Upper Valley Project Launch, a program of the Dartmouth Trauma Interventions Research Center, recently held a webinar to help families address anxiety in children. “When Worry Shows Up, How Parents and Caregivers Can Help Children during Uncertain Times” featured Lynn Lyons, LICSW, an internationally recognized psychotherapist, author and speaker.
What is anxiety?
Worry and anxiety are different. Worry is imagining things that can go wrong, while repetitive negative thinking—or ruminating—is continued thinking about past events or actions. Both of these are mistaken for problem solving.
Anxiety is a physical response to danger that sets off the “fight or flight” system. The brain doesn’t know the difference between a real or imagined danger (worry), and the physical response is the same: it increases the heart rate, speeds breathing, dilates the pupils, shuts down the digestive system (causing upset stomachs) and makes toes and fingers numb.
“Anxiety is predictable, redundant and persistent. It’s persistent in its desire for these two things: certainty and comfort,” Lyons said. “I refer to it as a cult leader. It shows up and says, ‘I’m in charge and as long as we know exactly what’s going to happen, then we’ll be good.’ But the problem with that approach is it’s impossible to pull off.”
Everyone experiences worry and anxiety in life because it’s unpredictable. Events that cause anxiety in children can’t be eliminated, so they must learn skills to manage uncertainty. Rather than making accommodations for anxiety disorders—which actually strengthen anxiety because children can’t eliminate those feelings—Lyons recommends early, preventative skill building plans to manage anxiety. This helps prevent depression in adolescence and adulthood.
Teaching children how to handle anxiety
Lyons outlined the following strategies for parents to teach and model:
- Flexibility. Talk to kids honestly about not knowing exactly what will happen in a situation or life. Regularly describe small, unexpected things that happen, like a last minute change of plans, and ask about their similar experiences and how they handled them.
- Global language. Help children avoid thinking and talking broadly with words like, “always, nothing, never and nobody.” Choose a name for their worry, like “Bob,” and help them talk to it, telling the worry he or she isn’t in charge and your child is learning new things.
- Catastrophic language. Anxious parents who worry about disastrous outcomes often have children who see the world as a dangerous place. Help children learn to assess reasonable risk: what is real and what is perceived. “Catastrophic thinking gets in the way of problem solving. It makes your world smaller,” Lyons explained.
- Positive expectancy. The belief that things can change provides hope. “Anxiety’s slogan is, ‘I can’t handle it’ and depression’s is, ‘Why bother?’” Lyons said. Focus on how everything changes (like seasons and interests).
- External and social connections. Anxiety is internal, so while kids work on feelings they should also learn to help others and make peer connections. This includes learning emotional literacy so they can have difficult conversations.
- Be joyful. Anxiety and depression are contagious, but so is joy. Laughing and being silly and playful with your kids makes them see joy is possible.
- Movement may help. While it’s common to try calming kids who are experiencing anxiety, some need to move (thanks to fight or flight). Teach them healthy movements for when they feel anxious.