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

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.)


79 Comments

Chandra

Love this article and will use all suggestions for my daughter who has separation anxiety. Thanks so much!

Reply
Elin

I just found this resource and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it. I have a highly intelligent, and highly anxious boy. I was anxious as a child myself, but it was always just brushed aside, I was told to stop it, and I am now a highly anxious adult who could understand how devastating this was for my son, but found myself *brushing it aside* just like my parents did to me! I knew I needed to handle it differently, and you could not have explained it more beautifully: both how to think about it, and what to do. Your work is so important.

Reply
hw

When will you write a book for parents? Your blog posts are so helpful to me, and we own both of your books for kids. I would love a book just for parents of anxious kids.

Reply
Karen Young

On a laptop, the share bar is at the side. The print function is the second last button from the bottom. If you click on this, it will generate a printable version. Hope that helps.

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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
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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