Recently, I took advantage of an opportunity to speak with a group of parents who shared a common concern: how to help their child when he becomes anxious. I started the conversation with a question to the group: How do you know when you are feeling anxious? Body sensations like heart palpations, increased blood pressure and ruminating thought were some of the ones mentioned. Our bodies’ responses to being in an anxious state act as an alarm system, alerting us to a potential threat.
Neurologically speaking, our bodies and brains gear up to respond to potential threats by activating the flight, fight, freeze, or faint response mere seconds before our “thinking part” of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is conscious of the potential threat. Once the pre-frontal cortex is able to judge whether the potential threat is real or harmless, it will send a signal to our body to trigger or deactivate the stress response.
What to look for
What does anxiety look like in your child? Some children express their anxiety through increased crying, nail bitting, physically harming others or themselves or they may just go inward and appear detached.
What triggers anxiety
Do you struggle with anxiety? Notice if you find yourself on high alert for “danger” often. Sometimes, parental anxiety can trigger a child into an anxious state. It’s important to have self-awareness about your own relationship with and approach to anxiety. Some triggers to a child’s anxiety can include transitions from one activity or setting to another, school, meeting new people, abuse, and toxic environments.
Just the other day, while at a local bookstore, I noticed a magazine cover with the word “mindfulness” in bold lettering. Over the last 20 years, this technique of centering one’s self has gained popularity. Mindfulness is a way of attuning your awareness to the present moment and noticing what’s happening both internally and externally without judgement; silently observing the now. This can happen while deeply breathing and sitting quietly in one place, walking or while you’re in the middle something. Empirical research on the psychological and physiological has been happening since the 1970s. When used as a technique in children and young people, it has shown to lower anxiety, positively assists in a greater sense of self-awareness and self-esteem, decreases the impact of toxic stress, increase in sleep and focus, along with a host of other benefits. One exercise you can try with your child is “I spy”. This is when you and your child try on different body postures and facial expressions like anger, happy, calm or tense. Discuss with your little one some of the body sensations (warm, tight or prickly, etc.) that they feel while “trying on” these different body postures and facial expressions. Or you can set aside a time for meditating together. You will increase your child’s ability to self-regulate those overwhelming emotions. Good news is there are also smart phone apps for helping children with relaxing and self-regulating their emotions. In addition, there are schools that are starting to integrate mindfulness in their curriculum. Whatever you choose to do make it fun and apart of your routine.
Ebony K. Bailey, LPC MHSP has been practicing psychotherapy since 2005. She currently serves at the Clinical Coordinator of the Universal Parenting Places for the ACE Awareness Foundation. On a regular basis she meets individually and in group with the UPP site directors to discuss clinical programing that primarily focuses on mitigating adverse childhood experiences through family systems therapy.