What is Anxiety? Anxiety is the emotion produced by worried thoughts and threatening situations. From an evolutionary perspective, it used to help us navigate and escape life threatening situations: Being faced a with sabre-toothed tiger, our Amgdala (the emotion processing part of our brain) would send an alarm that started a chain reaction. Adrenaline would be released to communicate with our nervous system and increase our heart rate, helping blood to reach our muscles faster, and re-routing our body’s resources to our muscles. The aim is to help prime our muscles to run away or turn and fight
Except, there are no sabre-toothed tigers in today’s world. For young people, this same reaction is more commonly triggered by worried thoughts associated with other situations that feel threatening: Performance, Social judgment, uncertainty and change.
We are all different in how our Neuropsychology reacts to situations: some of us are more reactive. Research shows that young people who are neurodivergent - with ADHD or ASD for example - have a more easily triggered HPA axis (for a good 2 minute video explanation of the HPA axis see here ) This can mean that our bodies respond more frequently, or more easily, to stressful situations.
So how do you help your child manage Anxiety?
If your child is over 10, aim to get a really good understanding of the situations and triggers for your child’s anxiety. Why are these situations stressful? Often worries come from our interpretation of situations: What does a performance situation mean for your child? How do they feel about failure? What could be the worst thing that could happen in a social situation? Understanding the thoughts that mean a situation can be stressful is a great way to helping your child understand why they feel they way that they do, and start to think of more helpful ways of looking at situations. For a great self-help book around this see here
If your child is under 10, look for how they respond to anxiety. Often our response to stressful situations is to aim to avoid them - whether that’s talking to someone in the playground, or speaking to the bank manager - avoidance gives a short term reprieve from the adrenaline and tension that anxiety creates in our bodies. It’s our flight response. The challenge is that we generally avoid the situation, because we are driven by a fear of something bad happening (that’s the anxiety talking) and avoiding a situation doesn’t give our brain the opportunity to learn that the expectation is often far more catastrophic than the reality. Help your child to face stressful situations by validating their feelings and supporting them to face their fears, rather than unwittingly helping them to escape the situation because of the stress that it causes. Good stress, or eustress (temporary, caused by new learning) is actually great for your child’s brain development, and it’s an important part of developing resilience.
Whatever the age of your child, check in with your own responses to their anxiety. As parents we are often under a lot of societal pressure to get everything perfect and this can mean that we feel compelled to protect our children from
stress and distress. If you notice yourself inadvertently helping your child escape the stress, OR avoiding putting them in situations that could cause stress, check in with your own motivations for this. Sometimes we need to make sure that we can cope with the anxious feeling in ourselves that seeing our children in new and stressful situations brings. When we can regulate our own distress, we give our children a great example of managing stress.