Alicia Kollmar MS, OTR/L
Before I became an occupational therapist, I worked as a nursing aide in a psychiatric hospital where there was one ward for women who were diagnosed with a personality disorder. Most, if not all, had a history of abuse and extreme anxiety. Ultimately the professionals in charge determined that hospitalizing these women together was not a good way to treat their conditions because they often learned self-harm techniques from each other. The anxious brain also tends to focus on everything negative, and when several people are together with negative thoughts it can create a toxic environment. However, I noticed that those women could have moments of feeling safer and less distressed when they were helping each other. Helping others can have huge benefits for people with anxiety.
Children with anxiety often live “in their heads.” They are thinking about what may or may not happen in certain situations (or more accurately they are convinced that the worst of the worst will happen). Children are also often natural helpers. Helping others through acts of kindness and charity have several benefits in addition to helping the recipients:
- It gets them to focus on something other than themselves and their uncomfortable thoughts.
- It’s positive. It keeps them from focusing on negative things.
- It increases confidence. Expectations can be relatively low because anything is welcome and is helpful. You can have success with charity with very little effort.
- Seeing that people may be less fortunate than them can help them learn perspective-taking and empathy. Perspective-taking is often very helpful for children with anxiety.
- They can see that they have control over something—and if that something lets them see a smile on the face of other people or a happy animal, even better!
Of course there are many other benefits to helping others, but these are a few that especially benefit children with anxiety. I encourage you to work with your child to explore things they can do, or that you can do as a family, to help other people, animals and communities. After your acts of service talk about what you did and how it made you feel. Focus on the positive impact you’re having and the positive feelings you get from that. And if your child pushed past their comfort boundaries to perform that act of charity—make a big deal about that.