Anxiety is our body telling us there is a danger when there is not. I know I’ve told my boys to stop behaving like animals, especially when eating. Silly remark really, as we are animals. We might have evolved and developed since our cavewoman days, yet our brains and especially our kids’ brains are still functioning in animal primal ways.
Anxiety is experienced when our emotional brain structures take over the rest of the brain, especially the thinking, logical, reasoning, consequence knowing parts. They are turned off, overridden by the emotional centres. Our nervous system, the magical highway, carries information throughout our body and it controls a whole lot of what our brain does. You’ve probably heard of our nervous system setting off our Fight and Flight responses. There are now 4, even 5F’s to explain our responses to stress and threat: fight, flight, freeze, faint and some add fright as well. Our thoughts can be just as much of a threat as a deadly animal.
HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CHILD IS ANXIOUS
Childhood anxiety, much like our children, is unique, special and at times hard to categorise. Everyone experiences it differently and to varying degrees.
If you child is experiencing anxiety it can look like this:
Asking lots of questions
An anxious child may ask the same question over and over or different questions around the same subject/topic. Children with anxiety look for reassurance that their world is safe, secure and can be soothed. Their brain is telling them something about this topic is unsafe, unknown and dangerous. Remember our adult brains have the logical, reasoning, thinking centres far more developed than children and in these moments these parts are switched on and working. For our child, they most likely are not. You might have answered and answered well, yet they are still asking.
When a child is experiencing anxiety, they can find it hard to go to sleep, night waking and nightmares. Their gorgeous brains are spinning around and around in emotions, thoughts and images. They cannot switch it off easily. Going to sleep for some children can be experienced as dangerous either from early trauma, current home situations (DV, recent separation, parents changing jobs, new sibling etc) or fears. If we think about our evolution, we needed our caregivers close, within the same room/cave, to make sure we weren’t another animals dinner. We might be in houses and safe from being hunted now, yet, our brains and especially defenseless children’s brains still activate their stress responses. Their prime F response will be turned on and its hard at night, in the dark to stop the threatening thoughts and images.
Crying a lot, whinging, self-harm, needing to be perfect, changing personality to fit in with different groups, verbalising negative thoughts (they can be 100% louder and meaner within the child than what they usually express outwardly) being withdrawn, not participating in activities at school, home or socially, inability or appearing unwilling to do things their peers might be enjoying or engaging in can all be signs of a child experiencing anxiety.
Often children with anxiety who fall more into this category get incorrectly labelled as ADHD, Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They express their anxiety outwardly, compared to implosive people who express it inwardly. Explosive anxious people can move around a lot, fidget, pace around, be physical when their system is overwhelmed, yell, scream, be defiant because they are needing to control anything to ease the anxiety, repeat sounds or words or phrases almost like it’s a mantra or a broken record (annoying to us and soothing to them – they get to focus on one singular thing. I dare you, try it. Be inquisitive in mind and respectful in behaviour and lovingly follow them when they start doing this). They might be physical by hitting, kicking, destroying or throwing items, as the feelings inside are so overwhelming they need to release them and get them out.
After reading the lists above you may have noticed some behaviours that your child is displaying. It is important to know that there are steps you can take to help your anxious child.
WAYS TO EASE CHILDHOOD ANXIETY
Find your own calm
Look after yourself first as the parent, role-model healthy coping strategies. That good old airplane mask motto – put your facemask on first, as you’re no good to anyone else if you’re not safe and healthy. Take a ‘Self-Tuning In’ by saying ‘I’m about to not be my best mummy self, I need to calm down, I’m going to my bedroom for a few breaths, I love you and will be back in a few minutes’. Take yourself somewhere, even just a scenery change can help break the downward spiral. Saying your leaving because you need to look after your feelings helps the child know it’s not because they are wrong, bad or need to be punished by us removing our love from them. Letting them know we will be back and giving a timeframe, shows them they are always loved, respected and not alone. This is a good adult relationship skill as well.
Listen, validate and support
Listen to your child’s anxious thoughts and fears. Validate them, doesn’t mean agree. Validate your child’s experience, you could say ‘Gosh that would be frightening and scary’ or ‘Wow, I can see why you’re afraid to go to sleep if that is what your brain is telling you’. Support means bringing some perspective and coping tools into the mix. For example ‘…if that’s what your brain is telling you. Since we’ve been listening to that brain voice (our house it’s called the anxious voice or bully voice – create your own name with your kids) for a while. I think we now turn its volume down and turn up a different brain voice and hear what it has to say’. The other voices could be Kind Voice, Helpful Voice, Brave Voice, Sleepy Voice, In Control Voice etc. This helps your child learn they can change their focus and attention to thoughts that are helpful, rather than fearful.
Seek professional support for your child and for yourself
Professional support could look like enrolling them into a group that teaches calming skills, programs such as Relax Kids or similar. Professional help could also look like a family therapist, parent educator or child psychologist. As a Family Therapist and Parent Educator, I adore working with families and seeing how implementation of practical and easily applied skills can alter family life from stress, angst and fears to laughter, peace and happiness.
Incorporate natural remedies that the children can control and create themselves
Autonomy and ownership over their anxiety and useful skills that ease anxiety are more likely to be successful. Natural remedies can include, meditation and mindfulness, healthy diet and exercise, seeing a naturopath for a holistic approach, using essential oils and flower essences. In my professional and personal life, I’ve seen incredible outcomes from flower essences especially and also essential oils. My boys let me know how stressful their day was by asking for their self-care tools at night. I know it’s been a challenging day if they ask for the mediation cd, essential oil diffuser, foot massage and flower essence drops. Conversely, they indicate when it’s been a calmer day with asking for none or some of those self-care tools. We are also scientists at times while we create their own essential oil blends for the diffuser or roll-on bottles.
There is a scientific saying ‘what fires together wires together’, which is in reference to our brains wiring pathways together when they are experienced together. Childhood anxiety doesn’t have to be a lifelong struggle. Doing the above suggestions can help wire and rewire your child’s brain for calm, quiet and filled with coping strategies.