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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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #parentingadvice #parentingtip #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days 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.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️
Speaking to the courage that is coming to life inside them helps to bring it close enough for them to touch, and to imagine, and to step into, even if doesn’t feel real for them yet. It will become them soon enough but until then, we can help them see what we see - a brave, strong, flight-ready child who just might not realise it yet. ‘I know how brave you are.’ ‘I love that you make hard decisions sometimes, even when it would be easier to do the other thing.’ ‘You might not feel brave, but I know what it means to you to be doing this. Trust me – you are one of the bravest people I know.’
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #parentingtips #parentingadvice
So often, our children will look to us for signs of whether they are brave enough, strong enough, good enough. Let your belief in them be so big, that it spills out of you and over to them and forms the path between them and their mountain. And then, let them know that the outcome doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in themselves enough to try. 

Their belief in themselves might take time to grow, and that's okay. In the meantime, let them know you believe in them enough for both of you. Try, ‘I know this feels big and I know you can do it. What is one small step you can take? I’m right here with you.’♥️
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting
Anxiety will tell our kiddos a deficiency story. It will focus them on what they can't do and turn them away from what they can. We know they are braver, stronger, and more powerful than they could ever think they are. We know that for certain because we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen them so held by anxiety, and we’ve seen them move through - not every time but enough times to know that they can. Even when those steps through are small and awkward and uncertain, they are brave. Because that’s how courage works. It’s fragile and strong, uncertain and powerful. We know that that about courage and we know that about them. 

Our job as their important adults is to give them the experiences that will help them know it too. This doesn't have to happen in big leaps. Little steps are enough, as long as they are forward. 

When their anxiety has them focused on what they can't do, focus them on what they can. By doing this, we are aligning with their capacity for brave, and bringing it into the light. 

Anxiety will have them believing that there are only two options - all or nothing; to do or not to do. So let's introduce a third. Let's invite them into the grey. This is where brave, bold beautiful things are built, one tiny step at a time. So what does this look like? It looks like one tiny step at a time. The steps can be so small at first - it doesn't matter how big they are, as long as they are forward. 
If they can't stay for the whole of camp, how much can they stay for?
If they can't do the whole swimming lesson on their own, how much can they do?
If they can't sleep all night in their own bed, how long can they sleep there for?
If they can't do the exam on their own, what can they do?
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When we do this, we align with their brave, and gently help it rise, little bit, by little bit. We give them the experiences they need to know that even when they feel anxious, they can do brave, and even when they feel fragile they are powerful.

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