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.’

3 Comments

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.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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