If you are the parent of an anxious child, you probably find yourself occasionally wondering whether or not you have done something “wrong,” something that made your child develop a perpetually worried mind. While such concerns are normal, you can rest assured that the answer is likely “no”; an elevated level of vigilance is simply endemic to the minds of some individuals. There is, however, a lot you can do to prevent your anxious child’s mind from taking over her life. While you cannot (and should not) change your child, you can help her to unleash her inner bravery and rationally counteract her own worries.
When your child is anxious, certain parts of her brain become more dominant and begin to “take over” to the point of controlling her behaviour. This, of course, is the famously instinctual “fight or flight” mechanism in action.
In moderation, the aforementioned reflex is a positive (and sometimes even life-saving) function of the human mind; however, when a person goes into “survival mode” too often and for the wrong reasons, the brain as a whole can become conditioned to respond to a range of neutral stimuli in unhelpfully extreme ways. Over time, you may notice your child’s responses to an array of different situations becoming more rigid and more uniform in nature. When this occurs, it means that parts of her brain that once worked well together in unison (namely the instinctual parts and the parts involved in logic, reasoning, and planning) now function more or less independently of one another, severely limiting your child’s ability to properly assess different situations and meet them with different responses.
Fortunately, these alterations in your child’s brain are not immutable; though we once viewed the brain as akin to a computer that could not be reprogrammed, today—thanks to advances in the fields of psychology and neuroscience—we know that this is not the case. By providing your child with the experiences she needs to rebuild the broken connections in her mind, you can re-establish her brain’s capacity for resiliency.
Combating Anxiety: 8 Steps To A Calm, Connected Mind
To help your child reconnect the various parts of her brain and ultimately conquer her fears, try utilizing the strategies outlined below:
1. Don’t try to reason with your child immediately; instead, be supportive.
When your child is anxious, the parts of her brain that can handle rational negotiation are completely shut off; as such, if you debate with your anxious child in an attempt to stop her anxiety from driving her behaviour, she will simply become more overwhelmed. In effect, you will make the instinctual (“lower”) part of the brain even more active rather than accessing the communicative (right) part of the brain or the logical (left) part of the brain.
When you notice that your child is actively experiencing anxiety, focus on being calm, soothing, and supportive, no matter how she is behaving; this will tell the lower part of her brain that it can “stand down” and let the other parts become active again. Once your child feels safe, her behaviour will likely improve on its own.
2. Help your child disambiguate her fears.
When your child is caught up in a maelstrom of anxiety, everything feels like it is happening too quickly and too intensely to be comprehensible. This leads to confusion, and confusion often leads to panic.
You can help your child break this cycle by naming the feeling or fear that you see; this will both validate your child emotionally (building trust and a feeling of fellowship) and begin to calm the activity in her lower brain. In fact, research has revealed that simply labelling an emotion can reduce the amount of activity in the amygdala (the instinctual, emotional centre of the brain) and stimulate activity in the prefrontal cortex (the most logical, rational area of the human mind).
Remember, however, that you should not be too presumptuous when naming your child’s feelings; always ask for your child’s input on your observations, e.g. by enquiring, “You look frightened; are you worried about going to your friend’s party?”
3. Encourage your child to talk.
You can build on the benefits initiated by naming your child’s emotions by getting her to put her experiences with anxiety into her own words. Once your child has calmed, ask her why she was frightened, using open-ended questions (e.g., “What happened after that?”) to prompt her to elaborate on what she was feeling. As she does this, she will begin to make sense of the experience. Meanwhile, her brain will be sending information from its right half (in the form of emotions and memories) over to its linguistic, logical left half, thereby strengthening the connection between these two areas.
4. Make sure your child gets enough sleep at night.
Make it a household rule to practice proper sleep hygiene (a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine free from sources of strong stimulation, particularly electronic devices) so that your child can get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. While sleep is important for all children (and adults), research has revealed that it’s especially important for anxious children to get adequate rest. During sleep, the connections between the left and right hemispheres of a child’s brain can be improved by up to 20% thanks to the action of myelin, a protective layer of insulation that strengthens nerve fibers.
5. Choose a calm moment to give your child a logical explanation of anxiety.
Once your child knows why her anxiety feels so powerful and why it propels her to act in the ways it does, she will not only shed much of the shame she has associated with it, she will be better able to connect both halves of her brain the next time she experiences an episode of anxiety. Her logical left brain will chime in, reminding her why she is experiencing intense reactions to the situation around her; she will therefore no longer imagine frightening causes for her physical and mental symptoms (e.g., “I’m having a heart attack,” or, “I’m going crazy”).
6. Teach your child deep breathing exercises.
Deep breathing does more than simply provide a distraction during times of anxiety; it has been recently discovered that deep breathing produces a relaxation response in the brain so powerful that it neutralizes the fight or flight neurochemicals that drive anxiety.
You should educate your child about this relationship and then have her practice deep, slow breathing, using counting (e.g. counting to three before exhaling) to regulate the pace of her breaths. Counting is important, especially when dealing with a young child, as children will often rush through this exercise otherwise.
7. Teach your child to ground herself through Mindfulness.
Mindfulness, the habit of immersing one’s self fully in the present moment, is every bit as relaxing and grounding for children with anxiety as it is for adults. You should therefore spend a bit of time each day conducting a “child friendly” mindfulness exercise; for example, you can have your child eat a small piece of food, such as a single raisin, while asking her to pay close attention to each sensation felt during the tasting, chewing, and swallowing of the raisin. You should then have her describe those sensations back to you.
8. Create a plan for tackling anxiety attacks.
Once you have educated your child about anxiety (what it is and why it affects her the way it does), you should work with her to create a plan for how to handle attacks of acute anxiety. Not only will the act of planning encourage the involvement of the anxiety-moderating pre-frontal cortex, having your child proactively confront and manage her own anxiety will be a powerful confidence-booster.
Ask your child what she feels would help her to calm down the next time she is anxious and create a plan that includes both her own wishes and proven anti-anxiety tactics like deep breathing exercises. With practice, your child will begin acting on this plan automatically when faced with a challenging event; once this occurs, the instinctual parts of her brain will no longer have the opportunity to take over and rule her thoughts and behaviours even in relatively harmless situations. The natural alertness of her mind will thereafter be a gift—one that prompts her to engage all parts of her brain in order to understand her environment quickly, accurately, and thoroughly.