As a mom, one of my top goals is to provide my kids with enough age-appropriate information and support to help them understand and accept their emotions. These days, I worry my anxiety over issues will seep into their mental make-up and cause them to become more anxious. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet, but if we do need help, one of the first places I’ll turn is Moncton’s Anxiety Counselor, Andrea Addington. She has the training and the personal experience to help parents and children dealing with anxiety. Andrea can relate to her own childhood anxiety, which began at the age of six. She agreed to share a few tips with Pickle Planet Moncton readers.
As a psychotherapist who specializes in helping young people (and adults) manage anxiety I’m often asked by parents “What can we do to help our anxious child?”
I’m so happy when I get this question because, having been a very anxious child myself, I can attest that there are things parents can do that help. There is no true one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety, but there are lots of great research-based techniques that can help manage it — many of which are easy to learn.
I’ve put together 5 tips that I believe will help you as parents of anxious youth.
- Understand what is happening inside the brain of an anxious child.
Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life. There is a part of the brain with a big name which is quite small (it’s shaped like an almond) called the amygdala. The function of the amygdala is to protect you. When you go to touch a hot stove and then suddenly pull your hand back, it’s the amygdala that did that to protect you from getting burned. If your amygdala thinks you are in danger, all a suddenly it will give your body what it needs to be strong, fast, and powerful so that you can run away or fight the danger. It does this without even thinking. This happens very quickly and automatically.
Some people have a very sensitive amygdala. Imagine it as a smoke detector: if you burn toast or the shower overheats, the alarm goes off prematurely even though there is no fire. The amygdala works the same way. In the anxious brain, the amygdala can’t tell the difference between something dangerous – like a bear chasing you – and something not dangerous – like giving a presentation in front of the class. The second it senses danger, real or perceived, it sounds the alarm.
Sweating, stomach aches, chest tightness, crying, agitation, and needing to go to the bathroom are all symptoms that are occurring because of the false fire alarm. The symptoms are 100% real and very uncomfortable, but what causes the symptoms to occur is most often an inaccurately perceived danger.
Parents want more than anything to help their anxious children so it makes sense that they would want to offer reassurance by telling their child things such as “calm down, there is nothing to worry about it, stop it now, don’t be so silly.”
The problem with this is that when your child is in a state of anxiety it means the amygdala has set off the “fire alarm.” Even if your child wants to listen to you, their brain will not cooperate. During periods of anxiety, the mind and body are in a heightened state of emergency or ‘flight or flight response.’ When our mind is in this state, our prefrontal cortex (logical part of the brain) gets put on hold. In other words, it is hard for your child to think clearly, use logic, or even remember how to complete basic tasks when this is happening.
So, what can you as a parent do instead of offering verbal reassurance to help when your child is in this state?
Renee Zain, developer of the GoZen program, describes a great tool that I share with parents called the “FEEL” method:
- Freeze. Pause and take some deep breaths with your child. Deep breathing can help reverse the nervous system response. Some children may say “I don’t want to breathe it doesn’t help!” As a parent, you can say, “I know it must be so frustrating when it feels nothing is helping but maybe we could just give a try together.”
- Empathize. Anxiety is scary. Your child wants to know that you get it. “I know that this is a scary feeling. I’m here with you and we’re going to get through this together.”
- Evaluate. Once your child is calm, it’s time to figure out possible solutions.
- Let Go. Let go of your guilt; you are an amazing parent giving your child the tools to manage their worry.
Perhaps the most useful, helpful, and essential tools in managing anxiety is a DAILY practice of breathing exercises. It is very important that the breathing exercises be done every day – even when not anxious – as this will help it to be more effective when you are anxious. One of the easiest, most effective, and my personal favorite breathing method is called 4-7-8 breathing.
4-7-8 is simple, takes almost no time, and can be done anywhere. To start, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Remember that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale with whoosh sound through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. The effects are subtle when you first start using the 4-7-8 breathing but by doing it at least twice a day after several weeks you will really feel a difference when you use it.
- Anxiety Coping Cards
An important tool in your child’s anxiety toolbox is to learn to change anxious thoughts to more realistic thinking.
It can be very difficult for children and teens to remember to use coping tools when they are anxious because the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety take over, so that even if they have learned some coping tools they forget everything in those anxious moments. Anxiety coping cards can be small index cards with short sentences of some of the coping skills your child can use when experiencing anxiety.
What sorts of things are helpful to put onto a coping card?
- A reminder that physical symptoms (e.g., sweaty palms, stomach-aches) are just anxiety. “Even though I feel afraid, it is just my anxious mind tricking me. I am in no danger and this feeling will pass.”
- Positive encouragement “I can get through this!” or ” These feelings are uncomfortable but they are not harmful.”
- A reminder to use some coping skills: “I am going to do some breathing exercises.” “I am going to distract myself by thinking about my favorite vacation.” “I’m going to pay attention to my five senses; what are three things I can smell, taste, feel, hear and see?”
- What is best, worse, and most likely outcome?
One of the best tools for worrying is to ask these three questions:
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- What is the worse thing that could happen?
- What will probably happen?
Walk your child through asking IF the worse thing did happen (which it probably will not), how could you cope with it?
Here is an example: You have an upcoming presentation in front of the class. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen? The class will laugh at me, I will not be able to remember a single word, I will turn all red, I will faint in front of the class. What is the best thing that could happen? They would cancel the presentation. What is the most likely thing that will happen? I will be very nervous and shaking on the inside, but even though I feel very anxious I will get through it. I will practice the breathing exercises that I have been doing every day and I will encourage myself with positive self-talk. I will probably even make a good mark since that is usually what happens.
These 5 tips will hopefully give you a little something to put in your family’s anxiety tool box. Please remember as parents you are doing the best you can. Your understanding, compassion, and empathy of your child’s anxiety will be so very helpful.
Andrea Addington, MSW, RSW, is a Certified Anxiety Specialist who had anxiety herself from the age of six. She has a private practice in Moncton.