As we were preparing to move from one state to another, my four year old fell apart. “Where’s my train, my bunny, my legos?” he wailed. He didn’t feel comfortable when his favorite toys were packed away in boxes. His anxiety about moving skyrocketed.
Children respond to stress in many ways. Some squirm with discomfort, others become defiant or oppositional, and still others retreat into apathy. They may cry, or yell, or get very, very quiet. Often they are not sure what to do to manage their emotions. It’s hard for them to focus or problem-solve because they feel overwhelmed.
When kids begin to feel anxious and insecure, they need anchors to steady them. Professor Lori Desautels notes that anchors are designed to hold a boat in place while still allowing it some flexibility to float within a safe space. Similarly, children need people, places, and things that provide both stability and flexibility to help them navigate life.
Other people can be powerful anchors for children. Some help kids feel protected, while others provide wisdom or model virtues like patience, persistence, or collaboration. Ask children: Who helps you feel safe? Who do you trust? Encourage kids to make a list of these human anchors and turn to them when they feel vulnerable. With children too young to write, help them record their list or create a picture/photo list.
Places can also be strong anchors. Think about the spaces you like to retreat to when you have a bad day, or the spots you most enjoy hanging out. These are your place anchors. Ask children: What places feel special to you? Where do you like to go when you need comfort? Encourage kids to picture their anchor places in their heads if they cannot physically go to them when stressed.
Sometimes times, days, or seasons serve as anchors. You might feel most grounded first thing in the morning, after a quick midafternoon nap, or just before bed. Perhaps you live for Sunday evenings as a haven between the weekend activities and the busyness of the week. Or you long for the snowdays of winter. Ask kids: What time of day is your favorite? What day of the week do you most enjoy? What’s your favorite season? Encourage children to draw on these preferences to reset and recharge when needed.
Often, our favorite anchors are things and experiences that serve to calm and focus us. It might be the texture of a soft blanket, a favorite song or piece of music, an activity like petting a dog or cat, the soothing taste of a favorite food or drink, deep breathing exercises, or going for a walk or run. Ask children: What do you like to do to help yourself calm down? What helps you feel grounded or settled? Encourage kids to include these activities regularly in their daily routines or keep soothing objects in their backpack or pocket for easy access.
As with most things in life, anchors can change over time. Meeting new people and having new experiences may add to or replace previous ways that kids anchor themselves. Check in with children periodically to help them discover new resources for anchoring themselves.