Anxiety in Children and Teens: How to Find Calm and Courage During Anxiety – What all Parents Need to Know

Anxiety in children and teens can make everyone feel helpless. It can come from anywhere and nowhere, and often it makes no sense at all. This is because anxiety is a primitive, instinctive response, not a rational one. Anxiety is driven by a strong, beautiful, healthy brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do – protect us from threat. Sometimes though, they can work a little too hard and have us avoiding the things that we’d be better moving towards.

The part of the brain that keeps us safe from threat is the amygdala. Since the beginning of humans, the amygdala’s job has been to scan the environment for threat, and make lightning-quick decisions about whether to avoid or approach. It does this brilliantly. In less than one tenth of a second, the amygdala will decide whether something is a threat, and whether we should approach it or avoid it. This is much faster than the time it takes our brains to create a conscious thought or feeling, and is why anxiety can feel as though it has come from nowhere. 

But what if there actually is nothing to worry about?

If the amygdala decides there is a threat, it will surge the body with fight or flight neurochemicals. This can send the ‘thinking brain’ offline, but there is a good reason for this. Brains are ‘do-ers’ before they’re thinkers (but they are excellent at both) so they’ll act first to get us safe, then decide later whether or not the response was actually necessary. The ‘thinking brain’ gets sent offline so it doesn’t get in the way of a quick response by organising a committee meeting about possible strategies. This means that the part of the brain that can receive rational information, such as ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, has been told by the amygdala to shush – so that’s exactly what it does.

By then, the fight or flight neurochemicals are surging through your child’s body as though they have nowhere else to be. The feelings that come with this feel awful and will fuel anxious thoughts, (‘I feel as though something bad is going to happen, so I think something bad might happen’), which will fuel anxious behaviour – avoidance (flight) or aggression (fight).

Humans … We’re wired to love them and be wary of them. 

The fight or flight response worked hard for us way back when our main threats were predators who wanted us to be dinner, or other humans who wanted to steal dinner. It would have been easier to make a call on which animals were best avoided. Our ancestors would have known just by looking that some animals that would be no threat at all, and some would be more dangerous. With other humans though, this would have been more difficult. The friendly ones and the unfriendly ones would have looked the same – like humans. It would have been sensible to be wary of anyone unfamiliar, but even the familiar ones would have posed a potential threat. In a small tribe, with a limited number of potential mates or social connections, the consequences of rejection or exclusion could have been potentially catastrophic.

We have been learning to be wary of humans since the beginning of humans. Fast forward several thousand years, and it’s not surprising that for our kids and teens, social situations can fuel anxiety like nothing else. These can include school, social gatherings, soccer, art club, trying out for the school play, a sleepover – or anything else that comes with other humans and the potential for embarrassment, humiliation, separation, exclusion, or rejection. 

But their favourite people can make them braver.

Think of the brain as having three sections, back, middle, front. At the very back is the oldest, most primitive part of our brain. It’s responsible for our basic functions – blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing – the things that keep us alive. Next, in the middle, is the ’emotional brain’. This is where the amygdala lives. It’s the instinctive, impulsive part of the brain that is involved in anxiety and emotion. Finally, at the front is the ‘thinking brain’, the home of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that can receive rational information, plan, consider consequences, exercise self-control, problem-solve, and calm big emotions. 

We need the three parts of the brain to be connected and work together, as a team. During anxiety though, the amygdala pulls rank and takes over. It shuts down the thinking brain and hijacks the primitive brain, organising the body to increase heart rate, shallow breathe, increase blood pressure. When we are actually under threat, having the amygdala in charge is what we want, because it will be laser-focussed on getting us safe. The problem is when it takes over when it doesn’t need to. 

To bring back calm and to open the way to brave behaviour, we need to get the three parts of the brain connected and working together again. This has to happen from the back to the front. We have to respond to the primitive brain first, then the emotional brain, then the thinking brain. Think of it like building a bridge – there are no shortcuts and we can’t change the order. First we have to prepare the ground (reset the physiology), then we lay the foundations (open the way for brave behaviour with warmth, validation, connection), then we build the structure on top of that (encourage brave behaviour, plan, explore what’s needed). If we move to one stage before an earlier stage has happened, the structure won’t be solid, and will be likely to collapse. 

Often, when our children or teens are in the thick of anxiety, we respond to the thinking brain first with rational information such as, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’. This is completely understandable, but it just won’t work. The thinking brain needs the backing of the other two parts to do its job effectively. An anxious brain is a mighty powerful brain, so it’s important to work with it, rather than against it. Here’s how to do that.

First, respond to the ‘primitive brain’, at the back. 

Strong, slow, steady. ‘Breathe.’

Re-engage the primitive brain by encouraging strong, steady breathing. This will lower blood pressure and heart rate, and bring brain waves to a more relaxed state. Breath is our most basic and most powerful support. When breathing is strong and steady, so are we, but it’s the first to go when anxiety hits.

During anxiety, breathing changes from strong, steady breathing to short, sharp breathing. This is how it’s meant to happen, and a sign that a powerful, magnificent brain is working as it should. The brain wants the body to stop using energy on deep, strong breathing, in case it’s needed for fight or flight. When breathing changes to short sharp breaths, this begins the cascade of physiological changes connected to the fight or flight response. These changes are why anxiety feels the way it does. They include:

  • feeling puffed and breathless (because of short breathing),
  • dizzy and confused (because of the change in the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen),
  • a racey, pounding heart (because it’s pumping the neurochemical fuel around the body for fight or flight),
  • tight, wobbly muscles (fuel is sent to arms so they can fight or legs so they can flee),
  • clammy, sweaty (the body cools itself down in case it has to fight or flee),
  • nausea, butterflies (digestion shuts down temporarily to save energy for fight or flight),

These symptoms are completely normal, and completely safe. Bodies and brains have been doing anxiety for a while, and they know exactly what they’re doing – but it can feel awful. Strong, steady breathing will start to neutralise the neurochemical surge and turn around the physiological symptoms. Something to keep in mind though, is that during anxiety, the brain is too busy to do things that don’t feel familiar. To make strong, steady breathing a more available response, encourage your child to practise when they are calm. Here are two ways to do that:

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: This technique is especially good for teens because they can access it anywhere, anytime, and nobody else will have any idea. It combines touch and breath, which is a powerful combo. Anxiety feels flighty, and touch during anxiety can feel comforting and grounding. (It’s also something you can do to them if they like being touched.) Have them draw a figure 8 on their skin (arm, leg, back – wherever feels lovely) with their index finger. For the first half of the figure 8, ask them breathe in for three. When they get to the middle, hold for one. Then, for the second half of the figure 8, breathe out for three. Repeat three or four times. 

Then, the ’emotional brain’ in the middle. 

Touch, validation, warmth. ‘I’m here. I see you.’

Next, we need to tap into the emotional brain and help it feel safe again. As much as we have been wired to be wary of some people, we’ve also been wired to feel safe and connected with others. One of the things that influences the amygdala’s decision about whether to avoid something or move bravely towards it is the release of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) into the medial region of the amygdala. This section of the amygdala is heavily involved in our reactions to other people, specifically whether to avoid them or move towards them. Sometimes avoidance is exactly the right move – not all people are safe – but sometimes the amygdala can hit the ‘stay away’ button unnecessarily. This can drive anxiety in any situation where there are people – school, unfamiliar or new situations, anything social.

Oxytocin is released when we feel close to someone we care about. The amygdala has receptors especially designed to receive oxytocin, and when it gets a juicy dose, the amygdala feels safer and calmer – which means less anxiety, less avoidance, more brave behaviour. When our kids and teens are in the thick of anxiety, touching them gently, putting your arm around them, being physically close to them, holding their hand (as long as they’re ok with touch) can facilitate a delivery of oxytocin directly to the medial amygdala. This will increase the feeling of connection to you and calm the amygdala, which will help your child feel safer. We humans feel safest, bravest and strongest when we’re close to our favourite humans.

Another function of the feeling brain is to recruit support. If you’re the support, let the amygdala know that it’s done its job, and support is here. Do this by acknowledging and validating the feelings you see in your child or teen. ‘I can see this feels big for you.’ ‘It looks as though you’re worried about walking into school by yourself. Do I have that right?’

And hello ‘thinking brain’ – we’ve missed you.

Move towards brave behaviour. ‘You can do this, gorgeous. I know you can.’

Now that you’ve delivered a delicious dose of oxytocin to your child’s medial amygdala, hopefully your child will be feeling calmer. This reduces the drive to avoid, and open the way for brave behaviour. Speak to the logical, calming, thinking brain by reminding them why they feel the way they do, asking them what they need, armouring them with brave thinking, and encouraging them towards brave behaviour. Connect with them by looking them in the eye (this also releases oxytocin) and gently and confidently moving them forward, ‘I know you can do this, gorgeous. I know you can.’ 

When dealing with anxiety, it’s important to start with the absolute belief that your child or teen has everything they need to be brave – because they do. Sometimes though, you’ll need to believe it enough for both of you. There will of course be times to let your child take comfort somewhere warm and bundled, but there will also be times to push them gently towards brave behaviour. One of the things that can make this tough for any parent, is that the gentlest nudge forward by you might not feel that gentle, for them or for you. When anxiety hits, the need for our kids to avoid situations can be monumental, but our belief in them can always be stronger. The question to ask yourself in these times is, ‘Will my response build their courage, or shrink it?’ When avoidance becomes their go-to response, it will shrink their world more than it deserves to be. When the magic of them is kept hidden away, it is a loss for all of us.

Brains learn from experience. If your child’s amygdala has been working a little too hard and has become a little overprotective, it might take time to ‘re-teach’ the amygdala to approach instead of avoid – but absolutely this can be done, and it’s so important. When you take away the option to avoid, there has to be something else put back in its place. Otherwise, the drive will be to go back to what’s familiar, which will be avoidance. That ‘something else’ is encouragement towards brave behaviour, or towards whatever it is they want to avoid. 

And finally …

The move towards brave behaviour and away from anxiety is a process, and not always a smooth one. Our children and teens need us to see them and to hold a strong, steady space for them, but they also need us to believe in them and to sometimes lead the way. Because we can see around the corners that they can’t. And we can see their strength, and their resilience, and their courage. When their anxiety is screaming at that maternal or paternal need in you to keep them safe, ask, ‘Do I believe in them, or do I believe their anxiety?’ And always, of course, go gently. Building brave, beautiful humans takes time – and that’s okay, because they have plenty of it.

4 Comments

K

Oh my gosh – I can’t thank you enough for this article! Everything you’re saying here makes so much sense! I really look forwarding to using this ‘bridge strategy’ with my 9 year old daughter, who was recently diagnosed with anxiety. I’m so thankful for the tools you provide to help me with my daughter’s sense of wellness!

Reply
Chris

Thank you! I just watched your interview with Renee Jain and for the first time heard something that hit home and spoke to me. I have a dughter who has a bit of anxiety, and now I can empower her through it. I love tour approach and your insight. I look forward to exploring the site.

Reply
Ann

My daughter is turning 19 next month. She has always been an anxious, “slow to warm up” child, and I remember her not being quite like the others in the sense where I just knew it was wrong to “force” her to do new things instead of encourage her and push her gently to try new situations. She has come a very long way. She is currently working part-time in retail and also attending university, but she is still experiencing great anxiety sporadically. Just today she had asked me to reschedule a hair cut appointment for her, but because of her complicated schedule, I said that she should do it herself. She proceeded to have a complete breakdown and insisted that I do it for her. I just feel that this is the wrong thing to do, and I have expressed that to her and that in the short term it seems easier but that I feel it is setting her up to continue avoiding doing things like this. I suggested that she either call the salon and I will sit with her or if it is talking on the phone ??? that is triggering her, then I would take her to the salon and she could chat with the receptionist face to face. She seemed to have some sort of panic attack and is very upset with me right now. I really feel that this is the right course, but I would appreciate some input into this situation if possible, please.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This