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.