Young children and anxiety or worry
By Joanna Fortune
We have to distinguish between anxiety and worry. All young children will experience worry, or the uh-oh feelings, as I like to call them. When young children are in a situation that is unfamiliar, they do not know what to expect, they cannot predict with certainty what might happen and perhaps Mam and Dad are not around (if I am at school, a party, a play-date, starting at crèche etc) my body and brain fire up to recognise this as being dangerous and my worry alarm is set off. When my worry alarm goes off, I get a sudden energy boost that is going to send me into either fight (stay around and work through it, or perhaps stay and act out behaviourally) or flight (run away and hide) mode.
You see when our internal worry alarm goes off it’s like our brains flip our lids. This means that my cortex area (the more logical and rational part of my brain) is off line and I sink down into the back of my brain where it is very hard to think or act in a rational way. Our feelings need for protection and general survival instincts are all located in this more primitive part of my brain. But worry is a good (albeit unpleasant) experience. Worry is a form of protection and a little bit of worry can keep them safe by stopping young children from taking dangerous chances or touching things they shouldn’t.
Some children start to worry even when there is no sign of danger or anything unfamiliar to trigger their worry alarm system. It’s as though they have false alarms in that area. For children like this even a thought or an idea can be enough to trigger their alarm and send them into fight or flight mode. This is called anxiety and it is different to worry because there isn’t always a reason for the child to feel like they do and so they will begin to see danger in situations where it doesn’t belong. Anxiety can run in families, it can be cause by stressful life events and sometimes a blip in our brain chemistry can cause it. Anxiety keeps a child in a state of what is called anticipatory arousal and this means that they are on high alert all of the time. They are always watching for signs that they are right to feel the way they do. Being in this heightened state makes it hard for them to concentrate in school, to keep their friendships, to take in what you say to them (so you probably feel like you are saying are you listening to me? A lot)
When you see your child’s worry alarm go off it is great if you can step in as quickly as possible. Respond to the feeling rather than the behaviour you are seeing.
Have them sit alongside you and look out of the window. Together name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can touch and 1 thing you could taste if you were outside. This can be enough to reset the brain
Sit facing them and gently take their hands in yours. Holding eye contact, simply take slow in/out breathes and ask them to do as you do, at your pace. This helps their nervous system move from fight/flight mode back to rest mode.
Have them draw or write about the worry. What is the worst part of it and what would need to change to make it better? Have them draw/write this new scenario and focus on this. Tasks like this help to reengage the more logical and rational part of the brain.
Re-direct them to a play activity with you. Play with them. Young children rarely say “I have something I would like to talk about” but they do ask, “Will you play with me” and in their language that is the same thing. They are asking if you will help them to process something.
Joanna Fortune is a Clinical Psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent Psychotherapy, with over 12 years experience working with children and families. She regularly writes in national media on parenting and family issues.