Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

Anxiety in Kids: The Skills to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

Anxiety is a normal response to something dangerous or stressful. It becomes a problem when it shows up at unexpected times and takes a particularly firm hold. When anxiety is in full swing, it feels awful. Awful enough that anticipation of the feeling is enough in itself to cause anxiety. Anxiety in kids can be especially confusing , not only for the ones who are feeling anxious, but also for the adults who care about them. 

We already know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage or character. It picks a target and it switches on.

When that target is a child or teen, it can be particularly distressing, causing problems with sleeping, eating and missed school from unexplained illnesses such as sick tummies or headaches. 

One of the worst things about anxiety in kids is the way it can happen without any identifiable cause. The physical feeling is familiar – that panicked feeling that comes when you miss a stair or as my daughter recently described, ‘that feeling you get when you’re almost asleep and you feel like you’re falling.’ (‘Yes, we’ve dealt with it in our home too. It’s under control now, so I can assure you this works.)

The good news is that anxiety in kids is very treatable and they are particularly responsive. I often think we don’t give them enough credit. They’re so open to possibility, and very quick to make the right connections when they’re given the right information and support. As the adult in their lives, you’re the perfect one to give it.

Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Turning it Around 

  • Don’t talk them out of it.

    As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with gentle comments in the way of, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ or ‘You’ll be fine‘.

    This comes from the purest of intentions but it runs the risk of them feeling as though there’s something wrong with them. The truth is that when anxiety has a hold of them, they can no sooner stop worrying than fly to the moon. As much as they want to believe you, their brains just won’t let them.

    What they need to hear is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to articulate – and that’s okay. Then, ask if it’s ‘like that feeling you get when you miss a stair,’ (or ‘that feeling you get when you feel like you’re falling in your sleep’). Often, this in itself is such a relief because ‘someone gets it.’

  • Normalise.

    Explain that:

    •. Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life – before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school.

    •  Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away. 

  • Explain why anxiety feels like it does.

    Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety in kids causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There’s a reason for this, and understanding the reason is key to managing the anxiety.

    Here is a child-friendly explanation. I’ve used it for a variety of ages, but nobody knows your child like you do so adjust it to suit. 

    ‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Anxiety in kids is common, and lots of adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.  

    It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. It’s job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.

    If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.

    If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all. 

    Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. It’s a doer not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe.

    If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.

    So when the amygdala senses a threat it floods your body with oxygen, adrenaline and hormones that your body can use to fuel its fight or flight. When this happens:

    ♦   Your breathing changes from normal slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Your body does this because your brain has told it to stop using up the oxygen for strong breaths and send it to the muscles to they can run or fight.

    When this happens you might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You also might feel the blood rush to your face and your face become warm.

    ♦    If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up and the carbon dioxide drops.

    This can make you feel dizzy or a bit confused.

    ♦   Your heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body.

    Your heart can feel like it’s racing and you might feel sick.

    ♦   Fuel gets sent to your arms (in case they need to fight) and your legs (in case they need to flee).

    Your arms and legs might tense up or your muscles might feel tight.

    ♦   Your body cools itself down (by sweating) so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee

    You might feel a bit sweaty.

    ♦   Your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs in case you have to fight or flee. (Don’t worry though – it won’t stay shut down for long.)

    You might feel like you have butterflies in your tummy. You might also feel sick, as though you’re going to vomit, and your mouth might feel a bit dry. 

    As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.’

  • Explain how common anxiety in kids is.

    Anxiety in kids is common. About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety – so let them know that in their class, there’s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been through it before. Maybe they’re going through it right now.

  • Give it a name.

    ‘Now that you understand that your anxiety feelings come from the ‘heroic warrior’ part of your brain, let’s give it a name.’ Let your child pick the name and ask them what they think of when they picture it. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also demystifies their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless ‘thing’ that gets in their way, it’s something contained – with a name and a look. 

  • Now get them into position.

    ‘The problem with anxiety is that [whatever their ‘heroic warrior’ is called – for the moment, let’s say, ‘Zep’] Zep is calling all the shots but we know that you’re really the boss. Zep actually thinks it’s protecting you, so what you need to do is let it know that you’ve got this and that it can relax. When you get those anxious feelings, that means Zep is taking over and getting ready to keep you safe. It doesn’t think about it at all – it just jumps in and goes for it. What you need to do is to let it know that you’re okay. 

    The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. It sounds so simple – and it is. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow and deep to quick and shallow. That type of breathing changes the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Once your breathing is under control, Zep will stop thinking he has to protect you and he’ll settle back down. Then, really quickly after that, you’ll stop feeling the way you do.’ 

  • And breathe.

    Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold your breath just for a second between breathing in and breathing out. Make sure the breath is going right down into your belly – not just into your chest. You can tell because your belly will be moving. Do this about 5 to 10 times.

    Practice before bed every day. Remember that Zep, the warrior part of your brain, has been protecting you for your entire life so it might take a little bit of practice to convince Zep to relax. But keep practicing and you’ll be really good at it in no time. You and that warrior part of your brain will be buddies – but with you in control.

    One way to practice is by putting a soft toy on your child’s belly when they lie down. If the toy is moving up and down, their breathing is perfect. 

  • Practice mindfulness.

    An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness.  MRI studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the brain, providing relief and protection from stress, anxiety and depression. See here for more information.

    Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Essentially, it’s being aware of the present moment, and there are plenty of fun ways introduce children to mindfulness.  

    Start by explaining that anxiety comes about because of worry about the future and what might happen. Sometimes these thoughts happen in the background – we don’t even know they’re there. Mindfulness helps you to have control over your brain so you can stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to. It trains your brain to stay in the here and now. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. 

    It sounds easy enough but minds quite like to wander so staying in the moment can take some practice. Here’s the how:

    1. Close your eyes and notice your breathing. How does the air feel as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating. If your mind starts to wander, come back to this.
    2. Now, what can you hear? What can you feel outside of you and inside your body? If your mind starts to wander, focus on your breathing again. 

Remember that anxiety in kids is very treatable but it might take time. Explain to your child that his or her very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there’s trouble coming, doesn’t mean there is. Keep practising and they’ll get there. 


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is a book 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 brain’ 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.)

 


 

 

839 Comments

Addison

This is amazing, thank you so much. My daughter is now 12 and has been dealing with severe anxiety since she was around 8 or 9. She was always a nervous child, starting school etc but when things got too much to deal with for her the GP kindly referred her to CAMHS who were fantastic and also provided me and my husband with tools to help her. It disappeared for a while and has now reared it’s ugly head and I’m thinking it’s a lot to do with her hormones and starting high school (although claims she cant wait). She is dancer and can get on a stage in front of hundreds of people without a care, but gets scared about a change in her routine the next day. Anxiety is a funny thing.

She’s alot more talkative this time round, telling us how she’s feeling and trying to tackle it on her own unless she needs the support which we are really proud of her for. But I feel this article simplifies things and I cant wait to read it with her, it actually made me feel better as a parent, it can sometimes feel like your the only one going through it.

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Lynne H

Thank you for these fantastic tips for helping kids cope with anxiety. My daughter is 10 years old and started struggling with anxiety before the pandemic started, and of course pandemic has not helped on bit. It has been something I am constantly working on with her. I recently got her started on a beautiful positivity journal that was gifted to us. It has prompts on each page helping her to explore what she is feeling and it has made a huge difference for her.

One thing that I have often said to her is that it will be ok, I will be more mindful of this moving forward. At the beginning of this school term she had came home and told me she had a tummy ache all day at school and I noticed that as soon as she got home she was fine. It went on for a few weeks and I’m sure it was due to anxiety. Thankfully its not happening anymore. I find when I consciously work with her when she is struggling it gets easier for her and then of course I start slacking when its better and it rears its ugly head again. Then we start all over. I keep telling myself I need to keep up with spending the time with her every day to work through things but life gets so busy. It’s exhaustiing.

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Charles P

My daughter is 5 years old. Her mother and I had a bad separation for about 2 years I was in and out of her life due to me being pushed out by the mother. After almost a year of not seeing my daughter I was able to talk to her. She was talking so fast and breathing rapidly between each word and then stooping at the end of the sentence. I almost felt like telling her “ok, ok, its ok just settle down everything’s alright”. Iam by far devastated and really worried for my daughter it almost brought me to tears just hearing her speak to me.I just want her to be with me every minute and every second of every day so that I can show her everything’s gonna be alright. I pray that God sees and helps the situation I hate being powerless when it comes to being able to provide her with assurance,guidance,and understanding towards things.I appreciate the author of this article you are heaven sent.Thanks.

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Sarah

HOw can one manage a child with anxiety due to a person who possibly has narcissistic personality disorder?

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Kevin H

Thank you, for the pep talk. I’all try some of those techniques. I’m doing the breathing now.

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John

This is a light in the dark for me. We have been trying to deal with our boy and his anxiety doing thing all the wrong way. Cant wait to try this new approach. thanks for all your help.

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sherri

So should I take my son to see the doctor for aneitxy? Or is there anything they can do for him?

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Amethyst B

I loved it when you said that instead of telling the child that they will be okay, it is much better to ask them about it as it helps them vent out their fear and give them the idea that someone gets them. My sister is yet to express that she afraid of needles, but I will prepare just in case. After all, this is the first time she will get a flu shot, and the both of us do not know what to expect.

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There are lots of reasons we love people or places, and a big reason is that we love who we are when we’re with those people or in those places. It’s the same for our children.

Do they feel seen, important, fun, funny, joyful? Or do they feel annoying, intrusive, unimportant, stupid? Do they feel like someone who is valued and wanted? Or do they feel tolerated? Do they feel interesting, independent, capable? Or do they feel managed?

It’s so easy to fall into a space - and this can happen with the most loving, most wonderful parents - where we spend too much time telling them what to do, noticing the things they don’t do, ‘managing’ them, and not enough time playing or experiencing joy with them, valuing their contribution (even if we’ve had to stoke that a little), seeking out their opinions and ideas. 

We won’t get this right all the time, and that’s okay. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about what we do most and being deliberate when we can. It’s about seeing who they are, through what they do. It’s about taking time to enjoy them, laugh with them, play with them, so they can feel their capacity to bring joy. It’s about creating the conditions that make it easy for them to love the people they are when they are with us.♥️
This week I had the absolute joy of working with the staff of Launceston College, presenting two half-day workshops on neuroscience and brain development for children and adolescents. 

The teachers and staff at this school care so much about their students. The everyday moments young people have with their important adults matter so much. It’s through these moment to moment interactions that young people start to learn that they are important, believed in, wanted, that they belong, and when this happens, learning will too. It just will. 

This is what teachers do. They open young people up to their potential, to their capacity for learning and doing hard things. They grow humans. The work of a teacher will always go so far beyond content and curriculum. 

Thank you @launceston_college for having me. Your students are in strong and wonderful hands.♥️

Posted @withrepost • @launceston_college
#LC2022 #
Building brave and moving through anxiety are like lifting weights. The growth happens little by little. Sometimes this will be slow and clumsy. Sometimes it will feel big bold, certain, and beautiful. Sometimes undone, unhappened, frustrating. It all matters. 

There will be so many days where they will see the brave thing in front of them, and everything in them will want to move towards it but they’ll feel stuck - between wanting to and scared to.

This is the point of impasse. The desire and the resistance come face to face, locked in battle. On the outside this might look like frustration, big tears, big anger, the need to avoid or retreat (or in us, a need to retreat them), but inside the work to strengthen against anxiety is happening.

This isn’t the undoing of brave. It’s the building of it. In this precious space between the wanting and the fear, they’re doing battle. They’re doing the hard, imposing work of moving through anxiety. They’re experiencing the distress of anxiety, and the handling of it, all at once. They might not be handling it well, but as long as they’re in it, they’re handling it.

These moments matter so much. If this is all they do, then they’ve been brave today. They’ve had a necessary, important experience which has shown them that the discomfort of anxiety won’t hurt them. It will feel awful, but as long as they aren’t alone in it, it won’t break them. 

Next day, next week, next month they might handle that discomfort for a minute longer than last time. Next time, even longer. This isn’t the avoidance of brave. It’s the building of it. These are the weight lifting experiences that slowly and surely strengthen their resiliency muscles. These are the experiences that show them that the discomfort of anxiety is no reflection at all of how capable they are and how brave they can be. It’s discomfort. It’s not breakage.

These little steps are the necessary building blocks for the big ones. So, if they have handled the discomfort of anxiety today (it truly doesn’t matter how well), and if that discomfort happened as they were face to face with something important and meaningful and hard, let them know that they’ve built brave today.♥️
Anxiety is a valid, important, necessary way the brain recruits support in times of trouble. In actual times of danger, the support we give is vital. This might look like supporting avoidance, fighting for them, fleeing with them. BUT - when there is no danger, this ‘support’ can hold them back from brave, important, growthful things. It can get in the way of building resilience, self-belief, and the capacity for brave. All loving parents will do this sometimes. This isn’t the cause of anxiety. It’s the response to it. 

We love them so much, and as loving parents we all will, at some time or another,  find ourselves moving to protect them from dangers that aren’t there. These ‘dangers’ are the scary but safe things that trigger anxiety and the call for support, but which are safe. Often they are also growthful, brave, important. These include anything that’s safe but hard, unfamiliar, growthful, brave.

This is when the move towards brave might be in our hands. This might look like holding them lovingly in the discomfort of anxiety for a minute longer than last time, rather than supporting avoidance. It might look like trusting their capacity to cope with the discomfort of anxiety (and approaching hard, brave, growthful things) rather than protecting them from that discomfort. Knowing what to do when can be confusing and feel impossibly hard sometimes. When it does, ask:

‘Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?’
‘Am I aligning with their fear or their courage?’
‘What am I protecting them from - a real danger, or something brave and important?’

They don’t have to do the whole brave thing all at once. We can move them towards brave behaviour in tiny steps - by holding them in the discomfort of anxiety for a teeny bit longer each time. This will provide the the experience they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety.

This might bring big feelings or big behaviour, but you don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Big feelings don’t hurt children. It’s being alone in big feelings that hurts. Let them feel you with them with statements of validation and confidence, ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle this.’♥️
We all do or say things we shouldn’t sometimes. This isn’t about breakage, it’s about being human. It’s about a brain that has registered ‘threat’, and a body that is getting ready to respond. 

‘Threat’ counts as anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their other important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, unfairness or loss. It can also count as physical (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).

The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a brain that needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, validate (with or without words - if the words are annoying for them just feel what they feel so they can feel you with them). 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets nervous systems on fire. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Stand behind the boundary, flag the behaviour (‘It’s not ok to … I know you know that’) and then shift the focus to relationship - (‘I’m right here’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’)♥️

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