3 Proven Ways to Strengthen and Protect Children and Teens Against Anxiety

Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is like that friend who loves you loads, but takes everything personally and always assumes the worst. 

The amygdala’s job is to constantly scan the environment looking for threat. When it senses something that might be a threat – and separation, humiliation, exclusion count as threat – it will surge our bodies with a neurochemical fuel to get us ready to fight or flee the threat.

This is what strong, healthy amygdalae do, and they’ve been doing it since the beginning of forever. They are mighty masterful at the job – experts, actually – but sometimes they can work too hard to protect us, organising our bodies for fight or flight even when there is no need. When there is no fight or flight, there is nothing to burn the neurochemical fuel surging through us, so it builds up and creates the symptoms of anxiety. For our kids and teens – for any of us – this can feel awful, but there is a way to turn it around.

First though, about change …

The brain changes and wires through experience, so the more of something it does, the easier that something will be. This will happen for better or worse. Brave behaviour will lead to more brave behaviour, and avoidance will make avoidance more likely.

If anxiety has been around for a while, this is a sign that the amygdala is a strong, powerful, active one. This is absolutely not a sign of breakage. It’s a sign of a strong, healthy, powerful brain that has learned the fight or flight spectacularly well. It might take a little while to teach that amygdala to let go of that well-learned response, but absolutely this can be done.

For a while, moving through anxiety and towards brave behaviour might feel awkward and scary for your child, as any new behaviour does. When things feel awkward and unfamiliar, the temptation will be to go back to what’s familiar – for you and your child. This is how it is for all of us.

This might mean that when you encourage your child or teen towards brave behaviour, things might get a little worse before they get better – but they will get better. Just be aware of this, so you can give yourself and your small human some big love when you’re feeling mean for pushing them forward, or when they’re pushing against you with everything in them. 

Something to keep in mind – ‘Does my response support them, or their anxiety?’

Avoidance will strengthen their anxiety, brave behaviour will strengthen them. 

Anxiety can be a shady character. Sometimes it can feel as though our response is supporting our child, when actually it’s supporting his or her anxiety. This is a breathtakingly easy trap to fall into, and it’s likely that anyone who has a child who has been anxious at some point, has fallen into it. As parents we want to protect our children from harm. The thing is though, our role isn’t only to keep them safe, but to raise them to be strong, resilient and brave, so they can help themselves to safety. 

For this reason, it is important to begin with the mindset that your child or teen has everything they need inside them to move towards brave behaviour. Anxiety drives drives avoidance, and the more avoidance is the chosen response, the more the brain will wire around that. This will drive a fierce tendency to avoid, as it will feel like the only way to stay safe. 

The beautiful flip side of this is that the more our children and teens move towards a brave response, even when they’re feeling anxious, the easier brave behaviour will become. The right experiences can rework the neural wiring on two fronts. First, they can make an overprotective amygdala less likely to fire up unnecessarily. Second, they can strengthen the parts of the brain that can actually calm anxiety. No doubt about it, this will require patience and persistence. Understanding how it works will make it easier to move forward when everything in you or your child is telling you to retreat to somewhere that feels softer and less frightening.

Strengthening against anxiety is a process, and given that we are working with a strong, powerful, highly experienced amygdala that performs its job with fierce commitment, retraining it to be less active will take time and consistency – as all worthwhile things do.

There are three things that have been proven to change the structure and function of the brain to protect and strengthen it against anxiety. Mindfulness, exercise and gratitude can, quite literally, create new pathways in the brain that can support your child in being calmer, braver and less anxious. At the same time, they can work towards fading the pathways that have strengthened around fight (anger, tantrums) or flight (avoidance). Let’s look at how these work.

Exercise

Exercise is the wonderdrug-but-not-a-drug of the mental health world. The effects of exercise on mental health are profound. In the same way exercise strengthens the body, it also does amazing things for the brain. Rne of the ways exercise strengthens the brain against anxiety is by boosting levels of important neurotransmitters. One of these is GABA

 Some neurons are easily excited and quick to fire up. In the right amounts, they’re little gems. We need them to help us think quickly, act quickly and remember. When there are too many of them firing up though, anxiety can happen – but not if there is enough GABA to calm things down. GABA has the very important job of settling these neurons when they get a little too playful. If GABA is low, there is nothing to calm these over-excited neurons.

Mindfulness

  

Think of mindfulness as paying attention to one thing at a time in the moment. Mindfulness trains the brain to let thoughts, feelings, sensations come and go. Thoughts in themselves aren’t the problem. The trouble comes when they stay for longer than they need to and fuel feelings and behaviour. With regular practice, mindfulness builds the capacity for children and teens to be with their thoughts and feelings, without reacting to them. Eventually, this makes way for anxious thoughts and feelings to be there, but without the intensity and persuasiveness that can drive fear and avoidance.

Here’s how mindfulness changes the brain:

  • it decreases activity in the amygdala;
  • it increases activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for calming our big emotional responses (such as anxiety, fear, anger);
  • it strengthens connectivity between the   reduce anxiety. 
  • it increases GABA (the neurotransmitter that also gets a boost with exercise);
  • it decreases cortisol (the stress hormone);
  •  it strengthens the neural connections that activate the relaxation response, which is a response that has been found to neutralise the neurochemicals connected to the fight or flight response;
Gratitude

Anxious thoughts are often driven by anxious memories, but research has found that these memories don’t need to come from actual experiences. When children hear about an emotional experience, such as through the news, a friend, a movie, or a story, this can be enough to influence the amygdala. These experiences don’t have to be big to have influence. Hearing about an experience that was embarrassing, confusing, frightening or confronting for someone else, can be enough. These stories might not always be in awareness, but they can sit behind the scenes and drive worries, fear and negative thinking.

Positive memories can push against the power of frightening or emotional memories, and their capacity to fuel anxious thoughts and behaviour. Thoughts and memories also create pathways in the brain, so the more a thought or memory is accessed, the easier it will be to access in the future. Research has found that gratitude can increase our tendency to recall positive memories. When positive memories more accessible, they will have a greater influence on thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Nurturing gratitude and building a store of positive memories can be done simply. Before school or at bedtime, ask your child or teen to name three things they is grateful for. Encourage them to write them in a journal, or on pieces of paper that get popped into a gratitude jar or box. This will create a visual cue, as well as a place they can go to when they need a little boost.

And finally …

We will never get rid of all anxiety our children feel – and we don’t want to. When there really is something to steer away from, the fight or flight response can be a lifesaver. What we want them to do is to read their anxiety, and to take charge. We want them to see that anxiety is a warning, and sometimes an unnecessary one, not a stop sign. Most importantly, we want to empower them to respond to anxiety with strength and courage, and to move towards brave behaviour whenever they can.

Any progress is great progress. Anxiety is difficult to deal with, but it is manageable. There will be steps forward and steps back, but over time the forward steps will become more and the backward ones will become less. Each one of these strategies will make a difference, and you don’t need to do all of them. Choose one to start with, and try to be as consistent as possible with that then, when they’re ready, introduce another. Be patient, and be kind to yourself. It takes time to nurture brave little people into brave big ones. And don’t underestimate the difference you’re making by being one of the people who believe in them, and who can see them for the capable, brave, magic-makers they are.

5 Comments

Amanda

It’s good to read articles like this. I am having a hard time with my 8 year old son. My mum passed away in January, although she was poorly with cancer it was a big shock how quickly it all happened. We were so close to my mum especially Dylan. Then in May I found out my husband had been having an affair and he left us. Dylan was understandable upset and very angry. Going back to school in September seemed to trigger something else and his anxiety about everything is sky high. I can no longer get him into school. I kept try every morning but he was becoming so aggressive the school agreed it was getting to dangerous for both of us. I try every day to get him out this house, this is often very hard. He becomes very angry with anxiety. He also says why did he have to be born and that he doesn’t want to be alive. This upsets me so much, I try to be brave and calm but it’s so hard. In between outbursts he can be his usual loving self and we we do have some fun times. I’m finding it hard to look ahead and see things get to any better.

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Annabel

You and your son have had a rough time! Stay strong. I hope some of the article helps you.

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Nic

I needed this awesome article right now! Thank you!

It’s hard to put into a few sentences but My daughter has just turned 6. She is in her first year of school. She is bright, active, strong willed and social. But can often have emotional outbursts around separation from me, transitions and change…especially when tired, getting sick or overwhelmed. The patterns in her behaviour over several years leads me to feel she can get anxious quite a bit.

Now that she has entered school and is getting older I feel a huge amount of pressure for her to ‘manage’ her emotional outbursts. People don’t seem to understand she often needs extra time to transition into an activity and becomes highly stressed if she feels ‘forced’. Her natural response is ‘fight’.

I have wondered lately what I’m doing wrong and does she need professional help. So to read your words outlined below is just what I needed to keep raising and loving the child in front of me just as she is. She doesn’t need fixing

“This is absolutely not a sign of breakage. It’s a sign of a strong, healthy, powerful brain that has learned the fight or flight spectacularly well.“

Thank you

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Karen Young

I’m so pleased you have found the article. Your daughter is still learning how to manage her big feelings. The part of her brain that can control big feelings is still developing. It will take time, and this is exactly how it’s meant to be. Talk to her about her big feelings when she is calm in a way that guides her. This is her time to learn, and expecting young children to behave like adults just gets in the way. Love her big and prioritise connection – that’s how you get the influence you need to strengthen her.

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Adriana

both of my two sons (12 and 8 years) have some parts of anxeity….so difficult….thanks for this great article

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Christine P

I have six children. My husband has ADHD and dyslexia (undiagnosed and unrealized until after several of our children were formally diagnosed). All six kids have either an IEP or 504 for dyslexia/dysgraphia/dyscalulia. I am at my wits end with the over-the-top emotions, disobedience, fighting, etc. My oldest (19) started Adderall last year and loves it. I have tried it for two other kids with no success. We tried Concerta. No dice. Vayvansa for one kid, nope. I’m not crazy about meds for my kids but our family is imploding from the stress. I need an immediate option so we can function while working on long term solutions. I have taken some kids to counseling but it’s almost unsustainable given the cost and logistics involved. Every day is screaming, crying, stress. I dread every day getting them out the door for school, dread picking them up and the eternity of homework, dinner, chores, bedtime. There is very little I enjoy these days about mothering. I am on meds for anxiety and depression. I have been through A LOT of counseling myself. I am well versed in “what could work”. I have never read anything on managing multiple children with issues. Please send help. And coffee. And a nanny.

Reply
Genie

Oh Christine! I really hope you get a break! I find the institution of school /schedules/ peer mentoring to be such a nightmare for mine. I wish I could just homeschool. But I can’t. Too bad we can’t just hook them up to a plow and work them till they’re exhausted, eh! Lol. I hope you find the resources and support you deserve.

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Cathy

Let me help you! I am a therapist, and I have ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 49 and in my last semester of grad school. ADHD is a hellish nightmare. You feel as though you are constantly not in control of yourself, and you continually feel stupid because you cannot do anything everyone else seems to be able to do, like keep up with your library books or have a pencil handy.
People with ADHD live with a self image that is about one inch tall. I strongly recommend you put in to place the gratitude piece discussed in this article. With ADHD, “I am not doing that” can mean “I’m afraid to try because I have failed so much before”. Replacing positive thinking goes a long way to help that. Crying and yelling and tantrums come from being overwhelmed. Help your family break things down into smaller bite sized pieces. Instead of “clean your room”, break it down. Give them a list that says- put dirty clothes in hamper, make bed, put shoes in closet, etc. with frequent breaks in between. It will 100% take them longer to do it than if you did it yourself, but it will get done, and with a lot less commotion.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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