Ensuring your child's well-being can be challenging when they struggle to communicate their feelings. Children with anxiety often describe their emotions in vague terms or avoid the discussion altogether. Younger kids cannot label their frustrations at all.
Medical professionals suggest many methods for dealing with childhood anxiety. While professional help and medications are often helpful, many children can benefit from stress relief during daily activities, such as school.
Stress toys come in many shapes and sizes and meet the different needs of children. Continue reading to learn what toys help with anxiety and which is best for your child.
How Does Anxiety Affect Children?
Anxiety affects all children differently. Every child will experience stress at some point, but this is just a phase for some. When these feelings come and go quickly, such as with recurring nightmares that last a few nights, there are rarely long-term effects.
Many children experience phases wherein they worry about the relationship between their parents, death, and acceptance in school. However, anxiety does not interfere with the normal functioning of most children.
One in eight children, however, is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. They experience persistent, irrational, overwhelming worry, fear, or anxiety. These feelings interfere with their daily activities and impair their ability to function.
What Are Some Signs of Anxiety in Children?
Shy children are more likely to develop anxiety. However, this trait is not a deciding factor. Common signs include:
- Poor performance in school
- Being too sick for school or refusing to go
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble remembering
- Excessively apologetic
- Difficulty sleeping
- Avoiding going out with friends or family
- Separation anxiety
- Nervousness in new environments
- Asking repetitive "what if" questions, and an inability to be soothed by the answers
- Showing concern for events far in the future
We are all affected by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system provides the fight-or-flight response when we perceive danger. In these moments, we must choose whether to take action against or flee from the threat.
Children show intense energy and movement when they have an overactive sympathetic nervous system. They may appear silly, jittery, shocked, angry, anxious, or experience difficulty sleeping.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite. When activating this system, anxious children may withdraw and have low energy levels. If your child claims to feel tired, bored, or sad, this system may be in effect.
Disorders That Often Pair With Anxiety
Anxiety accompanies certain disorders more frequently than others. We list some of the most common below.
Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder describes difficulty with sensory integration. Children with this disorder face many challenges because their senses do not respond to their environments the same way as most.
In some children, sensory receptors are overactive, causing the outside world to seem overwhelming. In others, however, the senses are less active than usual, and children aim to increase sensory input.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, consists of unwelcome thoughts and fears that cause repetitive behaviors. A child with OCD will obsess over specific thoughts, such as small mistakes, meaning permanent failure.
Although the child may understand this is illogical, it is challenging to ignore. Thus, the child will avoid stepping in the wrong area, regardless of whether avoidance interferes with daily activities. Over time, these actions form a pattern of ritualistic behavior.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Children with ADHD have short attention spans, cannot stay still or calm, and struggle with impulse control. These traits interfere with daily activities.
ADHD is especially troublesome for schoolchildren because they are often forgetful, easily distracted, and disorganized. They also fidget more than most children, which is why many benefit from sensory and anxiety toys.
While most people experience some level of social anxiety, those with social anxiety disorder face intense fears and phobias. Children with this disorder often show signs such as:
- Fear of new things
- Fear of or refusal to speak
- Irritability in younger kids
- Clinginess in younger kids
- Fear of talking to others
- Fear of performance activities, such as concerts or athletic competition
- Fear of social gatherings
- Concern over judgment from others
Autism Spectrum Disorder
ASD is a complex condition with many variations. Differences in the brain interrupt normal development in children, causing delays in multiple areas.
Common characteristics of ASD include trouble communicating and interacting, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. As with other disorders, these struggles make it difficult for children and adults to perform daily tasks at school, work, and at home.
Do Anxiety Toys Calm Children?
Toys can help anxious kids immensely. They provide a momentary distraction and outlet for nervous energy. Over time, using these toys promotes the development of self-soothing skills.
Each type of stress toy meets different sensory needs. The three main types which we will discuss below.
Visually Calming Toys
Visually calming toys benefit children who are often overwhelmed by their environments. If crowded rooms or darkness cause anxiety for your child, visually calming toys can redirect their nervous energy to a predictable item.
Recently, parents and teachers have promoted alphabet play dough mats. You can make these at home with a bit of time and creativity. Print pages with uppercase and lowercase letters on them, then have your child color the pictures and add play dough within the letters. Laminating the printed pages helps play dough stick.
These mats have multiple benefits, such as:
- Improving fine motor skills
- Providing stress relief with the feeling of playdough
- Offering a sensory play activity while creating and playing with the mat
Another great DIY sensory toy is the sensory bottle. You or your child need to find a clear water bottle, place small objects and water inside, and tape the cap back onto the bottle. Any small objects will do, but some classic favorites include glitter and pom-poms. You can even add metal objects and give your child a magnet to watch the reaction.
Benefits of these toys include:
- Redirecting focus away from an overwhelming environment
- Providing an opportunity for sensory play when children squeeze the bottles
- Promoting curiosity as children watch some objects float while others sink
The infinity cube fidget toy is popular for its versatility. Children can turn each of the eight cubes in any direction, creating new designs that provide mental stimulation. This fidget tool also promotes tactile sensory play while children turn the cubes.
Auditorially Soothing Toys
Auditorially soothing toys have a reputation for helping children with autism spectrum disorder, but other children can also benefit from them. Some children are negatively affected by extreme noise levels, whether their environment is too loud or too quiet. Such toys change the noise level by providing soothing sounds or canceling out loud sounds.
You may have seen children or adults wearing headphones while in public. This sensory tool is often helpful for people with a sensory processing disorder but can help children in multiple situations. Headphones and earplugs cancel out excess noise, turning anxiety-provoking situations quieter and more manageable.
Rainmakers are ideal for children who thrive off noise, especially when it is soothing and steady.
You can make these out of cans, nails, paper towel rolls, and tape. Once you bunch up a sheet of aluminum foil and place it in the paper towel roll, it will allow the contents of the rainmaker to fall more slowly and create more consistent noise. Place corn and rice into the roll, then decorate the paper towel roll.
These toys help kids:
- Develop an appreciation for music
- Create predictable noise to soothe themselves
- Show their creative side while decorating
Sound puzzles also provide auditory input that is soothing for many children with anxiety. These anxiety tools involve puzzle pieces that make noise when you lay them in the correct place. Many are accessible for young children or those with special needs.
Kinesthetic toys are best when a child's anxiety presents as an excessive movement. We often label children as jittery or antsy when their anxiety level increases, and they have trouble focusing this energy appropriately. Kinesthetic toys allow children to perform set actions with their hands, feet, or mouths without distracting them from the current task.
Some of the most popular kinesthetic toys for children are the Pop It and fidget spinners. Each sensory fidget toy focuses nervous energy into a quiet task which hopefully will not distract from schoolwork. Many children find these simple tasks soothing.
Stress balls are also popular among children who like to keep their hands busy. There are many types, and you can make a homemade stress ball. Squeezing and relaxing your muscles releases muscle tension and signals your brain to release endorphins, which provides anxiety relief. Like stress balls, putty is an excellent tool for exercising muscles.
Children who constantly tap their feet and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can benefit from fidget bands. These stretchable straps wrap around the front legs of a chair, and children can move them with their feet while at a desk. Some benefits are:
- Releasing pent-up energy
- Learning to self-regulate and redirect energy appropriately
- Making it easier for children to sit for long periods
Chewelry is another popular sensory toy. It is helpful for a variety of people, including those with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, sensory processing disorder, and mental health conditions like anxiety.
When children chew at inappropriate times, they engage in sensory stimulation. They may chew on their hair, clothes, or objects nearby when they do not have a proper outlet. Some examples of appropriate outlets known as chewelry are:
- Chew necklaces
- Chewy toys that fit in the mouth but do not cause choking hazards
- Chew fidgets
- Chew bracelets
Why Fidget Toys Don't Help With Anxiety
Although many people use fidget toys to ease anxiety at work and school, there is a lack of evidence that these items are helpful. Most doctors recommend other approaches to alleviate anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, a balanced diet, steady sleep schedules, grounding techniques, counseling, and medication.
A fidget toy, such as a fidget spinner, is especially troublesome in schools. While some children find them soothing, others become distracted by the motion and cannot focus on schoolwork. One study even suggested that using fidget toys can interfere with classroom interventions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Snuggle Puppy HERO
For 20 years, the Snuggle Puppy has been helping pets with anxiety. Dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, and bears used the Snuggle Puppy for comfort during anxiety-provoking times.
Although the original design intended to ease dog anxiety, some children borrowed the Snuggle Puppy from their pets. Stories of improved sleep and decreased stress in children spurred the development of Snuggle Puppy HERO.
Snuggle Puppy HERO is a stuffed animal designed for auditory and tactile comfort. The Snuggle Puppy HERO includes a heartbeat and silicone corners that allow fidgeting and chewing. The adorable puppy puts a smile on kids' faces and promotes healthy sleep schedules.
Learning that your child suffers from anxiety may make you feel helpless, but there are many ways to reach out. Some children resist therapy and medication, but very few will turn down new toys.
You can meet your child in his comfort zone and connect by offering him a stress toy. Although no one toy is the best anxiety toy, countless options can best meet your child's needs.
When looking for toys, consider your child's individual preferences and struggles. Ideally, stress toys will not only reduce stress, but they will also promote self-soothing techniques and help children focus on the task at hand.
The first step to helping a child with anxiety is to commit to finding a solution. With trial-and-error and open conversations, you and your child can work together to make daily living more manageable and enjoyable.