How playing can reduce anxiety in children




Research suggests that children can become anxious if they have too little time for free play. Barnett (1984) assessed children on their anxiety levels on their first day at nursery school. It was found that the children who were able to play freely had lower levels of anxiety than those who had to listen to stories. This supports the view that play allows children to work through their conflicts and anxiety.

The case of Dibs, a 5-year old boy who showed very disturbed behaviour shows the importance of play for dealing with issues (Axline, 1947). Dibs was referred to Axline, a clinical psychologist specialising in play therapy, for very disturbed behaviour. His parents thought he might be brain damaged. Axline watched Dibs’ play carefully to look for emotional reasons for his disturbed behaviour. Dibs often played with dolls that represented his family and in one instance, he buried a doll representing his father in the sand. This was interpreted as hostility towards his father. Axline was able to uncover Dibs’ conflicts and problems through the therapy. Dibs’ relationship with his parents improved as did his behaviour at school. Dibs IQ was tested after the therapy and he scored in the top 1% of the population. By then he had no emotional difficulties.

Sloan (1999) examined whether play therapy could be used to reduce aggressive behaviour in children in New York. The study found that play therapy is effective for reducing aggressive behaviour.


How can a parent use play at home to deal with anxiety?

Parents can use toy figures and role play to work through fears and other issues with their children. For example, if your child is worried about going to the doctors, you can role play doctors with them or encourage them to play doctors with their dolls or teddies. If your child is frightened of the dark, you can pretend that a toy figure is being put to bed in the dark and your child can talk about their fears. Another toy figure can be used to dispel fears. Any monsters or ghosts that turn up in the role play can be changed into something non-threatening. You can get your child to imagine what the toy figures/dolls would do if they were very brave (Jay et al., 1987).


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Want your child to read more? Read ‘The Fortress’, a fantasy  adventure story aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds.


Mindfulness techniques for children and teenagers


Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment and becoming more aware of thoughts and feelings. It has been found to reduce mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, reduce negative thoughts and increase emotional awareness and compassion. It can also improve self-esteem and attention span as well as reducing risky behaviour.
Mindfulness can be taught to children and teenagers using the following techniques:
1)Awareness of an Object: Ask your child to choose an object to draw such as a chair or a cup. Tell them that the aim of the activity is not about their ability to draw but about noticing details. Once they have drawn the object, ask them to draw it a second time and see whether they can identify any details missing from the first drawing that were in the second. Usually, the second drawing is more accurate. Ask them to consider what it was like to spend time really looking at an object that they wouldn’t usually take the time to notice.
2) Awareness of Self in the Environment: Ask your child to focus on a particular part of the day such as getting ready for school over a period of a week. At the beginning of the week, they might focus on what happens more generally in the morning but by the end of the week, they may notice other details such as what they feel and experience as they got dressed, ate their breakfast or walked down the hallway.
3)Paying attention to the senses: Kabat-Zinn who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed the raisin meditation as a way of getting people to pay attention to their senses. Give your child with three raisins/grapes/chocolate buttons and then read the following script to them in a slow, calm voice:
Bring your attention to the raisin, observing it carefully as if you had never
seen one before. Pick up one raisin and feel its texture between your fingers
and notice its colours. Be aware of any thoughts you might be having about
the raisin. Note any thoughts or feelings of liking or disliking raisins if they
come up while you are looking at it. Then lift the raisin to your nose and
smell it for a while and finally, with awareness, bring it to your lips, being
aware of the arm moving the hand to position it correctly and of your mouth
salivating as the mind and body anticipate eating. Take the raisin into your
mouth and chew it slowly, experiencing the actual taste of the raisin. Hold
it in your mouth. When you feel ready to swallow, watch the impulse to
swallow as it comes up, so that even that is experienced consciously. When
you are ready, pick up the second raisin and repeat this process, with a new
raisin, as if it is now the first raisin you have ever seen [Kabat-Zinn, 1990,
p. 27].

4)Awareness of Movement: Ask your child to move around the room as softly as they can as if walking on a delicate glass floor. Ask them to notice each movement, for example, their arms moving side to side or their legs moving upwards. Ask them to move faster and then slower and to notice whether it feels different. You can also get them to focus on their left leg for a few steps and then their right leg.
5)Breathing meditation: Ask your child to breathe normally but to notice how cool air enters the nose and warm air is exhaled. The aim of the breathing meditation is to get your child to focus on the present. Counting will help them to stay focused on the breathing. For example, your child could count to ‘one’ for the first inhale and ‘one’ for the first exhale, then ‘two’ inhale and ‘two’ exhale and so on up to five. Then they can start back at ‘one’. Explain to your child that different thoughts will come into their mind while they are breathing but that they should bring their attention back to breathing/counting starting with ‘one’. Tell them not to judge the thoughts that come into their mind while they are breathing but just mentally note them.
5)Thought meditation: After your child has learnt to be mindful of the present, the next step is to get them to realise how their thoughts affect their feelings and how they are in control of their thoughts. Ask your child to close their eyes and then to spot their next thought.
6)Meditation on the bubble: This involves getting your child to not only be aware of their thoughts but also to let thoughts go without judgement. This can stop them ruminating over certain thoughts or worrying unduly. Read the following script to your child in a slow, calm voice and then allow them to try it for a few minutes:
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and
shoulders relaxed. Softly close your eyes. Imagine bubbles slowly rising
up in front of you. Each bubble contains a thought, feeling, or perception.
See the first bubble rise up. What is inside? See the thought, observe it,
and watch it slowly float away. Try not to judge, evaluate, or think about it
more deeply. Once it has floated out of sight, watch the next bubble appear.
What is inside? Observe it, and watch it slowly float away. If your mind
goes blank, then watch the bubble rise up with “blank” inside and slowly
float away.

7)Visualisation meditation: The aim of this meditation is to get your child to use visualisation as a relaxation technique.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and
shoulders relaxed. Softly close your eyes. Allow the picture in your mind to
become blank. You are going to imagine a place that feels comfortable, safe,
and relaxing. Think of your place. It might be the beach, a lake, or even
your own bed. Imagine it slowly appearing before you, becoming more and
more clear. Look to your left. What do you see? Look to your right. What is
over there? Look closer. Breathe in. What do you smell? Walk around your
place. Look closer at certain things. Stay focused on your place. How are
you feeling? If you find your thoughts wandering, observe them, and then
focus on bringing the image of your place back into focus in front of you.
(Allow some time.) When you are ready, put your hand in front of your
eyes. Open your eyes. Slowly spread your fingers to allow light in. When
you are ready, slowly remove your hand.

Your child can be asked to remember or draw the scene they have imagined and to use the visualisation whenever they feel anxious.

8) Encourage your child to practice mindfulness regularly to develop control over their thoughts and emotions. For example, you can ask them to really look at the trees, flowers, building etc. when they go for a walk or really think about the tastes, textures and smells of what they are eating.

(Techniques taken from Hooker and Fodor, 2008)

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon,, , Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore. It is a comprehensive reference guide for parents covering a wide range of topics including emotional intelligence and mindfulness.

More information about mindfulness can be found at A website run by the Mental Health Foundation. You can take a stress test by following the links on the website.


Children’s mental health

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Despite the fact that one in four people will suffer some kind of mental health problem is the course of a year, there is still as stigma attached to admitting you have depression or anxiety. One of my friends told me recently that they have depression but they did not want me to tell anyone else. This is a sad situation as I would hope that if people knew about it they would be supportive and non-judgemental. I am pleased that they have an advertising campaign on the television at the moment suggesting that people should talk about mental health more.childtherapist

We also need to be aware that children can have mental health issues too. About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time. Parents should look out for mental health problems in their children especially at times of stress. For example, if there has been a family bereavement or your child is being bullied, they may be more vulnerable to depression. Some of the symptoms of depression are: tearfulness, decreased interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, low energy levels, irritability, problems sleeping and saying they want to be dead. One charity that offers help for children and teenagers with mental health problems is

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one treatment for depression (Nauta et al, 2003; Butler, 2006). It works by challenging a child’s beliefs about their life. For example, they make think that no one wants to be my friend because they are being bullied. The therapist aims to replace the child’s negative thoughts with more realistic ones such as ‘Maddy and Alex are my friends’. The behavioural part of the therapy involves getting children to increase their activity levels and practice managing problems. For example, children may be encouraged to get involved in a sports team or to speak up about something they are unhappy with. Children are also asked to talk to any friends and family they feel safe with about their feelings to reduce social isolation.

Mindfulness techniques for children and teenagers