When my daughter Diana realized she was afraid of public speaking, she decided the best way to deal with her anxiety was to face it head on and sign up for a speech class. I had to admire her. After all, when things scare me I do my best to avoid them. But Diana’s solution to deal directly with her fears was exactly what she needed to overcome her apprehension of public speaking. Since that class, Diana has given several public speeches including training on autism for families and professionals.
You can help your child deal with their anxiety about transition using the same principle that worked for Diana. Instead of closing in and shutting down, Diana opened up and moved forward through the process one step at a time until she gradually became more comfortable.
So how does “opening up and moving forward” work? When we feel anxious or scared we have a natural tendency to breath shallow (or even hold our breath), tighten our muscles, hunch our shoulders and pull our arms, neck and head close to the body. This closed-in body posture and decrease in breathing actually increases our anxiety and sense of powerlessness along with physical pain in some cases. So the key is to get the body out of this closed in position and into a more relaxed and confident posture instead.
The following 4 tips will help your son or daughter literally open up and work through their own process of change to cut down on the anxiety that comes with transition.
Tip #1: Make sure your son or daughter eats enough, drinks enough and goes to the bathroom. Many of our kids experience hypo-sensitivity, which means their bodies may not send the signal that they are hungry, thirsty or need to void. Furthermore, folks with autism, OCD, ADHD and general anxiety have a tendency to hyper-focus on a specific subject and filter everything else out. This means they may forget to eat, drink and use the bathroom because they are focusing on something else even when their bodies normally would send the right signal.
Unfortunately you may not realize your child is dehydrated or hungry. Dehydration can result in fuzzy thinking, fatigue, onset of seizures, headache and muscle cramping. As a consultant, I can not tell you the number of times a simple glass of water or a healthy snack made a significant difference in the ability of my clients to think more clearly, have more energy and feel less anxious. If your son or daughter refuses to drink water, then substitute the beverage they are willing to drink.
If your child needs to be reminded, make sure they have a water bottle and snack with them. For older children help them set the alarm on their watch or phone. They can also write it in their visual schedule, to do list or calendar if they carry one. They key is to treat drink, food and bathroom breaks as a priority during transition.
Tip # 2: Practice Deep breathing: Deep breathing has been shown to quickly lower stress levels and actually decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body. Deep breathing can work instantly to calm and relax both body and mind. The good news is that it is also easy to learn, requires no tools and can be done anywhere, anytime. Just how easy is it? I taught my 18-month-old son with mosaic downs syndrome to practice deep breathing in the hospital during chemotherapy. He was able to use this technique to deal with scary and painful procedures.
Be sure to teach deep breathing and practice it many times while your child is in a relaxed state so that it will be easier to use this tool when stressful or painful situations arise. The basic idea is to completely fill the lungs with air and in order to do this your child will need to use their stomach muscles to pull the air into the body.
Tip #3: Help your son or daughter use power poses: Research done by Amy Cuddy at Harvard shows that how you “carry yourself” or hold your body has a big effect on your hormones and therefore how you feel. Certain poses increase progesterone and lower cortisol giving you a sense of power, success and well-being while other poses increase the sense of anxiety and helplessness. Power poses are simple to learn and can be used before doing something that is particularly scary such as public speaking, visiting a new school, meeting new people, interviewing for a job or learning a new task.
Try the following two power poses with your child for two minutes:
Wonder Woman: Stand with your feet comfortably apart and put your hands on your hips with your head held high and your shoulders back.
Victory: Stand with your hands held above your body in the shape of a “V’ with your fists clenched shut or hands open wide.
You can teach your son or daughter to begin the day with a power pose as part of their regular routine before they walk out the door in the morning. You can also teach them to find a private place such as a bathroom stall or empty classroom to use a power pose before any stressful experience such as an exam, meeting new people or interviewing for a job. They will be in good company with athletes and entrepreneurs who practice these poses during stressful and competitive events.
Tip #4: Help your child create and carry a mental anchor: When we are scared, the thinking part of the brain shuts down and the instinctual part takes over. The problem with this is of course that your child is supposed to remember certain skills or tasks and learn new ones in these frightening situations.
Mental anchors can serve to remind your child under these stressful circumstances of what they are supposed to do. Mental anchors can remind your child to “breath”, “relax their muscles”, “say ‘hello’ and shake hands”, “eat”, complete a specific job or school task or set limits such as how long to talk about a favorite subject.
Help your son or daughter create and carry their own physical reminder to prompt them during transitions. If your child likes to make lists, help them make a list that they can carry in their pocket, if they like to draw, help them draw a picture as a reminder. I like to make and wear jewelry to remind me of skills I want to develop and I work with many teens and adults on the autism spectrum who like to carry rocks, batteries, notebooks, or specific songs on their iPods that help remind them of what they need to do in stressful situations. These concrete items can be especially helpful with abstract ideas that are otherwise hard to grasp such as happiness or friendship.
Get creative and utilize the interests and strengths that your child has. Your child can design a t-shirt to wear or pick one they already have. Anything can be a reminder if your child assigns a special meaning to the item. So if your child likes maps, trains, coniferous trees or culverts, help your child discover how their special interest can act as a reminder of a skill they need to practice.
Guarantee transition success for your child: Transition is hard because your child must face new experiences and “new” is scary. By helping your child to physically cope with their feelings of anxiety related to transition with these 4 simple tips:
- Eating, drinking & voiding
- Deep breathing
- Power poses
- Mental anchors
You are building a foundation of skills that they can use for a lifetime.
You can find more of Toni’s tips and writings on her page at www.neurodiverseuniverse.com.