Supporting Your Child to Step Out of Anxiety and Toward Resilience
Humans have survived as a species because we have developed a natural alarm system that keeps us looking out for signs of danger (i.e., the negatives). We are constantly thinking about what happened, what might happen, and what we can do to prevent bad things from happening. Stress and anxiety are natural responses that are meant to trigger our alarm system when we sense a threat and help us quickly react to avoid danger. But as evolved as the human brain is, it cannot tell the difference between real and perceived danger. If we perceive everyday tasks to be threatening, we can find ourselves in a chronic state of stress and anxiety that results in real symptoms (i.e., physiological, emotional, mental, behavioural) and poor outcomes (e.g., decreased performance, social isolation, diminished mental health, physical illness).
The Covid-19 pandemic has blanketed the world in uncertainty, unrest, stress, and anxiety. We are all struggling - adults and children alike. Take a moment and reflect on how your child is managing in light of the pandemic. Are they experiencing symptoms related to fear, panic, dread, anger, or sadness? Do their thoughts revolve around ‘what if’s’ and worrying about the unknowns? Are they acting out their distress, or holding it all in? Are they finding it difficult to enjoy life? Remember that stress and anxiety are natural responses that are meant to help us, but can become problematic. Whether your child struggled with anxiety pre-pandemic or is facing new struggles as a result of it, this article may be helpful to you. The aim is to help you:
- understand the nature and purpose of anxiety;
- recognize how anxiety shows up in your child; and
- identify strategies to help your child manage their anxiety toward resilience.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress is what we experience when we sense an immediate threat in our environment. Anxiety is what we experience when our brains wander into the past or future, and we imagine a threat that is not directly in front of us. In this way, anxiety is harder to figure out than stress. Let's consider the cycle of anxiety:
1. Worry/ panic. Thoughts and feelings bounce off each other all the time. Worry is when our brain anticipates a threat in the future and goes into proactive problem-solving mode, helping us develop escape plans just in case. Worry can trigger fear - and fear can trigger worry - resulting in real psychological and physiological changes that impact our functioning. Anxiety resembles stress and can trigger a full stress response or panic attack.
Common symptoms of anxiety: increased heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, headache, stomachache, dizziness, nausea, a tight chest, impulsivity, difficulty focusing, and difficulty thinking.
2. Avoidance/ escape. When we feel overwhelmed with fear, we become consumed by an instinctive need to avoid and escape danger (real or imaginary). We cannot focus, problem-solve, or perform to the best of our ability. When children experience overwhelming anxiety, it gets in the way of all their engagements, including academics, sports, chores, everyday tasks, and friendships.
3. Temporary relief. When we avoid overwhelming fear, we experience an immediate sense of relief. The relief reinforces to our brain that there was danger, we stayed safe by escaping it, and we need to be vigilant in the future so we can avoid it should it reappear.
4. Resurgence of worry/ panic. Our brain learns that avoidance makes anxiety go away. Children with big anxiety naturally learn to worry - this is their brain going into overdrive, proactively problem-solving, to keep them safe (e.g., 'what if' and worrying about all the unknowns).
5. Loss of confidence in the ability to cope. The next time we face a fear that we averted, it will feel scarier, and we will move more quickly to run and hide. If we help children avoid their fears, they can quickly lose their confidence to navigate themselves in a world that they perceive as full of danger. As anxiety grows, our children begin to withdraw - their world shrinks. Anxious children lose motivation to participate in life.
Remember that stress and anxiety are natural responses and are not necessarily problematic. Signs that anxiety is problematic include: if you notice your child constantly thinking about or talking about a threat, or if their worry and fear are impacting their ability to participate in life or enjoy life. It is important to break the cycle of anxiety because, if left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression and other mental health challenges.
What Anxiety Looks Like
When your child feels overwhelmed, their internal alarm system can trigger them into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Behaviours you may see can look like inattention, hyperactivity, acting out, or disengagement. Notice that anxiety can manifest in ways that overlap with the presentation of Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but these are not the same thing. A large part of how children manifest their anxiety depends on their personality.
- Some children appear hyperaroused - like a porcupine with its quills out - they externalize their distress and can explode. This parallels the body's fight or flight response, which may appear as 'freaking out' behaviour. These behaviours are very noticeable in children. Your child may become aggressive, quick to anger, oppositional, desperate to try and escape, or disruptive. Some anxious children resort to making jokes or being mean to others. These behaviours can be misconstrued as purposeful and attention-grabbing.
- Some children appear hypoaroused - like a turtle tucking into its shell - they internalize their distress and can implode. This parallels the body's freeze response. It is much less noticeable on the outside but just as challenging for a child on the inside. These children are paralyzed by fear. Your child may appear apprehensive, sad, confused, withdrawn, helpless, clingy, spacy, or zoned out. For some anxious children, this manifests as procrastination or a failure to complete a task.
When children become trapped in a desperate need to seek safety (a survival instinct), you will notice that any time anxiety arises, there becomes a sudden reactive shift in their expression, voice, posture, words, and behaviour. Know that this is not your child misbehaving. This is anxiety holding your child hostage - causing them to close themselves off to the world - and sabotaging their goals. Anxious children lack the skills to manage their emotions, and they would do better if they could.
Children with neurodevelopmental disorders tend to experience more anxiety than their neurotypical peers because of differences in the brain (development, structure, activity, connectivity) and differences in their experience (social-emotional and academic challenges). Children with a Learning Disability (LD) and/or ADHD exert a lot of energy on everyday tasks, yet often struggle compared to their non-LD/ ADHD peers when it comes to:
- impulse inhibition
- emotion regulation
- cognitive performance
- information processing
- speech/ language competencies
- working memory
When children with LD/ ADHD see that they are falling behind their peers, they struggle emotionally. With the challenges brought on by the pandemic, these children are struggling even more. Levels of stress and anxiety are on the rise.
The Do's and Don'ts for How to Manage Your Child's Anxiety
Parents have a natural inclination to take care of, protect, and nurture their children. When you see your child overwhelmed with distress, your parenting instincts naturally kick in. Do you find yourself being more intrusive, over-involved, overprotective, or highly controlling when your child becomes anxious? As you will see, your parenting instincts may be reinforcing anxiety and making things worse. When you protect your child from feeling distress, you are giving the message that they cannot handle it and taking away valuable learning opportunities for them to learn how to handle it. Children need space to struggle, rest, learn, and grow - this is true for all aspects of independence and resilience. Review the following list of don'ts (adapted from the book 'Anxious Kids Anxious Parents') to see whether you are engaging in these unhelpful parenting patterns. Know that many parents do.
- Don't rescue or overprotect your child from their distress
- Don't provide certainty about outcomes
- Don't reassure your child that everything will be okay
- Don't accommodate/ ask others to accommodate your child's anxiety
- Don't model your own anxious behaviour
- excessive worry or fear
- catastrophic thinking
- the idea that the world is dangerous and we have little control over our outcomes
- avoidant behaviour
- Don't push your child too hard or become angry or explosive yourself. Children who feel overwhelmed become reactive and cannot effectively manage their emotions.
Children need to experience distress to learn how to manage their distress. We want to promote children's distress tolerance, flexible thinking, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills to effectively adapt when challenges arise. Let’s explore what you can do to provide a supportive framework for your child to confront their anxiety (i.e., scaffold their skill set).
- Invest in self-care. Confronting anxiety is hard work. It is essential that both you and your child regularly replenish your energy tanks (e.g., diet, sleep, exercise, connecting with friends, having fun, resting, etc.). Try apps like Calm or Headspace to promote mindfulness in your lives.
- Model calm authority. The first step to supporting your child to manage their anxiety is for you to learn how to manage yours. They need you to co-regulate with them when they become anxious.
- Allow your child to experience distress. Practice is key to skill development. Your child must experience anxiety to learn how to manage their anxiety.
- Be patient, supportive, and encouraging. Communicate your confidence in your child's ability to cope when things get tough. Stay positive. Expect your child's anxiety to flare up before it evens out. Recognize that when your child feels distressed, this is where their potential for growth lies. Challenge yourself NOT to take your child's reactive behaviours personally.
- Listen to your child and validate their struggle. Children who feel heard are more likely to feel calm, listen, and follow your lead. Help them make sense of what is happening to them. This form of active listening will enhance their self-awareness and promote the connection between both of you.
- Explore your child's anxiety with them. In moments of calm, talk with your child about their anxiety as separate from who they are (e.g., worry monster). Help them see their strengths. Let them know that you are on their team and that together you can help them confront their anxiety.
- Practice self-regulating together by trying out coping strategies. Don't guarantee outcomes. Not all strategies are equally effective across all situations. Resilience is about being flexible to try different strategies and seeing what works. Examples include:
- deep breathing
- going for a walk
- finding a quiet space
- muscle relaxation
- using the five senses
- using positive self-talk
- cultivating self-compassion
- journaling or letter writing
- drawing or doodling
- listening to music
- having a drink or snack
- talking to a trusted friend/ adult
- Provide immediate, specific, and positive feedback. Praise them for their effort! Positive attention will help your child feel supported, recognized, and motivated to do more of what you praised them for. This will help cultivate a 'don't give up' attitude!
We are all struggling with anxiety, stress, and/or trauma as a result of the pandemic. We cannot create certainty in times of uncertainty, and we do not know what the future holds. What you can do as a parent is attend to your own self-care needs and maintain a level of calm authority with your child. From here, you can support your child to experience and manage their distress toward resilience.
Confronting anxiety is hard work. The trick is persistence. When children avoid their challenges, their fears grow, and their confidence shrinks. On the contrary - when children practice engaging with their challenges, their confidence grows, and their fears shrink. If you find that the work is too much to handle on your own, seek professional support and build a team to work alongside you and rally for your child (e.g., counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist). Be sure to find a professional who understands your child's neurodevelopmental diagnosis so they can tailor a treatment plan specific to your child's needs. To end, remember that everyone has the capacity to be resilient. With consistent support and practice, your child can develop the skills and confidence to confront their anxiety and keep going when things get tough.
Anxiety is natural and meant to protect us from danger;
Anxiety becomes problematic when it convinces us that the world is dangerous and we don't have the resources to cope;
Anxiety problems are maintained by worry, fear, and avoidance behaviours;
If left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression;
The key to overcoming problematic anxiety is to practice being comfortable with distress;
With consistent support and practice, your child can learn to manage their anxiety and move toward their goals with confidence.
- Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children - by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson.
- Parent-Led CBT for Child Anxiety: Helping Parents Help their Kids - by Cathy Creswell, Monika Parkinson, Kerstin Thirlwall, & Lucy Willetts.
- Anxiety Canada - offers information on anxiety and evidence-based treatment strategies
- Understood.org - offers a variety of articles on anxiety and children with learning differences
- Childmind.org - offers a variety of articles on anxiety that provide insight and tips for supporting children
- Mind Shift CBT - tool to help you relax, be mindful, develop more effective ways of coping, and take action to manage anxiety
- My Anxiety Plans (MAPs) - anxiety management program for children, teenagers, and adults
- Calm - resource with meditations, stories, music, talks, and more
- Headspace – app with guided and unguided meditations as well as animations for younger kids