Anxiety has a way of making everyone feel helpless – the ones in the midst of an anxiety attack as well as the ones beside them who would do anything to make it better. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do when your little person is flooded with anxiety. Different things will work for different people, so don’t be afraid to experiment with what works best.
For children with anxiety, whatever you can do to be a strong, steadying presence will be the right thing to do. Nothing you say or do can make it go away, but if you can walk through it beside them, you’ll make a difference.
Trust that they can cope, because they can – they’re amazing – and in time, as awful as it feels to go through it, and to watch them go through it, they will also trust their capacity to step bravely through their anxiety and come out the other side. Here are some things that can make a difference, but again, your child is the expert on their anxiety and what works, so be quick to take your cues from them:
When anxiety takes hold:
• ‘You’re safe. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’
You might not be believed straight away, but that’s okay. This isn’t about changing anything. It’s about offering warmth, safety and comfort the best way you can.
• ‘Whatever you do now will be absolutely fine with me.’
Part of the stress of anxiety can be not knowing what to do, or being worried that whatever they’re doing might not be okay. Validating their response will empower them to move through the feeling in their own way, and at their own pace.
• ‘Do whatever you need to do. Even if it’s nothing.’
This is permission for them to respond how they want to respond, without feeling silly or as though they need to explain or ‘fight’ their response. The less people feel the need to fight the feeling, the more likely it is that the feeling can come and then go.
• ‘Let’s go for a walk and see if we can find your strong breaths.’
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). Try to help them to access their strong breaths while walking, but for children with anxiety, this will be easier if they’ve practiced outside of an anxiety attack.
• ‘Your brain is thinking that it needs to protect you. Breathe – I’ll do it with you. It will let your brain know that you’ve got this, and that you’re okay. It just needs to know that you’re safe and then it will settle down.
Anxiety is from a fight or flight response, triggered when the amygdala in the brain perceives threat. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or not – the brain thinks it is and acts as though its true, fuelling the body to respond. That’s why anxiety feels like it does – every physical response is because the brain is getting the body to fight or flight. (See here for more of an explanation.) Breathing triggers the relaxation response which, like the fight or flight response, is also hardwired into all of us. Breathing can be almost impossible to access in the midst of an anxiety attack, so it’s important for them to practice strong breaths (in for three, hold for one, out for three, hold for one) each day when they’re calm, with the trigger words that work for them, so it’s easier to access when they need it. There are a couple of ways to do this:
>> Invite them to imagine they have a cup of hot chocolate, and to breathe in the heady chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, then blow it cool for three.
>> Trace the infinity sign (∞) with your finger on their back, hand or wherever feels right for them. Take 3 seconds to draw the left circle of the infinity sign and ask them to breathe in while you do this. Then stop for a second, and ask them to hold their breath – but just for a second. Now take three seconds to draw the right circle, and ask them to breathe out while you do it. Try to make it a fluid, relaxing movement – left circle for 3, hold for one, right circle for three.
These are just a couple of ideas to make practicing strong breaths fun, but whatever works for them is perfect.
And when they’re calm …
• ‘I know how I feel when I feel anxious or worried about things, but I’d really like to understand what your worry feels like for you. Can you teach me?’
Empower them by acknowledging that they the experts of their anxiety – because they are. At the heart of emotional intelligence is being able to accurately identify a feeling when it happens. The more children with anxiety are able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour.
• ‘You don’t have to do this by yourself. Is there something I can do to help you feel less alone? Is it best if I say something? Nothing? Hold your hand? Touch your back? Give you space?’
There might not be anything that comes to mind for them, and that’s okay.
• ‘If you saw someone going through what you go through, what would you say to comfort them?’
This invites a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through it themselves.
• ‘What if you could do anything in the world when you feel like this to feel better? Anything at all – doesn’t matter how crazy it is. What would it be?’
Give them in fantasy what is difficult for them in reality. This can help to open up the options, so help them to play with the ideas. Often there’s a sense of stuckness that comes from anxiety, which can give anxiety more power than it deserves. Sometimes, the best way to finding something that works is straight through the middle of the crazy, silly things first, (‘What if I could get that worry of yours and feed it a whole truckload of jelly so it was too busy to bother you? Or maybe we could play it some sleepy music? Or maybe some fun ‘dancey’ music to wear it out? What do you think?’)
• ‘I’m here to listen to you if you like to talk about it? There’s absolutely nothing you can say that would be the wrong thing.’
Give them plenty of space to talk about what’s happening, but don’t try to change it or fix it. The more you can validate what they’re feeling, and give them permission to feel it, the more they can move through it and experiment with ways to deal with it.
• ‘I love you – all of you, and everything you do.’
Because it feels like magic, and is always a lovely thing to hear.
• ‘Brains change. They’re pretty amazing like that. You won’t always feel like this. Every time you breathe through your anxious feeling, you’re helping to change and strengthen your brain. You’re doing something pretty amazing and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.’
Brains have an extraordinary capacity to change and the more children can understand and accept this, the more empowered they’ll be to working towards this. Here are some words to help with that, but nobody knows your child better than you, so adapt them to suit …
‘Think of it like this: Imagine that in your brain are two important parts – a ‘feelings’ part that feels everything that happens to you, and a ‘thinking’ part that thinks about everything that happens to you and helps you decide how to behave. They are connected to each other by a pathway that’s made up of billions of brain cells (think of each cell like a brick). The two parts communicate by passing information from one cell to the next, to the next, to the next. Anything that ever happens to you will always go through the feelings part first. That’s the way it is for everyone. Then, the information travels to the thinking part which helps you make good decisions and work out the best way to behave.
When the connection between the cells is strong, the pathway will be strong, and the thinking part of your brain will be in charge of your behaviour. This is because as soon as the feelings part gets worried or anxious, the thinking part can send a message quickly back saying, ‘You’re okay. You can calm down now because I’ve checked things out and there’s nothing that can actually hurt us, okay? But thanks for watching over us.’ When the pathway isn’t strong, the thinking part can’t get its ‘calm down’ message through, so the feelings part surges your body with chemicals that fuel you up to fight for your life or run for it. The idea is to make you strong, fast and powerful so you can protect yourself from danger. It’s this surge that makes you feel the uncomfortable things you feel when you’re having an anxiety attack.
What’s important to know is that the pathway between the feelings part and the thinking part can always be strengthened. Here’s how …
Each cell along the pathway is able to grow 15,000 new branches to help it to connect to the cells beside it. The stronger the connection between the cells, the stronger the path. Every time you do something that helps you move through your anxiety, such as breathing or mindfulness, the cells grow new branches that connect them to the cells beside them, and the pathway is strengthened. It’s like weightlifting for your brain! Like any exercising any muscle – the more you do it the stronger you’ll get. Be patient though and whatever you do, don’t give up – it can take a while to get near 15,000 but you’ll get there.’
(See here for the Smiling Minds Mindfulness App, for mindfulness exercises from 7 to adult – it’s brilliant. And it’s free.)
And finally …
When it comes to dealing with difficult emotions – and anxiety is certainly one of those – anything you can say to validate, rather than change what your brave little person is going through will be important. Experiment with different things – kids don’t break when the adults in their lives respond to them in a way that’s empowering, loving and generous.
To strengthen and protect children with anxiety, explore their feelings with them and help them to tap into their own wisdom about what works for them. When they’re given the space, and the encouragement and the freedom to explore and experiment, kids can come up with wonderfully unexpected solutions to the things that are troubling them. They can be pretty amazing like that.
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