10 Tried & True Products for Calming Anxious Kids

How to Calm Anxious Kids
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I should have known. Nearly two years into our “new normal” of cancelled outings and curbed activities, I launched my son from the relative safety of the pandemic womb into—of all places—an indoor water park.

He loved the water park (thankfully). But the moment we got home, Alex quickly retreated to his room, desperate for reprieve. Dropping his backpack at the front door, he raced upstairs, grabbed a book and curled himself into his “sensory swing,” his long body folded into the fabric sack like a baby kangaroo nestled inside its mama’s pouch. 

It was his way of taking a deep breath. And it worked: What may have transpired into a tantrum in his younger years, ended with peace and quiet. The water park endeavor was a success.

Full disclosure: We are a family of acronyms. Between my two boys, we’ve got ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), DMDD (Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, CTD (Chronic Tic Disorder), GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), SAD (the woefully ironic initials for Social Anxiety Disorder), and ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder)—here’s a piece I wrote about what it’s like to parent a child with “chronic aggression.”

The labels have come and gone, depending on who’s doing the diagnosing. But whether or not the titles tell a clear story, one thing is consistent: Both of my boys have trouble regulating their emotions.

As Mama Bear, I’ve done what I can to help—from finding various therapists to amassing an arsenal of physical tools to help my kids relax. That swing, for one, works wonders.

But that’s not all. There’s an abundance of gear out there designed to give revved up kids a place to regulate (whether they’ve got a label or not). Here’s what worked for us—and some expert opinions on why.

Sensory Compression Sheet for Anxious Kids

My middle son with anxiety loves the feeling of a compression sheet, which wraps all the way around the mattress like a tight sleeve. Before using it, his restless nights would mean he’d wake up sheetless, his bedding kicked off and crumpled on the floor. Now, he can’t even kick his sheets off the bed if he tried.

And it's a good thing, says Casey Ames, the founder of Harkla, a company dedicated to making products for neurodiverse families. Ames said improving sleep Is one of the most important thing a sensory product can do. 

“I think the feedback we get for the compression sheet or weighted blanket makes me the happiest, since improving sleep is such a big win for families,” Ames said. “It not only helps the child, but oftentimes parents can get back to sleeping normally after years of interrupted sleep.”

Good to Know: It’s a bit of a pain to get on and off the mattress (if you've ever worn compression socks, you get it). Still, seeing my restless boy snuggle happily beneath his covers at night makes it all worth it. 

To buy: Harkla Compression Sheet, $35

Indoor Sensory Swing for Anxious Kids

This one is the golden ticket for us; the go-to for my oldest son, in particular, when he needs to decompress. Experts say it’s not just neurodiverse kids who can benefit from the sensory swing’s tight “hug.” These sorts of swings—which are usually made of stretchy fabric that wrap around the body like a womb—can help all kids.  

“Think of babies when they’re distressed and crying, what do we do? We swaddle them or swing them,” says Los Angeles pediatric neurologist Pantea Hannauer. “Sensory swings do the same thing. They give that needed sensory input.” 

Note: Make sure you have enough space around the swing. Therapeutic or not, it's still a swing, and if my kids are any indication, it will be swung as high as possible. 

To buy: Harkla Indoor Sensory Swing, $100

Bean Bags for Kids

Bean bags are a must for all sensory-seeking kids (and arguably any kid). Whether your child needs something to smash into while diving from the couch or a snuggly spot for sitting with a book, bean bags give neurodiverse kids reprieve while giving neurotypical kids a cozy spot to curl up. 

“It’s beneficial for kids to have a place with furniture that they can use to calm down and recharge their batteries, enhance calmness, or provide an outlet to prevent boredom,” said Eyal Levy, the founder of Yogibo, a sensory-friendly furniture company that specializes in zero-pressure-point bean bags. “It's great for pushing, pulling, crashing, or jumping into to provide deep pressure input—these help to regulate kid’s moods and give them a sense of calm and peace. 

We've tried a few, but especially love the Yogibo Max, a humongous, oblong-shaped bean bag with so many tiny foam beans inside that it conforms to your body as you sink into it. At nearly $300, it’s a splurge, for sure. But it’s durable (you can change the covers when they get dirty), super-comfy, lightweight, and big enough to use as a bed when the kids want sleepovers. 

To buy: Yogibo Max, $269

Noise-Reduction Headphones for Kids

We discovered how much my oldest son needed these when, at 8 years old, he was completely overwhelmed by Disneyland’s Cars ride. It wasn’t the motion, he said; it was the noise. It was just. So. Loud.

The next time, he wore these headphones and the experience was way better. He also wears them to movies (or at our noisy dinner table) when he needs a buffer between him and the sounds. They also work great for keeping things quiet while doing homework.

He's 12 now, so we’re looking into noise-cancelling ear buds like these, which will be more discreet in public. 

To buy: Alpine Hearing Protection Headphones, $30

To buy: dBud Ear buds, $59

 

Chewable Pencil Toppers for Anxious Kids

When our family goes out to dinner, we can always tell which cup my middle son has been using because, it’s always the one with the straw that’s been chewed almost to the point it doesn’t work as a straw anymore. 

He does it to his pencils and pens, too. In fact, one time he turned to me, mid-homework, with black ink all over his mouth;  he had actually chewed a pen so hard it cracked. 

Enter these chewable pencil toppers, which let him nibble away when he feels the need. We've tried these chew necklaces, too, but he doesn't like to use them in school because he doesn't like how they look. The pencil toppers are discreet, and he can chew away. 

To buy: Chewable Pencil Toppers, $8 for three 

Bed Tents for Kids

Bed tents are the best. Not only do they look super-cool; they're also great for littles with sensory processing disorder, ADHD or autism because they can help those kids relax without actually being in a formal "therapeutic" device. We originally got them to give my boys privacy when they shared a room, but they enjoyed them even when they were alone. 

“Bed tents are actually creating some sensory deprivation, which makes some kids feel more cozy and safe,” Hannauer said. “It deprives them of sensory input so they're actually doing the appropriate steps for sleep hygiene.”

In other words, kids will be having fun chilling in their tent, but really they’re in their beds…getting sleepy. 

To buy: Privacy Pop Bed Tent, $105

Weighted Blankets for Kids

When famed autistic scientist Temple Grandin invented the "hug machine" as a teen, she was basically looking for a way to give herself a hug—to get that deep, all-encompassing pressure—without actually needing to hug another person (which can be hard for some kids on the spectrum). Of course, Grandin's hug machine was the size of a large bathtub, so not realistic for most families. Weighted blankets, on the other hand, are easy, and offer a similar sort of deep-pressure "hug."

"I'm a big fan of weighted blankets," said Hannauer, who treats mainly children with ADHD and autism at her Los Angeles office. "These are sensory interventions that provide deep-pressure sensory input. Basically, the more calm you are, the less sensitive."

To buy: Luna Weighted Kid's Blanket, $40

 

Sensory Sacks & Body Socks for Anxious Kids

My kids look ridiculous when they climb into these faceless, zipped-up sacks (think Blue Man meets The Mummy), but I can tell they're getting something out of it because they'll go in one way (angry and frustrated) and come out another (calm and happy). Experts say it's the deep pressure they're getting from all sides—similar to how swaddling a baby works—that helps ease the anxiousness. Note: The picture above is my actual child in his sensory sack.

To buy: Harkla Body Sock, $41

Flex-Space Balance Ball Seats for Restless Kids

We’ve gone through three chairs with my middle son, who has a tendency to perch precariously on the edges of a chair as if the center of the seat is too hot to rest his tush on. He also likes to move, often rocking the chair on one leg, a habit that eventually popped the springs of two dining room chairs, sagged the wicker of a kitchen chair, and thoroughly scratched the hardwood floor. 

These balance ball seats solve this problem. They’re basically yoga balls with legs—and they work great for kids who need to move while they’re working. They're also super-durable, and can't be broken with an aggressive bounce or sway (though my son probably does look a bit silly on Zoom calls, his body bouncing in and out of the screen.

But they work. My 10-year-old gets his wiggles out, and he gets his work done. Bonus points for the exercise. 

To buy: Lakeshore Learning, $20

photo: via Unsplash

Chewing Gum for Anxious Kids

This was the most surprising life hack of all. Apparently, chewing gum is good for you! According to a mental health study, chewing gum can ease anxiety, fight fatigue and boost moods. A 2009 study also showed that chewing gum reduces stress, specifically for kids with ADHD, which makes it a great tool to use during homework or school time.

For us, it helps ease my kids' motor tics, which means it's probably helping them de-stress as well. 

Children learn through their senses—and oral activity can be very calming. And, according to experts, the act of chewing gum also provides constant sensory input to the muscles in the jaw and ears, which can help children to concentrate better.

Of course, not all schools are cool with gum-chewing, so if you want your fidgety kid to use gum to focus, you may need to talk it over with the teacher first. 

Mia E.; author and kid’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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