One of the most widely misunderstood and common challenge children experience is anxiety. This is also one of the most common symptoms we see children work though in Play Therapy. Understanding what anxiety is, what it looks like, and ways to help children move through anxious emotions and feelings can change everything.
One of the reasons anxiety in children is misunderstood is because it often looks different in adults. Typically, anxiety is described as excessive worry, difficulty focusing, and or sleep disturbance. As adults we can talk about what worries or concerns us to friends and family and then do a lot of controlling. Our difficulty in focusing looks like surfing social media mindlessly instead of getting our work done. Our sleep disturbance is then combated by substance use: this could be a drink or pill at night to help us fall asleep, coffee and energy drinks during the day to keep us awake or both.
For our children anxiety looks different. Common symptoms of anxiety in children are hyper activity, difficulty following directions, aggression, temper tantrums, overwhelming others, and or difficulty going to bed. These are the anxious behaviors in children that often push our buttons, get children in trouble at school and referred to therapy. Anxiety in children can also look like withdraw, isolating, automatic obedience, and shutting down. These behaviors are often less irritating but just as concerning and difficult for children.
Learning why anxiety looks different is best understood by looking at how the body responds to stress in the nervous system. Lisa Dion describes that our nervous system has two branches the fight/flight or sympathetic response and the freeze/fall asleep or parasympathetic response (Dion, 2015). Our nervous system makes a choice to access either response based on our perception (Dion, 2015). Dion (2015) further explains that stress is merely information and when the rate of information comes in too fast based on our own unique perception either the fight/flight (sympathetic) or freeze/fall asleep (parasympathetic) response gets activated. The brilliance of the nervous system has kept us alive since the cave man days, however sometimes attempts to regulate are not effective leaving children in a state of dys-regulation. When children spend more time in a state of dys-regulation or fight/flight, freeze/fall asleep response the higher chances it will affect their relationships, health, education, and overall wellbeing (Dion 2015). What all this means is that anxiety is a dys-regulated nervous system and children get stuck using regulation strategies that are causing them trouble by acting out or withdrawing. “Although children have a natural instinct to regulate, they need help with learning how to regulate effectively. They seek out help by watching how others manage their emotions and bodily sensations.” (Dion, 2015) When Dion states “watching how others manage their emotions,” she means us, the parents, teachers, mentors, grandparents, and therapists.
Now that we know our children are watching us for help what do we do? Here is an example of how we can, as caregivers, help our children navigate their anxious behaviors:
- Dan Siegel states we must “Keep Calm and Connect.”Once we have connected to how our child is feeling then we can redirect them so let’s break down each of those steps. Keeping calm as a parent is not the same thing as being flat and using a soft tone of voice. In fact, it means that we have to regulate ourselves first. Dion (2015) states there are several keys to regulation breathe, movement, and naming your experience.
- For example: when you have just asked your daughter to stop teasing her brother for the 10th time and you now little Jonny is running to you crying. Instead of yelling and to his sister, ‘no more TV for a week and go to your room to think about what you did!’ Take a deep breath, say ‘I am so frustrated, or angry, or sad whatever fits for you that you your sister didn’t stop teasing you when I asked the first time.’ Then do something to move your body it may be squeezing and releasing your fists or walking around the living room. This not only will help you regulate but you also just modeled for your son and your daughter how manage intense emotions.
- Next, connect. In our example, it is best to connect to whomever got hurt first and empathize, then listen to the experience rather than dismiss or deny (Siegel, 2014) For example, ‘I see how angry and sad you are that your sister wasn’t listening to you and then pinched you. I would be angry and sad too, what happened?’ Instead of, ‘You know that when your sister gets like that and you are tired you will get hurt. Why you didn’t just go play with your Legos like I said?“ It is much more emotionally responsive and effective to listen, empathize, and really understand your child’s experience before responding, even if it sees absurd to you.” (Siegel 2014)
- Then, we redirect using these strategies from No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel:
Describe, don’t preach
Involve your child in the discipline
Reframe a no into a conditional yes
Emphasize the positive
Creatively approach the situation
Teach mindsight tools
Most of these strategies are pretty self-explanatory, except perhaps teaching mindsight tools. Siegel coined the term Mindsight which is teaching seeing our own mind, as well as the mind of others, to promote integration (Sigel, 2014). If this idea interests you or would like to learn more on these redirection strategies check out No Drama Discipline or The Whole Brain Child.
Understanding our children’s behaviors as symptoms of anxiety that need support looks and feels different that behaviors that simply push our buttons.
The more we support our children and ourselves with managing anxious behaviors the more time we can spend integrated, nurtured, and connected.
Dion, L. 2015. Integrating Extremes: Aggression and Death in the Playroom.
Siegel, D & Payne Bryson, T. 2014 No Drama Discipline: The Whole Brain Way To Calm The Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.