These days it’s almost impossible to separate anxiety from existence. We live fast, busy lives and so do our children. Gone are the days where young kids can freely ride their bikes around the neighbourhood unsupervised. Crime and traffic related incidents are now so ubiquitous that living in worry has almost become a way of life. We’re all under more stress than ever, and lack the freedom to engage in the very activities that could counteract that stress.
So what is anxiety, how does it differ from fear, and what can we do to help our kids with this overwhelming experience?
Fear is the adaptive response to a threat. This reaction keeps us alive by triggering the “fight or flight (also freeze, fidget, and faint)” response and primes the body to escape from danger. Anxiety activates the same physiological and psychological response, but to a threat that is not present. The mere thought of a snake, financial struggles, or germs can trigger an anxious response. Our children also feel anxious in response to the absence of play with friends, a difficult maths problem, or even to the lack of control. This response causes physical sensations such as a pounding heart, increased respiration, dry mouth, cold hands, difficulty thinking, hot face, stomach pain, among other symptoms. It can be scary in itself to experience these sensations, which can in turn create more anxiety.
It’s important to help develop our kids’ emotional awareness in order for them to make sense of what they are feeling, which gives them a sense of control, ultimately lowering the anxiety.
Dr. Daniel Siegel offers a 4-step strategy called SIFT to help develop what he refers to as “mind sight”. You can play this game with your children (and even practice it yourself as a mindfulness exercise.) Ask your child to close their eyes and identify the following:
SENSATIONS: what sensations do they feel in their bodies? Are their muscles tight, are their feet itchy? Can they feel where their bottom is touching the chair, or the clothes on their skin? The focus should not be on changing these sensations, only bringing an awareness to the current physical state.
IMAGES: with eyes closed, what pictures can they see in their mind’s eye? Do they recall their most recent dream, or a character from a cartoon? An image from a book?
FEELINGS: what emotions are being experienced? Young children can use basic labels like happy and sad, but this is also an opportunity to introduce labels for more specific feelings such as excitement, frustration, irritation, joy, disappointment and so on. A rich emotional awareness aids in better communication.
THOUGHTS: are any thoughts persisting lately? Have they been wondering about anything in particular? Expressing a thought can often help to prevent unwanted rumination, as well as create an environment for open conversation.
Chronic stress and anxiety are all too common in our fast-paced, over-worked, overwhelmed society. There are so many pressures coming at us from all sides that it’s difficult to take a step back and remove oneself from the constant state of alarm. If a friend, family member, or colleague suggests that you “should take time to relax” it’s common to feel quite a strong sense of resistance. “How can I relax when there’s no time, and there’s so much to worry about?” Unfortunately, not taking a moment to reset one’s stress levels has some dire and permanent consequences physically, emotionally and psychologically. Our relationships and work performance ultimately suffer. The good news is that there is a really quick and easy way to reduce stress in just a few minutes a day.
When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. This is the system that is responsible for our 5F response (fight, flight, freeze, fidget and faint). In order to counteract this response, we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also known as the rest & digest system. Each time you inhale, your SNS is activated, and each time you exhale, your PNS is activated. So, breathe in for five seconds, then slowly breathe out for 10 seconds. And repeat. The long exhalations “trick” your nervous system into a non-stressed state. Even if you can manage only a few minutes a day, this exercise will help to reset the alarm bells and provide a few minutes away from the chaos in which we are currently existing.
More details in this video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=267244374307553
We often tend to see our children’s behaviour as good and bad. The good behaviour should be encouraged and the bad punished, right? Well, if only it were that simple! ALL behaviour (even our own) is merely an expression of thoughts, feelings, decisions, and beliefs that lie beneath the surface. It’s helpful to think of an iceberg; we can try to suppress the behaviour that we see on the surface, but then we’re not acknowledging the underlying causes of the behaviour.
You may find that your child/children are misbehaving more frequently or intensely than usual these days. It’s likely that feelings of worry, uncertainty, and even anger are bubbling below the surface, giving rise to this surge of unpleasant behaviour.
I would encourage you to try to look past the tantrums, the back-talk, the whining, screaming, or crying, and try to identify the emotion behind it. If we can show empathy and understanding by validating those feelings before jumping to discipline, we open the door to connection. This will help children feel better. And when they feel better, they inevitably behave better.
In this video we take a deeper look at what underlies the iceberg of behaviour: