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.

Reply
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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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