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.

7 Comments

S

Actually I learnt that avoiding what didn’t feel right for me meant I got to know who I am & what I did feel happiest with. From what parents are saying, these young adults are having a normal reaction to trauma or simply know they’re forcing themselves to do things because they feel committed but unhappy with the way it makes them feel. If they stop trying to fit into the box, they may find they prefer something quite different. When forced by adults to conform, we lose our ability to really know ourselves, quashing our instincts.

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Megan

Hi Karen, thank you for your informative articles on anxiety. Our son has struggled with this for most of his life and is definitely getter braver as he grows. He is now 11 years old and has had a couple of minor incidents at school which blew up into major ones because he refused to go to the office to discuss this situation. He says that his feelings take over (to me it seems as though he goes into “freeze” mode – he seems to predict the outcome / consequences and is too frightened to face them). Do you have any suggestions I can give to his school to help in these situations? He has just been suspended for two days for refusing to go to the office to discuss a verbal altercation with his teacher. Thanks so much for your help. Regards, Megan

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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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Trish

I have a 19 year old son who has always dealt with anxiety. All his years of school I pushed him through the door daily. He did not like school and did not want to be there. Unfortunately, he and I did not have a choice. He expressed to my husband and I that once he graduated from high school he was not going to college. We agreed, he then opted for a trade school for welding. He left home and the state we lived in for 9 months on his own in an apartment with a roommate. He was 6 hours away and drove home every weekend. successfully graduating from High School at 18 and successfully graduating from a trade school at 18 was impressive and that he was able to accomplish his goal. So proud of him. But he started work just two days after graduation in June of 2018 and worked for 5 months with a small company hoping for better options down the road. Two weeks ago he got an opportunity to work for a bigger company welding in a shop with hopes of going into a plant or other forms of welding. Within the first week he was going to quit. Unhappy and crying every morning on the way into work, texting how sad he was and how he could not do this. He began to withdraw and put the wall up. My husband and I discussed the fact that starting an new job and all that comes with this is very stressful but with time it will work out, he has done this before and completed with success. He was very pessimistic, and could not get past the feelings of fear, failure, and not understanding what he needs to do, and being perfect at it. He asked for space. We acknowledge this and gave space. His girlfriend a great support also has struggled with anxiety and could understand but not all of it. This week has gotten better with supports in place and his coping with the fear and anxiety. However, struggling to help him, not sure as a parent what to do to help him as an adult? Any suggestions?

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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.

Reply
Agnes

My daughter 13 years old is facing anxiety. It starts at primary school when she is bullied by friends and she is over hurt and kept it secret for 2 years . She is a soft hearted girl that easily get hurt by her surrounding, Recently her aunty passed away, left a 8 years old daughter. All this happening make her anxiety burst. Now, she is having fear to go to school or even places crowded with people. How can I help her to overcome this anxiety?

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.

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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