Dealing with anxiety in children can be confusing for everyone. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense because it doesn’t always come with an obvious trigger. It is driven by a strong, healthy, determined brain, but one that is overprotective and quick to sense danger, even when there isn’t any. As the trusted adult in your child’s life, your response can have a powerful effect on calming an anxious brain and uncovering the brave behaviour that all kids with anxiety are wonderfully capable of.
During anxiety, certain parts of the brain become dominant and drive behaviour. This is evidence of a strong, healthy brain switching into survival mode, but when it happens too much or unnecessarily, it feels awful. Responses become rigid – the response to dangerous situations also becomes the response to situations that aren’t dangerous at all.
Healthy living means being able to meet different situations with different responses, depending on what’s needed. For this to happen, the different parts of the brain need to work well independently, but they also need to work well together.
When children (and adults) become overwhelmed with anxiety, certain parts of the brain have taken charge and have disconnected from other parts of the brain. In times where an immediate, strong response is needed (as in times of real danger), this is brilliant, and a sign of a brain doing exactly as it’s meant to do. Sometimes there is just no time to think about the big picture. If there is a wild dog running towards you, the last thing you want to do is wonder if it’s lost, angry, hungry or misunderstood, or imagine how cute it would be if it was sleeping. You just need to get out of there – fast.
To make this happen, the brain switches to auto-pilot and immediately initiates the fight or flight response. It hands the bulk of the workload to the more primitive, instinctive, impulsive parts of the brain and at the same time it organises for the parts that like to take more time planning, to sit out for a while.
Anxious brains have a mind of their own – but we can change that.
Everything we expose our children to and everything they do will alter the physical structure of their brains in some way. By understanding the way their brains work, you can provide the exact experience they need to strengthen the relevant connections to nurture their mental health.
As a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or any important adult in a child’s life, you can play a vital role in strengthening his or her brain against anxiety. Let’s talk about how.
The brain during anxiety. What you need to know.
The brain can be thought of as different sections – left and right and front and back. The sections need to be able to work well on their own but they also need to work together. The stronger the connections between the parts of the brain, the greater the capacity to respond, relate, learn and grow.
Think about this like a sports team. Each person on the team can be a superstar, but if each person insists on scoring all of the points themselves, regardless of what the rest of the team needs from them, there will be chaos. A strong team needs everyone to participate. Sometimes that will mean working hard on the front line, and sometimes it will mean stepping back so others can work their magic. The better the team can work together, the more effective it will be. Brains work the same way.
One of the exciting developments in psychology is the discovery that the brain is always open to change. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, and what it means for our children is that every experience we expose them to has the capacity to change and strengthen their brain. Understanding what happens in the brain during anxiety, will help to understand the ways we can make a difference.
When the left and the right separate.
The brain is made up of two hemispheres, the right and the left. The two sides are connected by a bundle of fibres called the corpus callosum. Communication between the right and the left happens along these fibres, but sometimes, as in during anxiety, the messages don’t flow smoothly.
Each side of the brain has a different way of dealing with things, and we need both for different reasons. Both sides are involved in everything we do, but at different times one side might be more dominant. During anxiety, it is likely that the right brain has temporarily taken over. The feelings are overwhelming, and without the full involvement of the left brain, the feelings won’t necessarily make sense. The experience is likely to be one of, ‘I feel scared and overwhelmed, but I don’t understand why.’
The left brain loves logic and it uses language to describe experience in a concrete, logical way. It gives structure and order to our experiences, (‘this happened, then this happened …’). The left brain loves factual details. It might describe an anxious trip to school as ‘I got into the car and we drove out of the garage. It was raining. We drove down the road and turned left. My legs got wobbly, then my hands got sweaty and then we arrived at school. …’.
The right brain is more concerned with emotion and the bigger picture of what the experience means. While the left brain is more interested in ‘this is what happened’, the right brain is more interested in ‘this is what it means for me’. It draws on memories, feelings, and images, and is heavily directed by sensations in the body and the messages from the lower brain, which is the major player in anxiety.
The right side of the brain is more emotional and intuitive. The right brain might describe the same anxious trip to school as, ‘I always feel sick on the way to school and whenever I even think about school I always feel as though something bad is going to happen. My legs always feel wobbly and my hands get sweaty and I worry that everyone can tell. It feels awful and I hate school.’
We need both sides of the brain to work well together. If the right brain was in charge, without the steady, logical influence of the left side, we would be overwhelmed with physical sensations and emotions. Images and memories would flood us constantly and we would be emotional, chaotic and irrational. Coming at life from the left side also has its downside. If we were to be completely steered by logic without any input from our emotional experiences, we would be cold and emotionally disconnected from the world, ourselves and the people around us. Life would be logical, but it would also be without soul.
When the front and the back disconnect.
The lower brain, at the back of the brain, is primitive, impulsive and instinctive. One of its main jobs is to keep us alive by initiating the fight or flight response when it senses danger. It does this superbly, but sometimes it will do it unnecessarily. This is how anxiety happens.
The front brain is the more sophisticated, adult part of the brain. It brings order to the instinctive, impulsive behaviour of the lower brain. It helps us to plan, consider consequences, problem solve, make decisions, exercise self-control, feel empathy, act morally, imagine and think.
When there is a strong connection between the front and back of the brain, messages will travel freely between the two. The lower brain will let us know when something doesn’t feel right, but the front brain will make sure the response is warranted and that things (and people) don’t get out of control.
When the sensations of fear or anxiety are strong, the rational, logical, calming front brain is overwhelmed. The surging of fight or flight neurochemicals sends it offline. When this happens, it isn’t able to establish whether or not there actually is danger, and it also isn’t available to help calm big feelings or plan a better response, as in one that isn’t driven by high emotion.
This is why anxiety isn’t something you can reason away. Telling someone who is experiencing anxiety that ‘there’s nothing to worry about,’ will often fall flat because the part of the brain that is receptive to that kind of logical information (the front brain) is offline. This is where you come in.
Dealing with anxiety in children – what adults can do to strengthen an anxious brain.
To thrive, we need to help our kids strengthen the connections horizontally – with the logical left brain and the emotional right brain working together, and vertically – with the rational front brain and the instinctive lower brain working together.
An important part of dealing with anxiety means not avoiding the things that feel overwhelming, but this will happen more easily when the entire brain is working together. This will mean easing the anxiety first, so the brain is more receptive to trying something new or unfamiliar. Now for the how.
Don’t show resistance – yet.
Any resistance you show to your child when their anxiety is at full volume will only make the resolve of the lower brain stronger. Remember, it deals with things through fight or flight – no negotiation, no compromise, no stretching. This doesn’t mean always letting anxiety drive behaviour. Sometimes it will be important for your child to be brave and do the things that they are anxious about, but this will be easier if you pick your moment. Re-establish the connection between the front and back of the brain, then, once the front of the brain is back online and the left and right brain are working together, you will be in a better position to encourage different behaviour.
Be calm, soothing supportive – whatever their behaviour. (This will calm the protective, anxious lower brain.)
During anxiety, behaviour might take different shapes – aggression, tantrums, avoidance, clinginess – but it is all driven by a brain in fight or flight. What your child needs more than anything in that moment is to feel safe. Your tone, volume, and physically positioning yourself on their level will all help to communicate this. Be as calm, soothing and supportive as you can be. Responding any other way will inflame a brain that is already feeling vulnerable. There will be time to deal with behavioural issues later.
Name what you see. (This will also calm the lower brain.)
Name the feeling or fear that you see. This will send the message to the lower brain that you understand and that you’re there to help. It will let the protective lower brain know that it has done its job and found support. Try, ‘You look scared. Is that what you’re feeling right now?’ or ‘I can see that you’re worried about going to the party. Is that what’s happening for you?’ Feelings always exist to meet a need. With anxiety, the need is to feel safe, even if there is no obvious threat. Research has found that labelling an emotion calms the activity in the amygdala and at the same time increases activity in the prefrontal cortex. When you name the feeling and offer what’s needed (assurance, warmth, security) the need behind the feeling will ease, and the feeling will start to calm. As Marc Bracket from the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence describes, ‘Labelling your emotions is key. If you can name it, you can tame it.’
Get them talking (To strengthen the connection between right and left.)
Recruit the left brain by encouraging your child to put their own words to their experience. Ask your child to talk to you about what he or she is feeling and what has happened up to now. You might need to help them by encouraging the detail, ‘and then what?’ or ‘what happened before that?’. This kind of storytelling will help to connect the right and left brain help to make sense of the experience.
When children use words to talk about their emotions, they are connecting the emotion and memories of their right brain with the language and logic of the left. This will strengthen the connection between the right and the left brain, and smooth the flow of information between the two. Think of it as building a bridge between the right and the left sides of the brain. When your child feels anxious and needs to make sense of the experience, he or she can use the bridge to access the words and logic that will give meaning to the experience. The more you are able to engage the left brain (by using words and describing the experience in a linear, concrete way), the stronger the bridge will be. Be patient – this will take time. Strong, beautiful bridges aren’t built in moments.
Shhh. Let them sleep. (To strengthen the connection between right and left)
Sleep is a beautiful thing for all of us, and it’s especially important that kids with anxiety get enough of it. Research has shown that during sleep, the connections between the right and left hemispheres of a child’s brain are strengthened by up to 20%. New connections are formed and a fatty protective layer of insulation called myelin forms around the nerve fibres. Myelin is important because it speeds up the transfer of information across nerve cells. The greater the myelination, the stronger the connection.
When they are relaxed, give them a logical explanation of anxiety. (To strengthen the connection between right and left.)
When your child is calm, explain what anxiety is in a logical, linear way. (Here you go – a child-friendly explanation.) Every time you talk about this, you will be adding more and more structure to the bridge between the left and the right. Helping them understand why their anxiety feels the way it does is powerful. We all need to make sense of our experiences, and if a child is left to make sense of the physical sense of anxiety, their own version won’t feel as friendly. Anxiety feels out of control and frightening. It can be so convincing and when it takes hold, there’s often a feeling of certainty that there is something to be scared or, or that something more serious is driving the symptoms.
There is a level of safety, security and comfort that comes with awareness. Think of this like noises in the night. If you know that the noises in the next room are from the television, all is good. But if there is no television in the room next door and no other explanation for the noises you’re hearing, it’s going to feel terrifying. Images of robbers or intruders will fill your head. It’s the same for anxiety. If your child understands where their feelings coming from and what’s causing them, they will eventually feel less threatened by the experience.
Encourage them to practice strong breathing. (To re-engage the front brain easier and to strengthen the connection between the front and back).
Strong, deep breathing initiates the relaxation response, which was discovered by Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. The relaxation response neutralises the fight or flight neurochemicals. Remember, it is the surging of these neurochemicals that swamp the front brain and send it offline. Once the neurochemicals begin to neutralise, the front brain is free to re-engage and send some loving calm to the back brain. Just like the fight or flight response, the relaxation response is hardwired into us but it does have to be actively engaged. In the midst of anxiety, the brain is too busy to concentrate on slow deep breathing, but with practice, this can become more automatic. Each day, when your child is relaxed, have them practice breathing in for three, hold for one and out for three. Do this about 5 to 10 times. The idea is to do it so much that is can be called up as easily as any habit.
Mindfulness (To strengthen the connection between the front and the back.)
Research has repeatedly shown that mindfulness can change the function and structure of the brain. One of the ways it does this is by strengthening the connection between the reactive back of the brain and the rational, calming front of the brain. Here are some fun ways to start a mindfulness practice with kids.
Talk about a plan. (This will strengthen the connection between front and back).
The prefrontal cortex will be strengthened any time your child engages it, not just when it’s engaged during anxiety. The pre-frontal cortex loves planning, so when your child is relaxed, involve them in coming up with a plan for if the feel anxious again. Ownership is a powerful thing – your child will much more likely to stay on board with the plan if they have been involved in coming up with it. Ask what might help to make the experience easier next time. There will be more chance of doing this when they are relaxed, because the lower brain will also be relaxed and more willing to surrender control.
And finally …
A more strongly connected brain will be a more effective brain in all sorts of ways, not just against anxiety. It will drive healthier relationships, a greater capacity to learn and deal with challenges, and richer way of responding to the world. Everything our kids need to be vital, healthy and happy is in them. Our job as the important adults in their lives is to help them strengthen those qualities. By supporting them when they need it, and exposing them to the right experiences, we can change and strengthen their brains in ways that will see them thrive.
You might also like …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.
I am 70 and tend to be anxious. My main difficulty is insomnia. After reading the Psychobiotic Revolution which is about the bacteria in the gut and how it runs our lives, including how it cause anxiety and depression, I stopped eating refined sugar. My insomnia is so much better!
Thank you for such an insightful and helpful article! My eleven year old son has struggled with anxiety for a while now (crippling anxiety before a football match or school presentation, for example). I’ve been trying to research to see how I can be the mom he needs me to be and give him the support he needs. A concern is that my husband has OCD (moral scrupilouscity) and his doctor has told us to watch our children closely, as it is a genetic disorder. We desperately don’t want his anxiety to develop into OCD and so we are trying to help him find tools to manage his anxiety. We do plan on sending him to a few therapy sessions to help him with it. But your article has been eye-opening and a great tool for me. I’ll be browsing your website for a good few hours! Thank you for such a great resource!
My 10 year old has been struggling with going to sleep for the past year. We are waiting at the moment to get an appointment with a play therapist as over the summer it has got much worse. She doesn’t go to sleep before 12 each night even though she will be in bed by 9/9.30. She is up and down the stairs several times each night saying she can’t keep calm or go to sleep.have tri d loads of different remedies and meditation and nothing helps. Now we just tell her to rest and not to be worried about sleeping. Had to stop checking on the kids at night when i am going to bed as she has got into the habit of waiting for me to come up. Finding it very frustrating.
Hi Sigmund. I found this article very interesting. We are having immense difficulty with our 11 year old son for a couple of years now. He is becoming more clingy and aggressive in his nature, shouting, screaming, slamming things stomping when annoyed. He challenges our authority over everything and increasingly in public, where he will often say things to offend others who may have annoyed him,which I find quite distressing. He will pass negative comments in response to anything his little sister says and openly blames her for coming between us and him,although will happily play with her at other times. His anxiety increases 10 fold at bedtime when he cannot fall asleep unless somebody sits with him which can often be for over an hour and is becoming really difficult to deal with. He is a highly academic and top performer at school and displays none of this when there, I don’t understand why there is such a difference and do feel he is worse during the holidays. I do hope to try more mindfulness and breathing at bedtime but any further advice you could give would be great. Thanks.
Nuzie here is article that will hopefully help to make sense of what you are seeing in your son https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/. I hope this helps.
This article has helped me to understand what is going on with my daughter more fully. She recently had a scary experience at the dentist and now, upon the change to a different, fluoride toothpaste she has begun refusing to brush her teeth. She clamps her hands over her mouth and freezes. She won’t allow me or her father near her with the toothbrush. I am desperate to find ways to help her. She has three cavities that need filled and I fear she will never set foot in the dentist’s office again!
Your daughter’s response makes a lot of sense if she has had a frightening experience. It’s likely that she’ll grow out of this, but if she needs cavities it sounds like it needs a little nudging. The key is to reintroduce her slowly to the thing she fears. The stepladder approach would be a perfect way to do this. Here is an article that explains how to do that https://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. Something else that will be helpful is explaining to her why she feels the way she does. This article will explain how to do that https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. The reason this is important is because the thoughts and feelings that come with anxiety can feel like predictions, but they actually have a really good reason for being there. When kids understand this, they can take control and feel more empowered and less scared by their anxiety. I hope this helps.
Hi! I have battled with anxiety for quite sometime and it seems my son has inherited the great thing it is! He 5 and is battling with OCD, mainly thoughts that seem really real. He heard a boy at school say he hates his teacher and now my son is terrified he is going to say it. I’m trying hard to teach him he is in control but he’s such a thinker and it takes over him. Going to watch him for a little while and if he gets worse we will sought help. Can you offer any suggestions?
Kylie see if this article gives you some ideas. Talk to your little man about his ‘warrior’, and ways to be the boss of his brain as explained here https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. I hope it helps.
Does this work for aging parents as well?
Yes absolutely – the anxiety response is the same in all of us, regardless of age.
The kids dad and I are divorced. It was a super rough marriage (infidelity, mental abuse) and I had a lot of anxiety, especially near the end of the marriage. I was on anti-depressants and anxiety mess for a while. It’s been over a year since the divorce and I feel great! Most of the time I am absolutely happy with my life and have a lot of peace. I find myself struggling to deal with my kids anxiety, tantrums, and emotions, though. After reading this article and others, I am wondering if their emotions are triggering mine, putting me back into a mode where my fight or flight is over reacting. I have a really hard time reacting in a way that is helpful to them sometimes. I get upset at myself because I know that I’m the adult and should be able to react better. Things have been getting better as I have read articles similar to this one giving ideas, techniques, and understanding. I’ve been really proud of the way I have been able to react better and help my kids with whatever they are dealing with. But then there are some times when my emotions still snap and it’s pretty much over before my logical brain can tell me that it wasn’t the right way to do something. So I’m learning a lot about my kids, but I’m also learning a lot about me. Do you have any suggestions for an adult to help strengthen the interactions between all parts of the brain?
Anything can trigger fight or flight, and with anxiety there doesn’t even need to be an obvious trigger. There are definitely things you can do to strengthen your brain and one of the best things is mindfulness. There is so much research that shows how it changes the structure and function of the brain in really important ways. Here is an article that talks about different ways to do mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/different-ways-to-practice-mindfulness/. Try for about 20 mintues a day, even if it’s 2x 10 minute sessions. It’s so great that you are so open to trying something different.
Thank you for posting. Our son is 3.5 yrs old and is experiencing anxiety at school and home. He attends a part time Montessori school with a small class size. He has become a bit physical with the other kids and is acting out when he doesn’t get his way. He says we’re hurting his feelings. We try to be supportive and nurturing and draw the line when he’s being overtly physical. We moved to a new home a few months ago so that’s been a big change for him, he started school in sept 2016 and it’s been a big adjustment for him as well. He’s reverted to sleeping in our bed because he’s not sleeping through the night in his own room. Is there anything more we can do to help support him? He’s such a sweet boy and very emotional and sensitive. We want to help him navigate in a positive way when he’s feeling overwhelmed. Thank you.
At 3.5 your son is still learning how to manage his feelings and express himself clearly. Whether it’s a need for space, for his way – whatever it is, the need will always be a valid one. It sounds as though the problem is in how he expresses that need or how he goes about meeting it. His behaviour isn’t unusual for his age, particularly as he is still learning how to use language in a way that feels clear for him. Here is an article that explains how anxiety can look like aggression https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/ and another one about how to help younger kids to manage anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/. Managing big feelings like anxiety can take a while to master, and that’s okay. Anything you can do to nurture the skills in him now will be so valuable for him moving forward.
Our daughter is 9 years old. Since birth, she has been prone to emotional outbursts. Something as simple as dropping a pencil on the floor will set her off. She has been seen by many pediatric neurologists, including a professor of pediatric neurology at UT Physicians at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, TX. After reviewing her MRI, the professor said that he had never seen anything like it. He said that the best word in English he could find was that one half of her brain (I cannot remember which half), was ‘soft’. He recommended an antidepressant, but my wife nixed it. We do not want her to become dependent. We are at a loss at what to do. No one seems to be able to find her problem. Her outbursts occur several times each day. She and her sister are both being home schooled, since the schools she gone to cannot handle her (her sister has mosaic down syndrome). Our plea to you is this: can you recommend a doctor, Hospital, Institute, etc, that would be willing to take the challenge of diagnosing our daughter? We have run out of options.
James I wish I able to help you, but I am in Australia, so I’m not aware of who best to help you over there. I completely understand your concerns about medication, but it is important to weigh up any risks you might have been informed about in relation to the medication, with the toll of what her outbursts are having on her now. Sometimes, when the distress is too much and when the symptoms are such an intrusion in a child’s life, medication can be really helpful to get things back on track, or to stabilise the symptoms for long enough that other ways of dealing with the symptoms and other coping strategies can be learned. If you are worried, consider therapy in conjunction with the medication (and again be guided by your daughter’s specialists) so that your daughter is strengthening her brain and her coping strategies while she is on the medication, so that when it is time to come off the medication, she has a solid footing. It sounds as though you are in good hands with your specialists, so keep being guided by them.
Does anyone know of a book of stories about people (particularly women) who learned to switch from the fixed mindset to the growing mindset and how it helped them? I’d love to share it with my daughter.
I struggled when raising my elder daughter when she got anxiety.. I realised I had it too so we were not a great “fit” together. My younger daughter seemed so much more easy going like her Dad. I tried to read and learn about how to help her but wasn’t always the greatest mum. Too stressy, angry, and frustrated. Wish this info had been around.. its the best I have read..Apart from the book.. “How to Listen to your Kids so they will talk to you” (was excellent help also). She is 23 now and just got engaged..I can see she still has anxiety but she is studying to be a Registered nurse and nearly finished, very proud of her. I bumbled along trying to help her. She too didnt want to learn math and lacked confidence with it, but one time when she had a term off school from “Social Anxiety” (she had felt bullied at her new school) I enrolle her at a maths n english tutoring school as thought well at least she was learning something..They teach multiplication tables by rote. I couldnt previously get her to learn them. They way they taught it worked a treat as the school..Kumon is/was name of tutoring school. They take the child back a bit to easier work..first teaching them adding very well..then eventually times tables..and she blossomed with it..as students felt more confident as work was a little easier than they could handle and parents check the times tables..ticking their childs work and they couldnt move forward till they had got 100% correct at each level. somehow she got better and better and more CONFIDENCE.. a friend at school was doing it also..which helped also I think, as she wanted to fit in with new school-friends. She ended up topping her maths class at the new school and that confidence of doing well in one subject ..flowed onto all the others. She moved up a grade the teacher said, and the naughty boys who would mock her in class, well they couldnt believe someone so shy as she was, could top the class. They all put their head down and worked harder too and all moved up with her. The male teacher was so happy about all that. He had tried to help her learn how to make friends also, how lovely it was to hear that from her. She told me the story later on about this, I was amazed and of course soo proud. She said “mum I just thought, if I have to be going to school getting bullied, I may as well just work hard at school.” She just kept blossoming and blossoming and ended up really enjoying maths and doing very well, like her more naturally maths minded younger sister. I couldnt believe it..I learnt lots of maths from them both, and learnt a lot of other subjects too from their high school lessons 🙂
Thank you for this article…I’ve had a really bad day with my daughter and after reading this have realised she is extremely anxious..not ‘naughty’ she was a sweet loving child 10 months ago before her father left the family home and now a child I don’t know 🙁 I asked her today who she wanted to stay with tonight and she had the biggest meltdown ever…now I know it easy because she didn’t want to ‘chose’ one parent over the other for fear lf hurting the others feelings…I am going to ask for her to be referred to a specialist as I can no longer cope with her behaviour but at least now I am aware and am more empathetic and understanding thanks to this article
Sarah I’m so pleased you found this article when you did. I really understand how confusing it can be when your child sees to change almost overnight. The way your daughter is behaving makes so much sense given the big things that have happened in her life in the last 12 months. She has had both of her parents in the same house and now she doesn’t. For now she has to adjust to a new normal. This feels like a big thing, and it is, but kids will go through many big things as they grow- it’s a normal, healthy part of growing up. With your support, professional support, and her dad’s support, she will find her new normal and realise that there is a solid, secure place in her life for both of you. She will be able to move through this and come out stronger and with a greater realisation of her own strength, courage and resilience.
Great article! My husband and I are struggling with our 10 year old daughter and her ‘separation anxiety’. Not sure this label is correct but she is extremely outgoing, friendly, plays sports and loves animals. For the past year and half so gets extremely worked up if I am not home at bedtime or have to work overnight. She will immediately get a stomachache, loses appetite, can get worked up so much that she struggles to breathe. She constantly needs to know when I will be home, why I have to go, etc? I have changed plans to accommodate her anxiety but also don’t want to give in if its partly manipulation on her part. I just read the Stepladder approach and think that will be good for her. I can’t continue to avoid the trips planned and wondered if you have any specific advice for this type of anxiety. Thanks!
Maggie, the physical symptoms you are describing certainly sound like they could be anxiety. It’s definitely not manipulation on your daughter’s part. Kids don’t know the symptoms that come with anxiety unless they experience them, so if she’s experiencing them, it’s real for her. Anxiety can be so intrusive though, and it sounds as though it’s causing all sorts of trouble for your family. I understand the temptation to change plans to accommodate her anxiety. It’s difficult watching them struggle and I understand why you would to anything to interrupt this, even if it means changing plans. The problem with this is that it can send a very subtle message that the only way for your daughter to feel better is to avoid being away from you. The stepladder could certainly be useful here. Work out with your daughter the times you are going to call and the duration (or facetime or skype so she can see you if that works for you). There is a beautiful book called The Invisible String, by Patricia Karst, that talks about how we are connected by an invisible string to the people who are important to us. It’s a lovely way to frame separation for kids and could be a comfort for your daughter when you are away.
I absolutely love your articles! As a middle school counselor and a mother of two little boys, your insight is always clicking with me. My son (5 years old) really loves art and is actually quite talented. The problem is, if he makes what he perceives to be a mistake on a drawing, he becomes infuriated and starts to yell, rip up the paper, etc. He becomes very panicked and his response seems very much like an anxious response, but I’m not totally sure how to help him through these episodes. We talk about turning the mistake into something new, putting the paper aside for later, starting a new drawing… but he gets very fixated on the error. Maybe his ability to overcome this frustration will just take some time in maturity? I think I’m responding very similarly to what you outline in this article, but I’m wondering if, to you, it sounds like something else is going on here. I appreciate any guidance. Thank you!!
Thanks Erin! It’s very likely that this is something that will soften with maturity. It sounds as though your little man’s art is very important to him. If he’s determined and focussed and works hard on doing a good job, it’s understandable that he would get upset when things go wrong. He might also be coming from a fixed mindset, and interpreting his ‘mistakes’ as evidence that he doesn’t have what it takes to be good enough, and that he never will – no wonder the error feels so bad for him if this is the case. The key may be to nurture him towards a growth mindset, helping him to realise that his ability is something that will get better with time and effort and that he can do anything he puts his will to, he just might not be able to do it yet. You’re probably already aware of the mindset research, but here is an article that has a collection of ways to help him through https://www.heysigmund.com/positioning-kids-teens-thrive-11-practical-powerful-ways-build-growth-mindset/. Imagine what he will be capable of when he focuses his determination and will on what he can do, instead of what he can’t!
We are taking our children on their first overseas trip and my daughter is really anxious about flying and the threat of terrorism. I am going to need some of these strategies to help her through the trip. Thank you
You’re so welcome. I hope they help!
This was very helpful in understanding my 3 year old sons behavior at his judo class. In the first class he totally loved it. But he has become increasingly more distressed and refuses to participate in the class. I was planning to cancel the lessons however think i need to view this behaviour as anxiety. I dont really understand how he could enjoy it so much and then becomes more distressed so your input would be helpful and, any ideas on managing this would be helpful. He has cried when he has felt hurt and i dont feel the teachers are very empathic (quite tough). Thanks for your help.
If your little man is only 3, there is no room for tough love. It is likely that if the teachers are tough and lack empathy, he is scared of getting hurt or making a mistake because when something happens, he isn’t given the support he needs. This is particularly important for anxious kids. They don’t want to feel as though they are doing the wrong thing, but if an adult responds insensitively and without empathy, this is exactly how they might feel. It sounds as though your son is wonderfully open to new things, given that he loved judo at the beginning. He is only 3, and it’s such an important time for kids to feel supported and encouraged so that they can try new things and explore the world from a safe base. Whether or not your son is anxious, I wonder how supportive an environment is when the adults lack empathy for a child who is hurt. Their response might come from a place of good intent, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sound one. It might be worth talking to the teachers about the way they resond to him, or else finding another judo school. It’s great that he loved it in the beginning, and if he loved it then, he can love it again – it’s just about finding the fit for him.
My son has High functioning autism and high levels of anxiety I use all these strategy’s when he is in fight or flight mode and it does work to a degree. The part we really struggle with is the plan bit for when it happens again as he does not know how or what to do to reduce his feelings.unfortunately anxiety is getting in the way of him living Amy kind of life outside of the home.he is now being home schooled to finish his gcse.any advice would b grateful.
It sounds as though you are doing everything you can do to support your son. If you have been trying everything for a while and your son’s anxiety is still so severe as to stop him from having a life outside the home, he may really benefit from professional support. Anxiety is manageable, though sometimes it can be particularly stubborn and might just extra support to stop it getting in the way.
Thanks for the article, interesting reading! My 5 year old has always suffered separation anxiety and social anxiety, original thought to have selective mutism. I separated from her dad 6 months ago and she won’t stay the night at his anymore due to severe anxiety,although OK in the day. She has been hair pulling and behaviour is angry and ggressive…any help appreciated!
Alex I understand why this is worrying for you. Try the strategies in the article. Here are some more ideas for dealing wit anxiety in younger kids https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/ as well as what to say when she is feeling anxious https://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/. As far as staying at her father’s house, it is understandable that she might be feeling anxious about this, particularly if there have been a lot of big changes in her life over the last 6 months. The most important thing is not to give her any sense that you don’t think she should stay the night. Try the stepladder in this article https://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/ – the idea is to get her okay little by little. The article explains how to do that. Anxiety can often comes out as aggression. Anxiety is the fight or flight response – flight is avoidance and the fight is anger or tantrums. It can come out as either one. Here is an article that explains how that works and things you can try https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/. If you feel as though your daughter’s anxiety and hair pulling is getting too much in her way, she might benefit from some professional support. At any rate, anything you can do at home will strengthen her. Be patient though, it sounds as though your daughter is dealing with big changes and it may just take some time for her to figure things out and feel okay.
Being clam during constant anxiety is easier said than done. My daughter has ADDHD and requires medication to calm down enough to allow all parts of the brain to function. Even then she can become angry which stems from anxiety. I want to support parents who deal with this because it is not easy.
Yes Mary you’re absolutely right. Being calm during anxiety is certainly not easy and in fact, because of the way the brain during anxiety, it can be impossible. This is why it’s so important to practice calming techniques during calm, not during anxiety. The brain is like any muscle and it needs to be taught and strengthened through practice and repetition. The more you can do teach it how to be calm and relax during calm times (mindfulness, breathing etc) the more automatic those processes will become and the easier it will be for the brain to access when it’s busy with fight or flight in the midst of anxiety.
This is great. It really explains my daughter very well.
My daughter is not very good at math and every time we ask her to do her math homework she just blows a gasket and yells and screams at us. We try to tell her that if she doesn’t do her homework that she will fail, which causes more chaos in her world. I really think she is afraid to fail but is afraid of hard things, like she doesn’t have confidence in her math skills or something. I sit down with her frequently and try to explain it, but mentally she has already chose to flee and just doesn’t follow. We can’t get her past this. She has been on the same assignments for a couple of months and is very far behind. How would you recommend we approach her? She is so stubborn and difficult to talk to that we can’t reason with her – like her left brain is non-existent?
Any help would be appreciated. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and talent with us.
It sounds very much like your daughter is worried about failing. She may be keeping herself safe by not attempting the work – in her mind, if she doesn’t try and fails, it’s because she didn’t try, but if she does try and fails it’s proof that she isn’t good enough. She is struggling with what’s called a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychologist and has done decades of work around this and it’s now widely accepted in psychology. A lot of schools have adopted her concepts and teach around this. She has found that kids (all of us actually) either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Kids with a fixed mindset think what they are born in terms of intelligence, personality, anxiety etc is the way it will always be. Kids with a growth mindset believe that they can change their brain (and their intelligence, personality, behaviour etc) through effort and time. We know that brains can change with time and effort and with the experiences that the brain is exposed to – that’s a fact and it’s been proven by tons of research, but we need our kids to believe it.
So, for your daughter, she believes she isn’t good at maths and that no amount of effort or work will change that. It’s not surprising then that she doesn’t want to do the assignment – in her mind, she could potentially be giving you, herself and her teachers proof of this. Kids with a fixed mindset will be less likely to approach challenge and less likely to put in the effort. This is NOT because they are lazy, but because they honestly don’t believe that effort will make a difference, and that if they try and fail, it will be confirmation that they ‘aren’t smart’, or ‘aren’t good at maths’. The good news is that it is possible to change a fixed mindset into a growth mindset. Here is an article that explains how https://www.heysigmund.com/positioning-kids-teens-thrive-11-practical-powerful-ways-build-growth-mindset/. Have a read of this and it might also be worth talking to her maths teacher so the growth mindset messages are coming to her from the teacher as well. It’s really important for kids with a fixed mindset that the focus is on what they do well and the changes that come with effort, not necessarily the outcome. The idea is to encourage effort, and to let that be the focus, rather than results. The results will come when your daughter realises that effort and time will change her brain and improve her ability, but first, she has to believe that she can change her brain. Hopefully the tips the article will help with that.
I am so glad I read your response. This make a lot of sense. My 10 year old has a fixed mindset and is not willing to try new things and believes he knows the outcome of anything before he try’s it and that he will be failure. I have quite often thought of him as lazy but there are areas in his life where is not. He always plays it safe and I fear this will make his life much more difficult as he grows up. He truly believes what he does will not make a difference so why do it.
This certainly sounds like a fixed mindset, but the good news about a fixed mindset is that it can be changed. Now it’s just a matter of steering your little man in the right direction.