We’re born worriers. Scientists believe that our brains have evolved a “negativity bias”, meaning we’re drawn to threats more than opportunities. We’re likely to detect negative information faster than positive information and generally have a background level of anxiety as our brain monitors the environment for possible threats. It’s in our genes. This negativity bias was helpful for our ancestors, as they lived in an extremely threatening environment. Some were prone to unnecessary worrying, and upon hearing a rustle in the bushes, might fear the worst and think something like, “Sabre-tooth tiger! Run!” As a result, they were more likely to survive and pass on their worry genes down to us (even though nine times out of 10 the noise was probably nothing more than a squirrel!). Then there were our other ancestors who didn’t worry as much, and assumed the rustling meant they’d found a squirrel for lunch. They might have got it right nine times out of 10, but the one time they got it wrong, they got it seriously wrong. So, they were less likely to pass their genes down to us than the worriers. Although the environment’s changed and we’re safer than ever before, our brains haven’t adapted and they’re still constantly on the lookout for threats and reasons to worry. Anxiety is the most common mental health problem facing children and adults in our country. As many as one in eight school children suffer from an anxiety disorder. Everyone experiences anxiety at one point or another; though it doesn’t feel good, anxiety is a response to a perceived threat that propels one to act by fleeing the threat or fighting it. In this way, anxiety is critical for survival.
Normal anxiety protects us from danger, is manageable, and limited to specific situations. With excessive anxiety, your child may be overestimating the threat of danger while underestimating her ability to deal with it. Physical symptoms of anxiety can include rapid heart-rate, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping and stomach aches. To avoid feeling anxious, your child may avoid situations that create anxiety, thus allowing her fear to control her. High anxiety is an exhausting mindset that takes a toll physically, emotionally, and mentally.
If your child is unable to control her worries, if her anxiety is out of proportion to situations, if it impairs her home, social or academic activities, if it causes physical discomfort, and has lasted one month or more, you may want to consult a psychotherapist for assessment and treatment. Many therapists utilize Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to treat anxiety. CBT focuses on the connection between thoughts, behaviors and feelings. Such treatment might teach your child how to think more realistically about her worries, to confront and not avoid anxiety provoking situations, and to use relaxation skills.
Psychotherapists can also help parents develop parenting strategies that help children develop a sense of control over their worries. Carol H. Sampson, LCSW, recommends the following Parenting Tips for Anxious Children and Teens:
- Children easily pick up subtle verbal and non-verbal clues and mirror the behavior of their parents. Think about how you respond when overwhelmed and afraid. Are you calm and confident in the face of adversity and fear or do you loose your temper and get upset? Consider what your reactions are teaching your child.
- Do you quickly rush to fix problems when your child is anxious or upset? If so, you may prevent her from learning how to tolerate difficult feelings. You may also be communicating that you don’t feel she is capable of solving problems on her own. Instead, help your child become competent and resilient by seeking her ideas on how to fix the problem.
- How do you respond when your child wants to take a healthy risk? Are you enthusiastic or hesitant? If you are tentative, your child is apt to pick up your ambivalence and fear.
- Do you constantly check with your child to see if she is okay? Are you imposing your fears on her? This may actually give your child reason to feel worried.
- Are you overly protective? Do you encourage your child to avoid anxiety provoking situations? When you give your child permission to avoid difficult situations, you are inadvertently reinforcing her worries and preventing her from acquiring the coping skills needed to face her fears.
- Do you provide your child with excessive reassurances? If so, you may strengthen her worries while making her more dependent on you. Instead, encourage self-reliance by teaching your child how to assist herself.
Instead of increasing your child’s worries, provide her with the tools she needs to face her fears. Here are a few suggestions:
- Communicate a message that indicates you understand she may be afraid, but you are confident in her ability to handle the situation. Highlight past successes. Anticipate situations in which your child may be anxious and brainstorm possible solutions together before a crisis develops.
- Teach your child to self-soothe when overly anxious or distressed. Encourage her to go to a calming place or pursue activities that can help her relax such as listening to music, deep breathing, or exercise.
- Help your child talk back to her fears. Help her understand exactly what shi is worried about and why. Ask her what are the chances it will happen? What else could happen? So what if it happens?
- Prevent stress by making sure she has down-time and opportunities to relax.
Carol Sampson, LCSW
2551 Post Road
Southport, CT 06890
Anxiety in Children: A Metaphor to Put You In Their Shoes (and right beside them)
Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Why Anxiety Triggers Often Don't Make Sense- And How to Turn Avoidance into Brave Behaviour
Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers, by Eli R. Lebowitz, Haim Omer
Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, by Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.
Helping Your Child WIth Selective Mutism: Steps to Overcome a Fear of Speaking, by AE McHolm, CE Cunningham, MK Cobham
Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents, by RM Rapee, A Wignall, SH Spence & V Cobham
What to Do When You Worry Too Much, by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D. (an interactive self-help workbook for school-age children)
My Anxious Mind: A Teen's Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic, by MA Tomkins & KA Martinez
Visit Magination Press (http://www.maginationpress.com/) for a wide variety of topic specific books recommended by the American Psychological Association.
This Go Zen Anxiety phrasebook has 72 short phrases/concepts to help your child deal with anxious thoughts- well worth the read.
Check out Kidlutions: Solutions for Kids
article on coping resources for anxious children: Worry Warriors: Crafty Ways to Help Kids Cope with Anxiety
website offering comprehensive, user-friendly information on the full range of anxiety disorders: how to identify symptoms, find effective treatments and prevent anxiety from taking over a child's life.
Web site offers animated short films on anxiety relieving techniques for kids.
Go Zen also has these two lists of techniques and phrases to help calm anxious children:
Website with easy to understand, youth-aimed information on anxiety- causes, symptoms and treatment
Mindfulness and Mediation Apps
These apps help us learn to "turn down the worry" in our brains.
for Children 1 and 2 (young children)
The Smiling Mind
(programs for children 7 – 11, 12 – 15 and for young adults
(pre-teen – adult; go to guided meditations on the app)
(pre-teen through adult)
(self-identifies feelings and teaching feeling vocabulary, offers suggestions on self calming and keeps a log)