Anxiety in Kids and the Calming, Brave-Building Power of Touch

Anxiety in Children - Touch, Oxytocin

We have something at our fingertips, literally, which is so incredibly powerful that it can calm anxiety and gently open the way to brave behaviour. It’s touch, and when we use it in ways that are safe, warm, and invited, it can soothe anxiety and help the brain and body come to rest. 

The magic happens in the amygdala, which is also the part of the brain where anxiety happens. The amygdala keeps us safe by constantly scanning the environment for threat and making lightning-quick decisions about whether to avoid or approach. It does its job beautifully, but sometimes it becomes a little overprotective and pushes too hard for avoidance. This is when anxiety can cause more trouble than it deserves to.

A brain that protects is lovely – we want that – but protection in the absence of threat becomes overprotection – and we don’t want that. Protection holds our children back from danger. Overprotection just holds them back. The good news – the great news – is that if you are a trusted someone, you have the most profound capacity to lead the young ones in your care back to a felt sense of safety, calm, and rest. This is the starting point for brave behaviour. 

Why the amygdala loooooves oxytocin. (Honestly, it adores it).

One thing that influences the amygdala’s decision about whether to avoid something or move bravely towards it, is the release of oxytocin – the chemical of calm and connect – into the medial region of the amygdala. This is the section of the amygdala that is heavily involved in our reactions to other people, specifically whether to avoid them or move towards them. Sometimes avoidance is a perfect move – some people can be a pity and are best avoided – 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. The amygdala has receptors designed to receive oxytocin, and when it gets a big luscious dose, the amygdala feels safer and calmer – which means less anxiety, less avoidance, more brave behaviour. We’re wired for touch, and we’re wired to feel safest when we’re closest to our trusted people.

The curious thing about anxious kiddos and oxytocin.

Anxious children, particularly children with separation anxiety, have been found to have lower levels of oxytocin than other children. If physical closeness and touch increases oxytocin, it makes so much sense that many children with anxiety might show clinginess or a fierce need to be close to their important big people. 

Oxytocin is released when we feel close to someone we care about. When our kids and teens are in the thick of anxiety, if we are one of their safe people and if they are okay with touch, touching them gently, putting your arm around them, or holding their hand can facilitate a delivery of oxytocin directly to the medial amygdala, reducing the need to avoid. 

Don’t forget your nonverbals.

Add the gentle, calming use of nonverbals to the use of safe touch, and the brain’s defence system will start to let receive big messages of safety, and the invitation to let go of its fierce need to protect. The kinds of nonverbals that help with the release of oxytocin are a mutual gaze, parentese (the sing-songy voice we often use with babies and small children), and warm, loving facial expressions. An anxious brain can have a tendency to interpret neutral faces and low monotone voices as threat, so let your vibe be a whole-body one of warmth, invitation and calm. 

And the most important part …

Here’s the important part – once the brain has started to register calm, there always has to be encouragement towards brave behaviour. Children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will pick up on nonverbals, voice, body, gestures quicker than any words we speak, so it is important to assume a leadership presence and send through big messages of safety and your belief that they can move towards that important, meaningful thing that is triggering their anxiety.

This can be tough if you’re also feeling a little anxious about what they’re going through. This is why their brave so often has to start with ours. When you are feeling uncertain, tap into that part of you that knows they will be safe enough, and that they can brave enough.

They’ve got this, because you do.

Touch them, hold them, stay close to them. Let your voice be gentle and your face be warm. Let your presence be strong, calm, and certain. Connect with them by looking them in the eye (also releases oxytocin), align with their brave, then gently move them forward – ‘I know you can do this, love. I know you can.’

8 Comments

Aliyah W

I don’t think that in a stressful situation, a child can be calmed by hugs alone, but as one of the methods with an integrated approach, hugs are really useful.

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April A

Deeply encouraging for me and thank you for clear instructions on how to help our children and ourselves. There is so much help in this article, thank you.

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Catriona C

I really enjoyed the tone of this article, I’m pretty sure my oxytocin level rose just by reading it! And the words, ‘A brain that protects is lovely – we want that – but protection in the absence of threat becomes overprotection – and we don’t want that. Protection holds our children back from danger. Overprotection just holds them back.’ should be known by every parent. Thank you so much, this article helped me a lot.

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Amanda A

Wonderful magic of a hug! Sometimes complex and seemingly uncontrollable feelings like anxiety or panic can be defused by a simple touch.
Thank you, very informative! The scientific explanation is very helpful in understanding how the brain works.

Reply
Unabis

Thank you for talking about this. I have always thought that hugging is a great way to show your feelings and support to a certain person. Although many consider this a manifestation of weakness, especially on the part of a man. But I believe that this is not the case. We all feel morally bad at times, and hugs are wonderful support.

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Alexandra R

I love this thank you this is such great encouragement for us as parents. It is so true for my teenager who is challenged with anxiety, he is huge 6ft 3, 15 years old and needs hugs allot, such a beautiful soul this is him all over thank you so much for reminding us and also helping us to understand. thank you 🙂

Reply

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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