(Written by Yvonne Mc Kenna, counsellor at Reach Child and Youth Development Society in Delta BC, adapted from a talk by Gordon Neufeld, March 4, 2011)
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling of being unsafe, uneasy or apprehensive. It can be specific (“I’m afraid of dogs”) or vague (“I’m feeling really uncomfortable and want to get out of here”). The origins of anxiety are a mystery to researchers, but most agree that many body systems are involved in our anxious reactions to things or events. Our sensory system perceives something that alarms us which sends signals to our brain which activates chemicals that are sent to the muscles to either move or be on guard (fight or flight), and to our organs such as our heart and lungs to work faster in case we have to move quickly. These reactions, even if there really is no threat, can make us feel threatened and anxious. And the more this happens, the more we feel anxious unless we learn ways to address what our body feels and what our mind and feelings are telling us.
What is the alarm system?
Anxiety is an activated alarm system in our bodies. Alarm has a specific and important purpose to keep us alert to danger and help us avoid or react to it. However, we each react to this alarm system and things that alarm us quite differently.
It is important to remember that this system reacts to the perceived presence of danger, not stress. The alarm is associated with perceptions, feelings, impulses, physiology, chemistry and previous experiences. In fact, our alarm system is individually connected to our own experiences with threat, danger, and the feelings of being calm and safe.
This is how the alarm system develops:
- ALARM –The alarm sounds due to perceived threat or danger (even if there really is none)
- CAUTION –The body/mind goes into Caution mode.
- When working well, this results in us learning to be
- When the alarm is futile (no real threat is there), the body/mind can’t make sense of the alarm and there is no resolution. You continue to feel anxious without learning why.
- When working well, this results in us learning to be
- ADAPTATION –Adaptation happens when the alarm is turned off temporarily
- When adaptation to the alarm is working well.
- The body/mind remembers the threat and is primed to react next time.
- If the alarm is false, this is also remembered and not reacted to the next time
- Strong emotions occur after the alarm because of hormones that are released during and after the fight and flightalarm response. Crying is an important way to react to the aftermath of an alarm since it is a release of emotions and can help in attaching meaning to the situation. Caregivers can support these “tears of futility” when the alarm system is activated but there is no threat. This will helpa child feel comforted and safe.
- Adaptation results in:
- COURAGE: Courage occurs when the alarm does not get in the way. When the alarms still occur but the feelings are under control. Courage is developmental. For example, 4 or 5-year-olds can’t yet be expected to be courageous in all threatening situations. This is when developmental fears occur (e.g., of monsters or the dark) and when they are practicing their fear response and need a lot of encouragement.We need the alarms to be brave, but not foolish. Learning to react to alarms results in
- Being brave
- Goal-directed Behaviour
- When adaptation to the alarm is working well.
How can parents help their children?
Parents need to be traffic directors and help children when they feel threatened or afraid. The goal is not to remove any threat or bad feelings, but to help comfort a child when they feel afraid or after their alarm system has been activated. Help children find their tears of futility, those feelings they have when they are afraid and need to be encouraged. The main thing that children fear is separation. Facing a lack of proximity with who you love and are attached to is the worst possible thing that a child can face. They face this at many times in their young lives:
- New Sibling
- Daycare or school
Even though we do what we can to keep our children safe and protected, often their alarm system goes off when they feel separated from us. If they feel as though they are separated too often or more than they can handle, their alarm system may react to many other situations or things. Seemingly irrational fears may occur, which can be frustrating to parents and may result in further emotional and physical separation from the child. We say “I need a break from you” in words and actions. We use time out to discipline and we use ignoring and silent responses to deal with alarm or behavior. These are not helpful responses to an over-active alarm system.
Anxieties are also increasing in our society. We push children into separation sooner and more often. Children experience separation from attachment figures more than ever before and many children are failing to develop deep attachments. Later, when children are in school they seek peers for their attachment relationships rather than relying on parents for support. But peers are not comforting or open to the tears of futility. Children and teens need to be mentored by a parent or trusted adult who has successfully made the transition into adulthood and can be a beacon of hope. Even supposedly good kids cannot act as role models for other children in the absence of adult role models. Children are also left in charge of themselves and decisions at earlier ages before they are developmentally ready. This responsibility does not result in independence, but in insecurity.
Children need to develop soft hearts not hard exteriors. Children don’t need to be wounded by their fears but should be around caring adults who know how to handle the inevitable separations that occur.
So what can we do as parents without feeling even worse about our child’s anxieties and fears? The solutions are simple and basic, but require thinking about the child’s anxieties not as something annoying, but as a symptom of their alarm system working overtime.
- BRIDGE SEPARATIONS –When you are separated from your child for work, daycare, sleeping or other times, tell them when you will be back, what you will do when you are together again and that you will think of them until you see them again. Help them know that it may be upsetting to be separated (and you may see the tears of futility here and when you meet again), but that you know that they will do well and you will see them soon. Tell them that the feelings of missing someone just means that you love that person a lot and want to be with them.
- PROVIDE REST AND SAFETY – Provide lots of times when you can be together in a relaxed and calm environment. Do things together that you both like and plan events together that are relaxing and fun. Use these times to think of when you are bridging the separations. When you and yourchild can rest together, this rebuilds those broken bridges of separation and encourages their development of self-esteem and empathy.
- ASSUME THE ALPHA ROLL – Be the one in charge and convey strength. Even if your child seems to want to control events, this is just a facade. Children need boundaries and to know that someone else is in charge. This will help them feel safe and cared for by their guiding adult.
- FOSTER AN ACCEPTING ATTITUDE TO ALARM AND ANXIETY – Help your child know that when they are fearful and anxious, that this happens to you, to their other parent, to grandma and grandpa and everyone else. Normalize the fear reactions. Talk about how your body feels (“my heart races, my hands sweat, my breathing is fast”) and what your mind says to you (“this is scary, I want to run”) and how they can cope (“I just need to breathe slowly, I can handle this”). Model this for your children, especially if you are anxious as well.
- BE SENSITIVE TO SEPARATIONS – Think about the separations that your child experiences. Each child is different and reacts differently. Some children become quite upset at separations, but others shut down and become quiet and withdrawn. Think about limiting separations if things are not going well and your child is overly anxious. Increase gradually as they are able to cope.
- THINK DEVELOPMENTALLY – It is expected that a baby will cry when separated from their parent for short periods, especially after a few months when they have grown attached. However, we often forget that young children are not as able to cope with separations as we think they should be. For example, even though preschools start at 3 years old, many children this age are not yet ready to separate for the sessions and need to wait until they are older to feel safe doing so. As well, older children may go through periods when they feel anxious about normal separations or fears. This regression is a normal part of development and children continue to need encouragement throughout childhood and early adulthood.
- HELP THE CHILD FIND THEIR TEARS OF FUTILITY – Having a good cry brings an alarmed child to rest, especially if it is combined with comforting hugs and words. Later, when the child feels safe, introduce the idea of separation and help them anticipate and discuss the feelings they might have. Be kind, but firm –be the alpha. The child may be upset just thinking about something fearful (e.g., the dentist, school starting, a new sibling), but these tears show the brain that the child can survive. Again, focus on building a bridge to the times you will be together and the enjoyable activities you share. This builds resilience much more than the tough it out approach since it includes the development of empathy. Think of it as recalibrating the alarm system.
- CULTIVATE COURAGE – There is a fairly tale of the treasure dragon that sits on the desired treasure that the seeker wants. Fears, like dragons, can be scary things you want to avoid, but facing them helps you feel courageous and proud. Help your child reach for the treasures that are hard to attain –goals and desires –even if they get upset and are afraid. Help them voice their mixed feelings and accept their failures and struggles so that one day they will do this for themselves.