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!

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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.

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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.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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