Reducing Anxiety in Children

Reducing (1)

guest post by Jane Evans

Babies are all about survival

Babies are not born with fully developed brains or their heads would be too big to travel down the birthing channel. They arrive in this world wired for survival yet, at the same time, unable to physically ensure their survival as they can’t move away from danger and towards safety. Babies are totally dependent upon the adults in their lives to read their signs of fearfulness, distress and discomfort both physical and emotional. Different cries, startle responses, watchfulness, engaged, joyful, overwhelmed, just about to have a ‘melt down’ are states attuned adult carers become familiar with!

Children and babies can’t reflect

As babies and young children mostly only have access to their survival system, via their lower brain, primitive brain, they will often quickly become anxious. A big dog barking, a stranger coming in to a room, going to the doctor’s, a change in routine, not being able to have what they want, being over-tired, or over-stimulated, being ‘told off’, being sent away or ignored for unwanted behaviours, being physically harmed in any way, such as spanking. Their brains will flick immediately in to fight, flight or freeze, they don’t have enough of the upper more sophisticated part of their brain to be able to reason things out, ‘oh the dog is shut in next door so can’t hurt me’, ‘I didn’t listen to what I was told to do’, ‘I must remember pushing is not OK’. These are capabilities which come online as their upper most brain area develops and, FYI, that finishes around the late 20’s to early 30’s!!

Emotional availability is vital to learning

To reduce anxiety they need to be regulated, and soothed by an emotionally available adult who responds calmly. When this happens, the baby or child’s survival system starts to settle down again and their anxiety reduces. Next they need their emotions attended too so they can help to recognise what lay behind their behaviour for future learning and feel more comfortable and understood (we all like that when we have made a mistake!), finally the intellectual learning can be addressed but that may be sometime later on as calmness in small children can take a while. We all learn better once we feel less anxious! If you have just seen your phone smash to the floor and the screen shatter and I start saying, ‘well Paige, you know what you did wrong don’t you? How many times have I said carrying too many things at once will end in you dropping your phone? What have you learned from this?’ I am unlikely to reduce your anxiety or help you to feel better and you won’t be focused on learning at that point either!

Take action to reduce anxiety NOW!

If we are present in the life of a child we are shaping their anxiety responses for life. If we leave them feeling overwhelmed with too many unprocessed feelings, make them feel ashamed, dis-connect from them at a time of great emotional need we increase their nervous systems experiences of fear and threat without relief. Fast forward to when they are 10 years old and full of ability and should easily make the A Team for basketball, soccer, netball….but they refuse point blank to try out for it, they would prefer to stay playing at a lower level as it is less anxiety inducing, the same goes in their studies and transmits on in to adult life. No one wants their child to live a ‘half-life’ because they get so anxious about any change or aspirational advance it’s safer to stay as they are. Or, they power on through and achieve ‘success’ but the cost to their mental and physical health is a high one as they rely upon alcohol, ‘soft drugs’, under or over eat, are workaholics, addicted to shopping….it’s a long list of ‘secret self-medication’ for anxiety which is rife in daily life of most of us.

Anxiety is VERY common in children these days and it’s making them sick and means they get diagnosed with things they don’t have and medicated for them. The long-term effects of this will surely be catastrophic for them and for us as they are truly our future. Change starts from the moment of conception:

  • Pay attention to ongoing stress levels in pregnancy – to reduce anxiety to the forming brain
  • Freely attend to a baby’s emotional needs – they are cries for ‘help’ and attention reduces anxiety
  • Keep children close and offer compassion if they make a mistake – calmness (yours first!), emotional connection and curiosity, compassionate learning
  • Repeat the above – calmness, emotional connection, compassionate learning for life (am still doing it with my 25 year old!!)

Jane Evans
Anxiety Integration & Parenting Coach
TEDx (on Childhood Anxiety) and International Speaker

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Jane Evans is an author, speaker, educator, and anxiety awareness and integrations coach who helps people reduce anxiety in their relationship with themselves, their children, and in their work life. She combines her experience working with families and individuals with ground-breaking research from world experts, and is dedicated to do her very best for her clients, as a coach, speaker, trainer and as a media expert on the effects of childhood anxiety in daily life, and on parenting.

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