One in four kids is estimated to have anxiety, which has risen steadily since COVID-19. Its symptoms can be baffling from no longer wanting to…
One in four kids is estimated to have anxiety, which has risen steadily since COVID-19. Its symptoms can be baffling from no longer wanting to participate in previously enjoyed activities to a loss of appetite. It would be too simple to blame it on the pandemic as the rates of anxiety were climbing in kids even before this. The challenge is that sometimes anxiety is part of healthy development but more often than not it is a sign of distress and interferes with sleep, schoolwork, and relationships. The question is, what can we do when our kids are full of anxiety? What is our role in bringing them to rest so they can learn, play, and be happy again?
Anxiety is not a malevolent force as it is made out to be. It is part of the brain's sophisticated alarm system that is activated when things are changing. Yes, that’s right. It’s not just about danger and unsafety. Consider when you became a parent, went on vacation, or started a new job – the alarm was there to guide you safely. Alarm is a hardwired, subcortical emotion in the brain that is there to serve our survival and growth. The problem is when it gets too loud or stuck, we will have problems with everyday functioning and sometimes experience unrelenting distress.
What we can’t lose sight of is that emotions are not problems but are trying to solve them. There are three common reasons for heightened alarm in kids today: healthy growth and development, dominance problems, and peer orientation.Healthy development – There are key periods in life when the brain and body undergo physical and psychological changes, including preschool, teenage years, parenthood, mid-life, and elder years. At each phase of development, the changes bring corresponding shifts in our identity. These changes are significant and can involve having more expectations placed on us, more freedom, increased awareness, and separation from people and things we are attached to.
The more solid they grow as a separate self, the better they can weather the separations that are part of life – like going to school or bedtime.
The tribalizing of our children has only escalated since covid, taking a dark turn towards more frustration and aggression being directed at their peers. The classroom or playground once seen as a safe haven is now fraught with relational wounding. Peer-oriented kids no longer turn to their adults for guidance, comfort, and belonging, and are full of anxiety as their existence is precarious and they are subject to peer wounding.
When the emotional system is in overdrive and the brain is alarmed, making it hard to learn and to grow. Healthy development is built upon vulnerable feelings. When more tender feelings go missing it is often a sign of distress. Kids need to be at rest to grow and caring relationships with adults are key to this. Our kids were never meant to make themselves feel safe or to go it alone. They need to anchor into us so we can provide the rest they need so they can realize their full human potential.
The way we find our way through is to make sense of where the alarm stems from. When we understand the roots we can make headway with developmental strategies that preserve relationship and their growth.
You can’t make headway with problems you don’t understand. Insight rather than quick fixes is needed.
Parents and other caring adults are the answer when they strengthen their relationship with a child or teen, make room for tears, cultivate courage, take the lead on the alarm, and introduce emotional playgrounds to discharge heightened emotion. Traditional approaches to treating anxiety can sideline adults in the child’s life instead of supporting them to play a key role in their child’s emotional well-being. The rates of increasing anxiety and distress in our kids requires us to listen to what is being said and to realize that we are the answer our kids need.Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a clinical counsellor with over 25 years of experience helping families. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), Nourished: Connection, food, and caring for our kids (and everyone else we love), and the children's picture book, The Sorry Plane.
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