Splitting Open the Problem of Anxiety in Our Children
Guest Author: Clinton Nunnally, LCP
Foundations Family Counseling Associates LLC
Anxiety is a normal emotional and physiological experience for all humans, children and adults alike. We forget that this is the case. We think of anxiety as essentially problematic, as though we shouldn’t experience it. And we try to should it away. But it doesn’t work. Or we get so scared of our anxiety that we feel we must collapse underneath it and let it gobble us up completely, which isn’t true and also doesn’t work. Anxiety is the typical response we have to things that are unknown or unknowable: e.g., new situations, the future, unexpected experiences, hurts, the dark, and death. Of course, it’s true that anxiety can feel incredibly overwhelming and terribly uncomfortable, especially if we don’t know what we are dealing with or if we fight it tooth and nail. So, what we want to be able to do is recognize it and do something with it. And how we deal with anxiety in ourselves is also how we tend to deal with it when we see it in our children… if we see it in our children. So, how can we deal with our children’s anxiety more effectively?
Learning to Recognize and Deal With Anxiety in Ourselves
First things first. We have to learn how to handle our own anxiety before we can help our kids. Adults, for the most part, don’t struggle to recognize anxiety in themselves. We know it by our racing minds, ruminating thoughts, rapid breathing and heart rates, the pit in our stomachs, and our general sense of worry and dread. And what do we do? We avoid, soothe ourselves with various forms of consumption, hate on ourselves, fight it, or collapse. But we can do better than this. We can breathe… really breathe. We can become mindful. We can meditate. We can soothe ourselves with deep truths, tell ourselves that we are going to be okay, and accept our anxiety and know that it is telling us something and really listen to it so that we can respond in helpful ways. And we can do the same thing for our children by teaching them to recognize their own anxiety and cope with it in helpful ways.
Recognizing Anxiety in Our Children
In our children or the children we work with, it is more difficult to recognize their anxiety than our own because we can’t see all the inner workings and experiences of their minds and bodies. This is compounded by the the fact that children have a hard time recognizing anxiety in themselves because of their limited life experience and the unfolding developmental process whereby children learn to give names to their experiences. This takes time and the mirroring of significant others. So, we mostly see children’s behaviors. And behaviors are always a form of communication and an abundance of information.
When children are anxious they may act shy. They might ask questions that stem from worry. Like adults, they will attempt to avoid the cause of their anxiety, which can look like hesitancy, opposition, excuse making, non-compliance, tantrums, or tears. Like adults, they might soothe themselves with consumption by overeating or staying in their rooms with the safety of screens. Like adults, they might say hateful things about themselves, but they will often say it out loud. And like adults, they will try to fight anxiety on the inside but are more likely to leak their experience with behaviors and conditions such as nail biting, upset stomachs, and facial expressions. And once you become more aware of your child’s anxiety levels from witnessing his or her behaviors, you can mobilize for loving and supportive action!
Responding to Our Children’s Anxiety in Powerful Ways
Children simply need adults (especially parents, teachers, and coaches) to respond to their anxiety in the same ways that we learn to deal with anxiety in ourselves.
We must normalize anxiety. Again, it is a totally normal human experience. Children respond to life with anxiety when they, like adults, encounter new situations or unexpected experiences, unknowns in the future, hurts, the dark, and death. A new situation might be a new soccer team. An unexpected experience might be peers laughing at a child for hugging their dad before walking into school. An unknown in the future might be a parent’s overseas business trip. A hurt might be a parent telling their child that they are being too silly and should act more mature. And, of course, the dark and death tend to be deeply held fears in the human psyche regardless of age and life experience.
So, how do we respond? We respond first with 100% empathy: “Your anxiety/worry totally makes sense. I feel/felt the same way when…” We reflect our children’s experience back to them by telling them that what they are feeling makes sense and that we have felt something very similar. This way, children learn to trust their inner experiences and know that they are real and understandable. We help them learn to breathe. There are so many helpful ways to help children learn to breathe well. You can Google it! Breathe with your child. Fewer words and more presence. Just telling a child that you get it, it makes sense, and then breathing with them is sometimes all it takes! Tell them that they are going to be okay. Tell them deep truths about themselves. Tell them what you know and appreciate about them. Help them discover what their anxiety is telling them and help them to listen and learn from it. Maybe it is telling them that other children are not always kind and that they need to be prepared for that and know how to respond in empowering and positive ways. In any case, just the fact that they are understood by you, a very important adult in their life, will have an enormous impact on them.
In the End...
You are the key to helping children manage their anxieties. Children are simply young people who experience the same emotions as adults. But unlike adults, children don't have the experience to recognize or label their feelings as readily, and they may manifest their anxiety with different behaviors that we don't recognize as anxiety.
We, as adults, are very similar to children. The sooner we recognize that, the better we will be at relating to them and normalizing and expanding their experience. They count on us for our love, understanding and support. And we can freely give it to them as soon as we realize how similar we are to them. So, know that we are all children, in one way or another. And decide that you can be a powerful presence in the life of children as they experience all the richness of life. And, like it or not, the richness of life includes unpleasant things like fear and anxiety. And it is truly okay!