What if Anxiety isn't the Bad Guy?
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
We got some news today about lockdowns ending. Finally. Although (for the most part) I'm absolutely ecstatic, admittedly, there is a part of me that feels a little bit anxious. It's back to work - how is that going to look? Back to classroom, back to the clinic Do I even remember how? Will it be safe? So it got me thinking…if I feel like this, how am I going to support the kids I work with to manage their own anxiety?
What does anxiety look like?
On the surface, anxiety could look different to how we might expect. In kids, the behaviour is likely to feel annoying, sometimes regressive and predispose us to thinking the child is just being naughty. And, for those of us who are already feeling a bit stressed, it’s likely to trigger us in some way.
Anxiety can show up in a number of ways:
Asking endless questions Why? Why? Why? What? When? How? Where? Why? Why? Why? (we all know this kid)
May be masked by irritability, withdrawal
Changed eating and sleeping habits
Understanding brain development and the threat response
Let's put things in perspective by considering the developing brain. A child's brain is "under construction", if you will. It is still developing and learning ways to regulate internal chaos when it perceives a threat (real or imagined). It may be able to regulate some of the time, but its capacity to do this is still strengthening. The part of the brain that is highly developed is the alarm system (the amygdala, a small almond like structure in the limbic area of the midbrain) and the perception of threat. This is for kids, the most active part of the brain and the area that develops prior to the cortex (where rational thinking occurs and an area that is not fully developed until early adulthood). So when we consider a child’s behaviour, we also need to take into consideration what is neurologically reasonable.
Anxiety is not the bad guy!
Anxiety is not the bad guy! It's important to normalise a child's anxiety to parents and anyone working with children. The behaviours we see when kids are anxious - the clinginess, the aggression, the need for answers – these are normal, adaptive responses by the child's brain, seeking to regulate when it is faced with a threat, or the unknown. The child's brain is actually doing exactly what it is designed to do. So that’s good news.
The role of coregulation
When we are in a heightened state (and this is true for kids and adults) we seek to orient outside of ourselves to find an anchor, or a point of stability to connect to in our external environment. Something that will allow us to regulate our nervous system and bring us back into balance.
This is the basis of coregulation.
Children borrow their parents' nervous systems to help regulate their own
So a child whose regulatory system is underdeveloped, will often look to a parent to be that external anchor. From a neurobiological point of view, the child is effectively borrowing the parent's nervous system to help regulate their own. Coregulation has become something of a buzzword, but it's easier said than done. Coregulation can be incredibly difficult (even for trained therapists, whom are incidentally, also human) and takes lots of practice, particularly if we ourselves are anxious. As therapists, this is where educating the parent and supporting them through their own anxiety comes in. Rather than perpetuating a situation where a child is feeding off a parent’s anxious state, or having parents deny or dismiss their anxiety, there is a need to develop an awareness around parental anxiety and work together to identify strategies for parents to remain grounded when they are needing to support their child in coregulation.
Reframing Challenging Behaviours
Understanding and normalising a child’s physiological and behavioural responses to anxiety, are key in reframing what can, on the surface, appear to be challenging behaviours. Through this lens, the behaviour is not good or bad - it becomes purposeful. The purpose of the behaviour is to provide a sense of safety or comfort for the child. The behaviour is the child's attempt to regulate.
As schools are again re-opening, restrictions are lifting and life is once again changing, we need to keep this in mind. Although many children will take these changes in their stride, for others there will be feelings of instability and uncertainty - will my friends still be my friends when I get back to school? Will I get sick? There may be a general fear of "stepping back into life". Many adults have probably felt similar trepidation about returning to work. As a play therapist, I definitely felt some uncertainty about returning to face- to- face sessions, where I'd been working through telehealth with clients for quite some time. For teachers, transitioning back to onsite teaching from remote learning may present a similar scenario. For children who were struggling even prior to the pandemic, anxious feelings are likely to be intensified. Teachers are going to be instrumental in supporting kids emotionally and prioritising the creation of a safe learning environment before the business of learning can even take place. So what are some practical ways to do this?
As parents and teachers , how can we support children through anxiety?
Be curious and investigate
When a child tends to catastrophise an event like the "return to school" it's useful to figure out which aspect they are actually worried about (because they won't be worried about everything). It could be that they are apprehensive about wearing a mask all day, or it could be something very different, like worrying about not having friends to play with. It's also helpful to have the child consider aspects that they are still excited about, since compartmentalising the fear can also help the child to gain perspective and support regulation.
Focus on what has not changed
Once we have identified the root of the anxiety, we can acknowledge the fears and then support kids to refocus their attention on the aspects that will/have remained the same. This helps their brain to hold on to something stable and predictable and develops the brain’s capacity to regulate. In the classroom, teachers can help orient children back to safety by playing games that encourage “noticing” and “mindfulness”. "What things do you notice are the same in our classroom? In our school? In our school day?". “Name 5 things right now that you can see, taste, smell, hear, touch”.
"Make the unknown known” and create an action plan
It's normal to want to reassure kids that "it will be fine" or "you're not going to get sick", but in reality, although we hope this will be true, we really don't know. It's important not to make promises that we can't keep. It’s better to have an action plan instead. If a child is open to a conversation, we can help them to identify what things might look like when a challenging situation arises or should their fear become a reality. We can work with the child to “make the unknown known” and follow up with strategies to manage it. With younger kids, who may find it hard to put feelings into words, we could support with creative tasks like drawings and artwork, or using sensory mediums like sand and rice to create small world scenes.
If as parents, teachers and therapists we can continually find ways to help the anxious child orient to their external environment and support them to coregulate by borrowing our own nervous system, kids can develop the capacity and confidence to self-regulate through challenging and uncertain circumstances.