Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Anxiety in Children: A Metaphor to Put You In Their Shoes (And Right Beside Them)

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Anxiety in Children: A Metaphor to Put You In Their Shoes (And Right Beside Them)

Imagine this. You’re travelling along the freeway when your brakes feel as though they might fail. They’re working, but something feels off. This has never happened before. You drive the car to the closest mechanic. After a thorough inspection of the car, you’re told everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about.

You get back on the freeway and the same thing happens. Your brakes seem to be working, but they don’t feel right. You take the car back to the same mechanic, and again, you’re told that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about. You’re told this with such certainty, that you start to feel a bit silly – maybe it’s not the car or the brakes, maybe it’s you.

You’re feeling worse now – more confused and wondering if the problem is actually with you. You get back on the freeway. Your brain keeps reminding you about what happened last time and the time before, and you don’t want the same thing to happen again – but it does. You drive to the mechanic and again you’re told that everything is fine and there’s nothing at all to worry about. You’re encouraged to keep driving, which you do, but you avoid the freeway. You’re ready to open your loving arms to any explanation that could make sense of your moody brakes. If it’s not the car, maybe it’s the freeway. Makes sense right? The easy solution is to avoid it. It would be ridiculous to keep doing the same thing in the same place when it feels all wrong, so that’s what you do. 

Can you imagine how it would feel when everything inside you is telling you something is wrong, but the person you trust keeps telling you there’s nothing to worry about? Now, imagine what would happen if you heard this …

Since you’ve been avoiding freeway, the car has been fine. The more you do this, the more certain you are that something about the freeway causes your brakes to feel fragile. This works beautifully – no highway, no fear of brake failure, no worries … easy – until the day the freeway is unavoidable. You’re on the freeway and it happens again. It makes no sense at all and it’s terrifying. This time, you find a different mechanic. She looks over the car and says, ‘Well it’s no wonder you felt as though the brakes were failing. The car is absolutely fine – it’s fabulous actually – but there’s this little thing that happens when the car is at high speed that causes it to feel the way it does. It’s no problem though, and it happens a lot with these cars. As it’s being explained to you, it makes complete sense. Best of all, it’s compelling proof that it’s the car that’s the problem, and you’re not losing your mind. The mechanic then explains how to stop the car feeling the way it does. She tells you that this strategy might not work straight away – it can take a bit of practice – but at least you know what’s causing the trouble, and you can feel safe.

Anxiety works in a similar way. When our kids are in the thick of anxiety, they’ll be aware that something doesn’t feel right, but they might not have exactly the right words to explain what’s happening for them. All they’ll know is that they feel as though something bad might happen. This might come to you in many ways, including ‘what ifs’, avoidance, anger, tears, a sick tummy. Everything inside them is telling them something isn’t right, so being told there’s nothing to worry about won’t help, and runs the risk of making things worse. There’s a good reason for this.

Telling them there’s nothing to worry about won’t help. And there’s a good reason for this … 

Anxiety is NOT a sign of breakage. It’s a sign that a strong, healthy, magnificent brain is doing exactly what brains are meant to do – protect us from threat. It won’t matter that there’s no clear threat – anxiety doesn’t care about that. Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s instinctive, protective, and incredibly hardworking. It’s spectacularly good at doing what it does, which is keeping us safe. The amygdala switches on when it thinks there might be trouble – and fear of separation from loved ones, getting sick, something happening to someone they love, exclusion, rejection, embarrassment all count as trouble. When the amygdala is switched on, it’s laser focussed on keeping us safe. 

One of the things that happens in the brain’s quest to keep us safe is the pre-frontal cortex is ‘sent offline’. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is able to think rationally, calm big feelings, problem-solve, analyse, and think through consequences. The temporary ‘shutdown’ of the pre-frontal cortex is an adaptive response, designed to help keep us safe in times of threat. Here’s how it works. When there’s a threat, instinct kicks in with incredible force and urgency to make sure we deal with the immediate threat. This is a brilliant piece of design if, say, a pan on the stove catches fire. It’s because of this instinct that you would move to deal with the flames before anything else. It doesn’t want you to take too long thinking about the best way to put out a stove fire, or the consequences of every possible option, or how it happened – there will be time for that later. It just wants you to smother the flames before they get out of control. This doesn’t mean the response will always be a good one. Without the full involvement of the pre-frontal cortex, sometimes the decisions we make in the heat of the moment are breathtakingly bad. We’ve all been there, but that’s instinct for you – all action and not a lot of thought, at least until the crisis is over and the pre-frontal cortex is back on board. What this means is that when your child (or you or me or anyone) is anxious, the part of the brain that is receptive to rational information (such as ‘there’s nothing to worry about’), isn’t available.

(This is one of the reasons mindfulness has been proven to be so effective for anxiety. It strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, lowers activity in the amygdala (making it less reactive) and strengthens the connection between the two. When this connection is strong, they are more likely to work as a team – the pre-frontal cortex will sit out when it needs to, and be more active when it needs to, rather than letting an overactive amygdala run the mothership.)

There’s something else that happens during anxiety, when we tell our kids, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’. As with all feelings, one of the functions of anxiety is to recruit support. The ‘recruit’ isn’t necessarily done deliberately or intentionally by whoever is feeling the feeling. It’s just one of the things that tends to happen when we humans feel our feels – other humans turn towards us. When our kids are telling us something doesn’t feel right, we’re the recruit. When we tell them there’s nothing to worry about, it doesn’t stop them worrying. Instead, it sends a message to the protective amygdala that the threat just got bigger, because the important adult (the recruit) doesn’t get it. The message is that they’re alone with this because nobody understands. When this happens, that amygdala of theirs will work harder and more fiercely to protect them. 

What does ‘working harder’ look like for an amygdala?

When the amygdala senses a threat, it surges us with a cocktail of chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). These chemicals are the fight or flight chemicals, designed to make us faster, stronger and more powerful. It initiates a series of physiological changes that all have a very good reason for being there, but which can feel confusing and frightening. When there’s nothing to fight or flee, they build up and cause the symptoms of anxiety. Like the car metaphor, explaining to kids what’s happening when they feel anxious can help them feel safe. It communicates that you understand, that what they’re feeling makes sense, and that they’re safe. Here’s what happens when anxiety switches on:

·  The brain tells the body to stop being so extravagant with oxygen. Instead of using it on strong, deep breaths, the body is told to send it to the muscles to they can run or fight.

Breathing changes from strong slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Might feel puffed or a breathless. Cheeks might blush red and face might feel warm.

· Oxygen builds up and carbon dioxide drops (from over-breathing).

Might feel dizzy, confused or sick.

· Heart beats faster to pump the chemical fuel efficiently around the body, particularly to the arms and legs.

This can feel scary, like a heart attack. It’s okay though – it’s perfectly safe.

· Fuel gets sent to the arms (in case they need to fight) and to the legs (in case they need to flee).

Arms and legs might feel tight or wobbly.

·  The body cools itself down so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee.

Might feel clammy or sweaty, even if its cold.

· The digestive system dials down so the fuel it was using to digest food can be used by the body for fight or flight. 

Might feel as though there are butterflies in your belly, or as though you’re going to vomit. Might get a dry mouth.

· The amygdala, which looks after anxiety also looks after other big emotions. When it’s turned up to high (as it is during anxiety) other emotions such as anger or sadness might also be turned up to high volume.

Might feel angry or as though you want to burst into tears, sometimes for no reason at all.

Okay. So if, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ is out, what can I do instead? 

It’s easier for kids to deal with difficult feelings – and anxiety is one of the big ones – when we meet them where they are. We might not be able to take away their anxiety completely, but there’s no need to. A bit of anxiety is normal and healthy and we couldn’t get rid of it even if we wanted to. What we can do though, is ease their anxiety back to small enough.

When they are anxious, they need to know that we’re there for them, that we believe them, and that we believe in them. The words that can do this are, ‘I get it’. Or, ‘I can see that something doesn’t feel right for you.’ They also need to know that what they’re feeling makes sense. ‘It makes sense that you feel the way you do.’ When we tell our kids that we get it, we’re letting them know we’re there. This doesn’t mean it will switch off their anxiety straight away. New things take time to take hold. What you’re doing is letting the fierce protective amygdala know that it’s done it’s job and found a worthy recruit to support them, and that it can step down. It’s about holding the ground steady so they can find their way to feeling strong and in control again. 

Ride the wave with them.

Anxiety is like a wave. Like any feeling, anxiety will come and then it will go. When our kids are on that wave, it can be scary – for them and for us – but we don’t need to lift them off. The wave won’t break them. When we believe this, they can start to believe it too. For any loving parent, the temptation to lift our children out of the way of anxiety can be spectacular. Here’s the rub though – avoidance has a powerful way of teaching them that the only way to feel safe is to avoid. This makes sense, but it can shrink their world.

We also don’t want to go the other way, and meet their anxiety by telling them there’s nothing to worry about. They won’t believe it anyway. The option is to ride the wave with them. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. This can be tough for them. Anxiety will haul them into the future and try to buddy them up with plenty of ‘what-ifs’, which are the raging fuel for anxiety. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won’t buy it straight away, and that’s okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are brave, the more they are brave. They’ll have plenty of courage and strength inside them, but in the thick of anxiety, it will feel a little unreachable for them. This is when we can ‘loan’ them ours. If we can ride the wave with them, with stillness and presence, instead of fighting it or needing to change it, we make our courage and our calm more available to them than our anxiety about their anxiety. 

What else can I do when they’re anxious?

During anxiety, the brain is in survival mode, so it isn’t able to receive or process rational explanations or engage in unfamiliar strategies to find calm. Any explanation of why they feel the way they do when they have anxiety has to happen when they are calm, and it might take a few conversations. Similarly, the strategies that can help them feel better also have to be practised and explained while they are feeling calm. Here are two of them:

•  Strong, deep breathing.

One of the first things that happens during anxiety is breathing becomes short and shallow. Although the world has known for centuries about the powerful, calming effects of breathing, science has only relatively recently got on board. Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, has established that the relaxation can neutralise the physiological effects of the fight or flight response. Remember though, this will need to be practised during calm times first. There are a couple of ways to do this:

Hot Cocoa Breathing: ‘Pretend you have a mug of hot cocoa in your hands. Smell the warm chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, blow it cool for three, hold it for one. Repeat three or four times.’

Figure 8 Breathing: Anxiety feels flighty, and touch during anxiety can feel comforting and grounding. Whether the touch comes from you or them, it doesn’t matter (but obviously only touch them if they want you to). Here is a way to bring touch and breathing into one beautiful union. Imagine drawing a figure 8 on your skin (arm, leg, back – wherever feels lovely) with your index finger. As you’re drawing the first half of the figure 8, breathe in for three. When you get to the middle, hold your finger still for one. Then, for the second half of the figure 8, breathe out for three. When you get to the middle, hold for one again. Repeat three or four times. Eventually, this can be something they can access on their own, quietly and privately wherever they are to find calm when they are anxious. 

•  Grounding.

Anxiety is a sign that a brain has been hauled into the future, and is thinking about the things that could go wrong. You’ll probably be way too familiar with the ‘what ifs’ that come with this. (But what if this happens? Or what if that happens?) Brains love being in the now, but sometimes they need a little help to get there. Here’s a way to do that: ‘Tell me 5 things you see … 4 things you hear … 3 things you feel against your skin (the breeze/ the ground/ your clothes against your skin) … 2 things you can smell … 1 thing you can taste.’ The order doesn’t matter, but it will probably be easier to find things they can see or hear than things they can smell or taste. 

And finally …

One of the hardest parts of being a parent is watching our children struggle and not knowing how to help them. What you need to remember is that you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to – of course you will – but they are brave and strong and they have everything in them to do what they need to do. When you’re on board, letting the space around you be calm, safe and reachable, they’ll have it even more.


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations. (See here for the trailer.)


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61 Comments

Amanda

You have explained my daughter exactly. I did not realize it was anxiety and I did not handle it well. I told her there was nothing to worry about and was irritated. Is there anything I can do to make up for it now?

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Karen Young

Absolutely! It’s completely understandable that people would say there’s nothing to worry about when there’s nothing to worry about. It’s important not to feel as though you have made a mistake. It’s about growth and learning – ours and theirs. The greatest thing you’ve done for her is to go searching for information so you can support her, and also being open to the information. Try the strategies in the article and see how you go with those.

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Tina

My 13 year old daughter has been struggling with anxiety for a few years now. Going to school (leaving me, home) is her hurdle. It is SO hard. Your article explains it SO well. so many people don’t get it. Don’t understand that the fear and the struggle is real. Getting her to school is my biggest challenge… once she is there and her anxiety passes she does well and is successful. But watching her go through that struggle daily, is painful. We are making strides though. And for that I am grateful as HS looms on the horizon…

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Penelope

My son experienced exactly this is grade 6 and 7. So many days we drove half an hour to school, only to turn around and go back home. Then we developed a system where he went straight to the counsellor for a few minutes before class (safe interim space). He has since gone from strength to strength in high school, and is now in matric – excelling and so well grounded. Happy Mom xx

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Sarah

Hi, do you mean Home schooling by HS? Just wondering as have now decided to go this route for my 15 year old after bullying and anxiety…. such a useful ariticle…

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Ria

This is really helpful. Thank you for this article. Everytime my daughter got anxiety attact I just don’t know how to help her.

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Natasha

Would it help my twelve-year-old daughter to read this article with me, or better for me to just employ these strategies with her when next she is getting anxious?

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Karen Young

Absolutely, the more information our kids have the better, so any discussion you can have with your daughter in relation to the article, whether it’s reading it with you or chatting about it with you would be great. Any strategies have to be discussed when they are calm though because during anxiety, the brain is not able to process the information.

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Natasha

I just read it with her, after reading a few of your related articles too. When I got to the word ‘amygdala’ for the first time, I pretended I needed her help pronouncing the word and commented it sounded like ‘a Harry Potter word’. She laughed, and then volunteered, ‘I know exactly what it looks like. It’s purple, with suckers on its tummy so it can hold onto the wheel that’s going round and round’! Wow. Thank you for helping her and I to share something which has confused us both for a long time.

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Tina

This is such a good article, I don’t think it is limited to children with anxiety though, adults can learn abut their own anxiety too. Seems like anxiety in an adult brings out the inner child.

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Leo D

I took my young son to a number of professionals when he was growing up, just to find out if there was anything wrong with him or if there was something I could do for him. He was mostly fine up until starting school. From then on and as an adult he has had serious social issues, and after trying a lot of different mental health practitioners, it turns out to be anxiety. To say I feel like a failure is an understatement, but he now has solutions, and I have also identified my own anxiety. To know those 5 steps actually work to bring anxiety back to being here now, is a relief and I’m thankful. My son has his life back.

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Karen Young

You are NOT a failure! One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is that the things that work beautifully for one child, won’t be right for another. Often, it’s hard to know which is which until we do them. Raising humans is tough! I’m so pleased the information has helped.

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Tshidi

Your articles bring sanity and understanding to many queries I had in my mind of why certain things happen as they do. At times life was like a jigsaw puzzle which had missing puzzle pieces, until I read all the articles you sent me. I feel I am mentally and emotionally strong, enjoys and understand the dynamics of life. I can handle any situation I come across with ease. I put into practice every advice you give and even pass the information over to my friends and relatives. You are indeed great and a pleasure to know that you are only an email away. Well done, keep up the good work that you are doing of empowering people emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. This world needs people like you .

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Kasia

My 12 years old daughter was dealing with anxiety for some years now but was diagnosed ( and put on Prozac) only one year ago and since then we’re struggling to get help living in an isolated town in Northern Ontario with limited access to health care. Her psychosomatic symptoms are getting stronger and stronger. For the last two weeks, she’s not able to leave her bed, struggling to go to the bathroom because of a heavy migraine and the pediatrician says there is nothing she could do. There is no way for me to “access” her right now in any way. None of the techniques described in the article is working anymore. I don’t know what to do.

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Wendy Besford

This really relates to my son David who is Autistic. When he was younger I thought he had anger issues but a brilliant Ed. Psychologist told me it wasn’t anger but anxiety. If things changed, even small things, he would become sweaty, loud, throw things because he couldn’t process what was happening. I learnt not to get angry or shout (as this would only escalate his anxiety) but just to let him ride the wave and when it had passed we would sit together and he would cry and say sorry. It was as if he knew he couldn’t control it but had to let it out his way. He is 28 now, and although he still has his ‘moments’ they don’t last as long. Thank you so much for your insight it has helped me to understand what happens in his head.

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Jane

My 12 yr old autistic son has anxiety that seemed to start with puberty. I also suffered at his age but not much help for me other than tablets.
The what ifs apply to me and have stopped me doing a lot of things. My son stopped going to school last Feb as he was getting soooo upset every morning, I had to drag him in. School said stop dragging him in, so I did.
I can’t get him back there and have no idea how to go about it.
I haven’t told him it’s nothing but I’ve pandered to the anxiety but keeping him out of school. What I would have done years ago. I’m now thinking I’ve failed.

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Karen Young

You haven’t failed. Sometimes it can take time to realise that there is a better way to do things, and it’s not to late to start shifting the way you do things. It is so often the way with parenting that the decisions we make with the best intentions and with the greatest of love for our children can cause their own problems. You followed the advice of the school, and that is a completely understandable thing to do. At this point, it sounds as though you may need the help of the school and a counsellor to devise a plan with your son to get him back to school. Be open to seeking help from your son’s school or counsellors. You don’t have to do this alone.

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Srushti

This article was truly helpful.
I was able to help myself through it
And not just that I will forward it to my contacts as well who face problems like me, so that they can help themselves.
Useful post😊😊

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Agata

Thank you for this article. It is amaizingly logical that our reaction to my kid’s anxiety is crutial in this process. After many years of my own fear when my son got his “emotional hights” I discover finally that all he needs when his anxiety emerges is a calm and self secure adult right by him. Now, when he is already a teenager, I can appreciate that he is so self consious about his emotional shape. All I needed to do is to trust that he knows how he feels and not push my versions of how he should feel.
Is is ok if a teenager does not quickly get back to normal with his emotions ? It may sometimes take a few days until his sense of responsibility returns and he is able to function normally and happily for example at school.

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Geoff

I think that when we teachers say to an anxious child, “It’s okay. You have nothing to worry about. Just calm down and do your work,” we are trying to solve the problem for us. Tidy it up so we can keep everyone working at the same pace and in the same way. And we sure don’t want to think that our classrooms could be scary places!
This article reminds me that all of my empathy and energy and professionalism should be directed to helping the student in that moment of anxiety only. Learning will come later, when the brakes are working on all roads.

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Laura

This article has been very helpful. Our daughter struggles with anxiety more so when she is around intense personalities vs low key friends. She has struggled to identify that some of her poor choices such as taking on too many things at once or lack of staying organized and responsible has added to her feeling this way. She is now a young adult in college, which makes supporting her challenging. In seeking autonomy, she wants to do it all herself. I am excited to share your thoughts with her and even print a guide based off these suggestions for her to reference. Thank you for outlining this in such a clear functional way! Truly invaluable!

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JDW

This article is amazing. My 13 year old son has been going through this since October 2017. You have described him to a T. It has been a rough road for him, just terrible to watch your child struggle, but he has been seeing a Social Worker to help him. He is in total school refusal at this point and will receive home instruction for the next 8 weeks just to ease his mind and to take that anxiety off the table. We want to find what the triggers are, so he can better cope if this happens again.

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Siv

Thank you for this! My 13yo son has had lifelong insomnia, cyclic vomiting for 5 years, and was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD 1.5yrs ago – all related in complicated ways. He wrote a personal essay for school this week on his anxiety and put on paper things he has never said out loud. Most of the time he seems like a duck – water rolling off his back – but truly he stuffs his anxiety and muddles through sleeplessness instead. This article helped me to better understand what’s going on so I can help him.

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Jamie

The problem with anxiety is fear of the fear! You fear the bad feelings will come again. Its cyclic. They have to learn to break the cycle. The more attn you give it , the more it will grab hold.
An amazing old school book for anxiety is Hope and Help For your Nerves by Claire Weekes.

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Julia

Hello Karen:

Your website and articles are a blessing to me. Thank you for the work that you do to educate and empower your readers with your knowledge and research.

I do have a question. My 11 year old son, who is healthy and active, is desperately afraid of needles and receiving immunizations. He has no prior medical history to cause this so it is very hard to understand.

Do you have any suggestions that might help us/him?

Thank you!

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Anna

Thank you very helpful and really enjoyed the book! It’s so hard to explain to friends/family what is going on as they automatically assume that the teenager is spoilt and unappreciative, antisocial when in the fact the opposite is the case and they care too much.

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.











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