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.’

2 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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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