or being “wrong” keeps her stuck.
It took me years to understand what was behind my daughter’s sudden mood swings and educational issues. I thought her tantrums were age-related and tried to manage them with talking, time outs, redirection, and repercussions — I often took away toys and treats — but nothing worked, and by the spring of 2019, I knew I needed more. We needed help, so I took my daughter to a counselor.
Her suggestion? Create a sensory space, a special nook or corner filled with objects she could touch and squeeze to cool down.
Sensory therapy is nothing new. In fact, the technique is regularly used to help those with ADHD and/or autism, but it can also be beneficial to individuals with anxiety, as it was for my daughter. The reason? Sensory toys and devices calm children by giving them something external to focus on, and according to Enabling Devices, this is done through interesting colors, textures, and shapes.
As for how we created a sensory space, that was easy. We went to the dollar store and picked out several small items, including a stress ball, paddle ball, throw blanket, and fidget spinner. We found a spot in her room where we could place said items (and a few throw pillows), and we discussed how she could use each item to calm down and cool down. How she could better regulate her feelings, and she did.
When she was angry, she would squeeze her Baby Shark stress reliever. When she was sad, she would hug a black bear — which we have dubbed “Feel Better Bear” — stroking his soft, curly fur, and when she was overstimulated, she would wrap herself in a $5 fleece blanket. The thin, pink throw is hers — and hers alone. But the biggest change came about when my husband and I changed our approach: when we stopped trying to control her feelings and instead let her work through them. Because while she found comfort in blankets and water beads, she didn’t use her tools until we gave her the space to do so.
We had to acknowledge that she was different, and that processing her thoughts and emotions would take more patience, understanding, and time.
We stopped yelling at her — and over her. We stopped trying to get her “up” when she melted down, and instead let her lay on the bed, couch, or floor. We’ve removed entire phrases from our vocabulary, like “people don’t act like this” and “it’s not that big of a deal,” and we’ve acknowledged that she needs time to process her emotions. Now, we say things like “why don’t you take a few minutes for yourself?” or “how about you play with your toys in your special corner?”
Make no mistake: Things aren’t perfect. We’ve been practicing this technique for months, and we still slip. It’s easy to default to “stop that” and “why are you whining?” My husband regularly responds to my daughter’s screaming with his own, but these responses get us nowhere. At all. The only way to deescalate her mood (and, in many ways, our own) is with calm voices, distance — and yes, a special sensory corner.