What Is the 3-3-3 Rule for Anxiety?

  • Medical Reviewer: Dany Paul Baby, MD
Medically Reviewed on 4/11/2022

Young children and anxiety

Parenting a young child can be tough. The 3-3-3 rule is a mindfulness technique that's simple enough for young children and it asks them to name three things they can see, identify three sounds they can hear, and move three different parts of their bodies.
Parenting a young child can be tough. The 3-3-3 rule is a mindfulness technique that's simple enough for young children and it asks them to name three things they can see, identify three sounds they can hear, and move three different parts of their bodies.

Parenting a young child can be tough. When you became a parent, you probably expected some difficult days and some sleepless nights. You probably didn't expect to be parenting a young child with anxiety. You may need professional advice if your child's anxiety is severe, but knowing some calming techniques can help. Teaching your child the 3-3-3 rule for anxiety is one way of helping your child cope.

Some anxiety is normal for children, even very young ones. Beginning as early as 8 months old, many children are anxious when separated from a parent. Young children may also fear the dark or thunder and lightning. They may become anxious around animals. As they get older, going to school and dealing with peers can cause anxiety. 

Some symptoms of anxiety are easily observable. Your child may: 

  • Startle easily
  • Breathe rapidly
  • Sweat or feel clammy
  • Cry
  • Have frequent temper tantrums or meltdowns
  • Become clingy
  • Tense up
  • Have trouble sleeping

Older children may complain of nausea, headaches, or stomachaches. 

Before you decide that your child is anxious, rule out other causes for these symptoms. In young children, being cold, hungry, or physically ill can cause these symptoms.

Causes of anxiety

Anxiety can run in families. Your child could be genetically likely to be anxious. Anxiety can also be tied to a child's environment. In the home, causes of anxiety include:

  • Conflict between parents
  • Divorce, especially if it is recent
  • Parent's illness
  • Poor parenting practices

Many children have school-related anxiety. Causes include:

  • Bullying
  • Teasing
  • Social rejection
  • Schoolwork that is too difficult
  • Conflict with a teacher 

You may be able to relieve a child's anxiety by addressing the cause. Still, all children will face stress in their lives and should learn to handle some anxiety.

Mindfulness and the 3-3-3 rule

Mindfulness is a way of relieving stress by paying close attention to what is going on in the present. A mindfulness practice often includes meditation. It may also include exercises to help you focus on the present in a nonjudgmental way. That means you notice things around you without thinking about whether they are good or bad. 

The 3-3-3 rule is a mindfulness technique that's simple enough for young children. It asks them to name three things they can see, identify three sounds they can hear, and move three different parts of their bodies. It's an enjoyable activity that distracts children from their worries and refocuses them on the here and now.

Children who are a little older can practice the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This technique asks you to name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. 

Why your child should learn to handle anxiety

As a parent, you may be tempted to remove your child from stressful situations. It's usually better to show children how to cope with their feelings. Removing them from the situation is a one-time fix. Teaching them coping techniques will help in future stressful situations.

Parenting a young child with anxiety

As a parent, you want to recognize your child's feelings without making their anxiety worse. That can be difficult. Keep these principles in mind:

  • Be honest. If your child is worried about something that really could happen, don't promise that it won't. Instead, recognize your child's feelings and assure them that they'll be OK. 
  • Let your child experience their feelings. When anxiety happens, encourage your child to ride it out. Facing fears usually reduces them. Therapists call this the "habituation curve." 
  • Think through the possibilities. Help your child think through ways to handle negative situations. 
  • Model coping behaviors. Children are observant. Don't constantly talk about being stressed. Don't let your child see you handling anxiety in unhealthy ways. Instead, say, "I was a little worried, but everything turned out fine." 

More mindfulness techniques

Besides the 3-3-3 method, there are many mindfulness exercises that can help your child handle anxiety. Try these:

  • Mindful breathing: Many mindfulness exercises focus on the breath. Show your child how to sit comfortably while paying attention to the movement of air in and out of their body.
  • Mindful eating: Help your child use their senses of sight, touch, and smell to investigate a special food before eating it. Then encourage them to eat it slowly, fully experiencing the taste and texture. 
  • Mindful walking: Help your child practice walking very slowly. Slowing down focuses attention on the series of movements that go into walking. 

Don't be afraid to get creative. One program used for young children included being mindful of breathing, of body parts, and of their own thoughts. They listened to their bodies after going for a run. They practiced walking like a particular animal. They pictured their thoughts as clouds in the sky. After eight weeks of the program, teachers reported that the children had fewer emotional problems and paid better attention.


A Visual Guide to Generalized Anxiety Disorder See Slideshow

Types of anxiety

Childhood anxiety often takes particular forms, including:

  • Separation anxiety over being parted from their parents
  • General anxiety about the future or worries about bad things that could happen
  • Social anxiety over interacting with others
  • Phobias, or extreme fears tied to particular objects, animals, or situations
  • Panic disorder, or episodes of intense fear that cause the heart to pound and the person to have trouble breathing

More help for anxiety

When a child's fears interfere with normal life, they may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. If this occurs with your child, talk to a professional. Your child's pediatrician or family doctor is a good place to start. A careful diagnosis is important. Treatment may include medication or behavior therapy. It may be appropriate for your child's school to be involved in their treatment plan. 

A healthy lifestyle is important for children dealing with anxiety. You should: 

  • Encourage your child to be active for at least 1 hour a day
  • Provide healthful foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other sources of lean protein
  • Arrange your child's schedule with plenty of time for sleep

Practicing mindfulness and using relaxation techniques can also be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 4/11/2022

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: "Anxiety and Children."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Anxiety and Depression in Children."

Child Mind Institute: "What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious."

Frontiers in Psychology: "Mindfulness-Oriented Meditation for Primary School Children: Effects on Attention and Psychological Well-Being."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Anxiety in children."

The Mental Health Foundation: "The Anxious Child."

Nemours KidsHealth: "Mindfulness Exercises."

Twitter: @NHS24, Jan. 25, 2021.

University of Minnesota: "What Is Mindfulness?"

University of Rochester: "5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique for Anxiety."