The Fight with Worry
As a parent, it can be overwhelming to figure out the best way to respond to your anxious child. You’ve been there – you struggle to figure out how to convince them that there is a slim-to-none chance of them getting a serious illness or experiencing a natural disaster. You can’t get them into bed because the string of “what-ifs” in their head goes on without stop, no matter how reassuring you are. Perhaps they feel terrified of making friends, and you worry about their social development. Maybe they struggle with going to school or daycare, and every morning and evening is fraught with meltdowns and tummy-aches that aren’t always made-up. They might get sick, become avoidant, have anger outbursts, or lose sleep because of worry. Maybe you also struggle with anxiety, and you’re not sure how to best help yourself, much less your child.
Anxiety can look like a lot of things. What many anxious kids have in common are parents who want the best for them. You desperately search for a way to help your child play, make friends, go to school, and experience the world free from debilitating worry. To help your child navigate anxiety, you must first understand their brain. Once you have a framework of what’s going on biologically, you can utilize practical strategies to help your child deal with their anxiety.
Your Child’s Brain
Your child’s brain is highly complex. For simplicity’s sake (I like to keep things simple!), let’s talk about two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. To make things even more simple, let’s call the amygdala the “low brain” and call the prefrontal cortex the “high brain.”
The Low Brain
The low brain watches out for threats and sounds the alarm if there’s danger. It’s the body’s smoke detector, and it learns in response to our experiences. For example: your child might watch a scary movie with a monster and learn that monsters feel threatening. When your child sees their mound of toys on the floor at night, their low brain might set off a MONSTER alarm even though no real threat exists. However, since the low brain always errs on the side of caution, it can be wrong! It acts quickly, before thoughts even have time to come on board.
The High Brain
The high brain observes thoughts and experiences and then makes thoughtful and conscious decisions. Remember our MONSTER alarm scenario? When your child utilizes their high brain, it kicks in quickly and says, “I am safe. Those are just my toys all in a pile. Remember? I put them there before bed.” The problem happens when the low brain goes on overdrive and overrides the high brain.
Think of the last time you tried to reason with your anxious child. Your efforts to apply logic probably didn’t go very well because your child is still developing their ability to engage the high brain. When we try to calm our children with reassurance and reasoning, we are talking to the high brain. If their low brain is overriding all input from the high brain at the moment, then these reassurances and reasoning might not work to calm your child down.
Well Then, What Do I Do?
The truth is that your child is already at a disadvantage because no one’s prefrontal cortex finishes developing until around age 25. By the way, the undeveloped prefrontal cortex is why we can’t expect our children to be perfect at “controlling” their emotions even when they are teens. However, there is so much hope! We can help our children to exercise their high brain and grow that “muscle” so that they can beat anxiety now and function better as adults!
First, calm and connect with your child.
As stated before, it is hard to get in touch with your child’s high brain when their low brain is on overdrive. We need a different approach. If we can’t regulate the low brain using the high brain (top-down regulation), we will need to regulate by helping calm their body (bottom-up regulation). This looks like calming yourself down, empathizing with your child, and helping them walk through some calming techniques such as breathing, movement, or even humming.
Ways your child can calm their body:
- Imagine smelling a cake (breathing in), making a wish (holding the breath for 2-4 seconds) and then blowing all the candles out in one breath (slowly breathing out all your breath).
- Blowing a pinwheel or bubbles.
- Dancing, doing jumping jacks, or jogging in place.
- Playing a “mirror me” game where you and your child match each other’s movements.
- Humming or singing a song together (while dancing!).
- Get the 5 senses involved: tell each other what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste right now.
Second, engage the high brain.
Once your child is relatively calm, we can start exercising that high brain. This may involve educating your child about their “worry/protector brain part” and their “thinking brain part.”
It could look like asking your child questions such as:
- “Hmm. Looks like your worry brain thinks this test is going to be too much for you. That’s exactly what worry brain would say! What would your thinking brain say?”
- “You are feeling like it’s too scary to go to school. Your worry brain is alarming you that there might be something bad about to happen. What is it warning you about?”
- “Your worry brain is telling you ______. If you could win a million dollars by accurately predicting what will happen when you _____, what would you predict will happen?”
With some children, try these fun strategies:
- Use a funny toy or drawing to depict the “worry brain” and make it silly by adding funny clothing or faces.
- They could “boss back” their worry brain by saying “You got it wrong! You are giving me a false alarm! I know that I have prepared for the test.”
- You could be lighthearted and say, “Worry brain thinks that there is a monster in the closet!? Worry brain can be so silly sometimes!”
- You could have a “debate” between worry brain and thinker brain using puppets or toys. What would each of them say?
Use Brain Knowledge to Help Your Anxious Child
With practice, your child can learn how to use their prefrontal cortex (top-down regulation) as well as their body (bottom-up regulation) to calm their amygdala. This ability translates to less anxiety, and who knows, maybe you will gain some helpful skills, too!
Does your child struggle to deal with their emotions? Is anxiety a problem in your household? Make an appointment with Mary Carol Damon today to get things headed in a better direction!
Call 601-362-7020 to schedule your first appointment.
Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar E. Chansky
- Many of my suggestions were adapted from this book.
The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson
- This book has a great explanation of the low brain and the high brain.