The words anxiety and stress are used more frequently in our world today than ever before and even more so when considering the traumatic situations children are faced with. Trauma is considered “an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” (Brach, 2011).
When we consider trauma within this context, I imagine there are a few more events or situations that may come to your mind for yourself as a child or for the children you are currently caring for.
When children are in constant states of powerlessness or in unpredictable/unsafe environments there are implications for the mind and body because fear is the emotion felt in both scenarios. If children do not have access to a primary caregiver who can guide them through fearful emotions with patience, love and understanding, ultimately the child accesses the fight/flight/freeze mechanism in the brain. This mechanism, when overactive, will begin creating a neuro pathway in the brain advising the child they need to disconnect from feeling which ultimately means they disconnect from their body – leaving them feeling anxious in their world.
What is anxiety?
Before we continue, let’s clear up the term ‘anxiety’ and what it means. Anxiety is a state of being when we are concerned, fearful or worried about the future. Our mind focuses on an issue or situation and in its attempt to feel safe, will try to predict every possible outcome of that issue or situation – leaving us feeling uncomfortable sensations in our bodies. These sensations may include; shallow breathing, reduced energy, headaches, tense muscles, sleeplessness and diarrhea.
When anxiety is felt on a regular basis, especially during the core developmental years of 0-7, our fight/flight/freeze response becomes our default functioning system. This system has been designed to protect us when we detect a threat in our environment. For example, approaching a school bully, hearing parents argue, hearing a loud noise or being asked a question by a school teacher. When this system is constantly triggered and strengthened, children may experience:
- learning difficulties;
- control seeking behaviour’s such as bullying;
- explosive behaviours;
- difficulty regulating their emotions;
- difficulty remaining engaged with their teacher and learning content;
- extreme and challenging behaviours (anger, sadness, frustration);
- a reduced desire to interact with people or their environment;
- self-harming behaviours and
How can we help reduce anxiety in children?
Luckily for us, we now know enough about the brain and body to begin reducing a child’s experience of anxiety. The introduction of brain scans in the last 20 years helps us understand how the brain functions during certain situations such as a traumatic experience, anxiety, depression or a tantrum.
The first tip to begin helping your child when they are anxious is to tend to the emotion. This sounds simple however it is often forgotten because we as parents/caregivers go straight to problem solving mode. When a child is in meltdown mode, and adults for that matter, access to the logical part of our brain (Neocortex) is minimal and all behaviours and actions are being directed by the emotion centre (Limbic System). I am sure you have many stories of extreme outbursts from your children because of something you consider insignificant. It’s crucial to understand here however that the ‘insignificant’ reason is indeed significant to your child.
All meltdown behaviours you see from children are occurring to meet a need. If the emotion attached to that need is not explored or understood by a primary caregiver, then children are left feeling confused and deserted which only increases their anxiety the next time they feel big emotions as they don’t have a safe adult to help them.
The second tip in helping children with anxiety is to offer them alternative methods in exploring big emotions. The language centre of our brain (Neocortex) is developing from 3 years into adolescents which make our requests of children to explain emotions with words often unsuccessful. Help your child allocate colours, animals, cartoon characters or songs to feelings. When your child is struggling to explain their emotions to you, pointing to a colour or cartoon character can be easier. Your child will then feel understood and you will know which emotion to tend to, thus, your child feels safe and supported.
Thirdly, it’s crucial for children to have a strategy to calm their mind and body. When we are anxious or fearful, we need to activate the relaxation response (Parasympathetic System) which can only be accessed by our breath. Balloon Breath is a good option for children. Guide your child to breathe in through their nose for 4 seconds, filling up their belly like a balloon of their favourite colour and exhale through their mouth for 4 seconds. If your child needs a point of focus, you can have your child lay on their back with a toy on their belly to watch as it does up and down.
Anxiety can be a very scary experience for children if they do not have a safe and understanding parent/caregiver to turn to. Providing children with a predictable and safe environment and teaching them tools to help with big emotions will begin creating a sense of resilience and confidence that will reduce anxiety.
Jessica McIveen- Social Worker and Children’s Yoga & Meditation teacher at Kids Yoga Therapy.
Find out more about Jess at:
ph: 0403 270 367
*NDIS Registered Service Provider