But first, here's the truth.
I struggle with anxiety, along with 40 million other adults in the US. It is a constant battle to keep my mind present and out of the future, to be okay in the unknown, to stop and notice all the cool things happening around me, to let go of fear that is likely all made up in my head. Sometimes I feel like my mind is a giant magnifying glass that makes all the small what-ifs into enormous problems, at the most inconvenient times!
Just the other day, I was sitting on the beach at Sauvie Island on a beautiful sunny day, with my husband and my dog. I would have loved for my mind to have focused on how wonderful that moment was with the sun warming my skin, my goofy 100lb dog chasing and barking at dinky waves, and the pure peace and quiet. Instead, I started worrying about "The Big One." This ominous earthquake that is supposed to hit the pacific northwest. I couldn't help but fixate on how we were on a beach 4 miles from our car where we would be stranded, on an island, without everything. My 3 day emergency survival pack was in MY car, not in the one we drove that day. And yikes! I forgot to put my Lifestraw in my day pack! Oh no, it better not happen right now. But what if it does!
I know, and I agree. It sounds completely ridiculous! And that stream of thinking is the highway to passing through life without adventure and joy. Luckily, I was able to box up those thoughts and send them down river with the current. But, it isn't always that easy.
Like today. I thought my anxiety had reached its worst with pregnancy, and pregnancy loss. Twice. But with this mass hysteria, pictures of people fighting over toilet paper at Costco, and my job dependent on human contact, my chest is all sorts of tight!
I share this with you this because I am just now finding the right tools to deal with anxiety, at 32. But anxiety disorders are emerging far earlier in today's world, in much younger and more vulnerable bodies. They are the most prevalent mental health condition affecting our youth; one in five children will experience it. At a time when worry and stress is high for us all, we need tools. Adults and children alike. This is my attempt at sharing experiences and insights so that we can support our little ones, and help them grow up with effective tools to either manage anxiety from the start, or prevent it from happening in the first place.
Let's dive into the good stuff!
Anxiety can be subtle. But, there are some signs to look out for.
It takes a while before kids are able to identify and describe their feelings. So, look out for external signs that indicate anxiety. These include complaints of a tummy ache, headache, chest tightness (like me!) or trouble sleeping. Anxiety also often causes avoidance behaviors, when a child is not participating in activities he/she would typically want to participate in. An anxious child may be having trouble at school or is worried about school.
Unfortunately, anxiety is most obvious in the moment of panic, when the flight or fight stress response is at its peak. Physical symptoms appear such as rapid heart beat and clammy hands, and a child may pace or run away.
So when are these signs of anxiety a problem?
When those feelings of fear or worry are persistent and happen daily, for more than a few weeks. If you notice your child appears anxious for 1-2 months, it is time to ask for help.
If you have concerns about anxiety in your child, your first step is to call the pediatrician and report your observations. They will guide you forward in seeking out the right help.
Meanwhile, there are some strategies you can use at home if your child experiences anxiety.
1. Pause and step back.
Take a short moment to see if your child can make sense of the situation on their own and collect themselves. But also, give yourself permission to take a deep breath, contain your emotion and judgement (or your own anxiety), and figure out how to respond.
2. Belly breathing.
If your child is exhibiting physical signs of anxiety, help calm him/her with deep belly breathing. We want to break through the height of the moment, re-center, and calm the nervous system from panic before anything else. Belly breathing is sooooo beneficial, and there are a number of ways to do it. I attached a list of 5 belly breath exercises with instructions, so be sure to download it and see which one works best for your child. There are visuals included to help young kids follow along.
3. Validate your child's fears.
Validate and connect with your emotional child first. Respect the fear, do not dismiss it. Say something like "I know you are really scared right now," or "it is okay to feel worried." Wait until the child is totally calm before talking about anything else.
4. Make a plan for facing fears.
It is still important for kids to learn to face their fears, because avoiding fears can implicitly teach them that there is a dangerous component and a reason to be anxious. The key is nudging the child toward their fear with baby steps, so that the stress response is desensitized along the way. Collaborate with your child and create a plan for what to do when in those situations, and start practicing using role play and props.
5. Scaffold and reward success.
Let's say your child is gravely fearful of getting her hair cut. Any time she hears the word "salon," "hair cut," or "scissors," she panics. You could help her face her fear by starting with pretend play with dolls and taking them to the pretend salon, then pretend play with giving them haircuts, then maybe you do each other's hair and pretend to be at the salon. Reward when she is successful. Then you could take one of the dolls in the car and just drive by the real salon and look at it. Reward a successful drive-by with an ice cream date! Then perhaps you drive by again and pop in just to say hello, and then the next time you go your child watches you get your hair cut. Reward along the way, and eventually her anxiety will diminish.
How can we prevent anxiety from rearing its ugly head in the first place?
Based on my own journey and my training in child development, there are a number of beneficial things you can put in place right away.
1. Manage your own anxieties, if you have them.
Kids pick up on our energy and emotion, and it affects their brains. So it is really important that we find ways to be our best selves for our kids. Use the tools that work for you, like journaling, counseling, meditation, etc.
2. Prioritize adequate sleep and a nourishing diet for the whole family
We all know how exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger can totally derail brain function. Promote lots of rest and provide nourishing food for your brain, and your child's growing brain. I experienced a noticeable change when I started eating a whole-foods plant based diet. Feeding my body wholesome high fiber nutritious meals made a huge difference in my mental health and happiness. If you have a picky eater, check out my post on picky eating here for some helpful tips.
3. Enhance emotional vocabulary
Get in the habit of labeling your emotions in front of your child. Have your child's label their emotions if they are old enough, or do it for them. Start with the simple ones (happy, sad, mad), and work your way to more subtle feelings (frustrated, overwhelmed, jealous, excited, guilty, anxious). Read tons of books and talk about what the characters are feeling in their bodies, what their faces show, how your child would feel in their place, etc.
4. Practice mindfulness and gratitude
These two things positively impact our brain chemistry in a way that fosters resilience. Activities like breath exercises, yoga, body scans, sensory walks, gratitude journals, and frequent check-ins throughout the day are a place to start. If I had kids, I would have us all share 3 things we are grateful for when we sit down to dinner before eating.
5. Limit screen time
Screens induce stress, and we want to limit stress! Enough said there, I think. If you want to learn more about how to implement healthier screen time, check out this short post here.
6. Be a super model.
Model how to manage worries or fears in front of your kids. A simple example: "I am worried about my big meeting at work tomorrow. I am going to sit and do some breath exercises to calm my nerves."
So, if you scrolled all the way down to the bottom....
No hard feelings! Here are the major take aways:
Don't forget to get your guide to belly breathing here! I am going to go do the box breath a few times now.
"The Whole Brain Child"
Daniel Pine MD at NIH, NPR interview
meet the blogger
Austen is a pediatric occupational therapist with experience in schools, early intervention, and private clinic settings. She now runs her own private practice in Portland, OR specializing in movement based learning techniques. This blog's mission is to educate and empower parents and children by sharing insights into the complexities of learning and development.