The planet is hurting and our children are feeling it. For too many of our children and teens, the environmental crisis is feeling bigger than humanity’s capacity to turn it around. When this happens, eco-anxiety – anxiety about the environmental crisis – drives hopelessness, helplessness and despair, stealing their sense of safety and security in the world. As part of a humanity that is facing a global environmental crisis, we have some important work to do. We have to heal and protect our planet, and just as urgently, we need to give hope back to our children. We need to ease their anxiety, and help them discover their own power to make a difference.
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.
Negative thoughts are pushy little mojo-stealing pirates. They are persuasive, intrusive, and powerful. Our thoughts will influence how we feel, which will influence what we do and how we see ourselves. For our children and teens, negative or anxious thoughts can shrink their world and dilute their capacity to own their very important place in it. Negative thoughts will do that with all of us.
Imagine this. You’re travelling along the freeway when your brakes feel as though they might fail. They’re working, but something feels off. This has never happened before. You drive the car to the closest mechanic. After a thorough inspection of the car, you’re told everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about.
Anxiety can be a shady character and can often appear in ways that don’t look like anxiety. Because of this, it can be difficult to know when your child is anxious. Anxiety has been doing its thing since the beginning of humans, and it’s brilliant at it. What it’s not so great at is announcing its presence in gentle, clear ways that preserve the capacity for any of us to meet it with a strong, steady, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and an even more powerful, ‘It’s okay, I’m safe – you don’t need to be here right now’.
Anxiety used to be seen just as an innate condition of an emotionally fragile child or something triggered by significant life events. But medical science now understands more about the array of underlying physical and chemical imbalances that can trigger excess worry, anxiety and overwhelm.
It’s completely understandable that the first plan of attack when anxiety hits is to turn and run in the other direction, or at the very least, to stop moving towards it. What sort of madness would it be to keep walking straight into trouble, right? Avoidance makes sense, but it can also make trouble.
Anxiety can be tough for anyone to deal with, but add in the whirlwind of changes that come with adolescence, and anxiety can feel like an intrusive mind hog that spends way too much time squeezing, surprising and overwhelming anyone it lands on.
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.
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Anxiety comes with a story, ‘I feel as though something bad is going to happen so something bad must be going to happen.’ This story makes sense, but it will drive fight or flight behaviour that can hold them back. This might look like avoidance, aggression, resistance, refusal, sick tummies, headaches, tears, tantrums.
When we change the story, we change the response. To do this, we need to present anxiety as an ally that ‘works hard to keep you safe, but sometimes it just works a little too hard.’ .
Here’s how it works: When the amygdala senses something that might be a threat, it surges us with a powerful neurochemical cocktail to make us more powerful, stronger, faster, more alert, more able to fight or flee the threat. This drives every physical symptom that comes with anxiety. It’s the brain and body doing exactly what they are meant to do, but at a time they don’t need to. .
Not everything the brain senses as a threat is actually a threat. Brains are smart, but they can be a little overprotective sometimes. Brains will do anything to keep us alive - it’s why we love them so much - but sometimes they will work too hard.
The problem is that the physiology is so persuasive. It feels like we’re in danger, which can make even the strongest of minds believe it to be true. The key is to help them see anxiety for what it is - a warning, not a stop sign. .
We can strengthen them by nurturing a felt sense inside them that lets them feel bigger in the presence of anxiety - because they can feel anxious and do brave. We do this by presenting anxiety as something that is there to look after them, and something they can manage.
Anxiety is there to hold them back from danger but it was never meant to hold them back. We know they are capable of big things, every one of them. Now to shift anxiety out of their way so they can know it too....