As a parent, I have seen anxiety in my kids in different stages of their lives. My older child, while in the process of switching schools, started to bite his nails and continues to this day. My younger one, less emotionally expressive, bakes up a storm to calm herself down. Both have refused to learn relaxation techniques. They decided to find their own way to deal with it.
There were times when I wasn’t sure they were managing it well. As they vehemently disagreed, I continued to keep an eye on them from a safe distance. It was nerve-wracking, but I learned to accept the fact that I cannot save my kids from emotional pain. Emotional pain will be part of their lives, the way it is for all human beings.
As a therapist, I know how pervasive anxiety disorders are in kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1 in 20 U.S. children and teens experience anxiety or depression. Are our children more anxious today than in the past? There are people in continuous debate over this issue.
When anxiety can help
My message as a parent and a therapist is this: Do not fear anxiety in your children or in yourself. Do not be afraid to enter the inner cave where anxiety resides. Anxiety is a normal state of being for all of us. Anxiety is a great motivator.
For example, fear tells us that we should react to COVID-19 as a threat to our health. Anxiety joins fear by increasing our vigilance (worry) over the possibility of getting sick. These internal allies are correct to inform us of these facts so that we can protect ourselves.
But when we face multiple sources of threat or when the concept of “threat” is ambiguous and uncertain, over time, our inner system gets spooked and emotions take over. Anxiety is one of them.
Think of your brain as a ship. If the captain, the rational part of our brain, is in a state of overwhelm, then someone else has to take charge to set the course and steer. Anxiety is one of those responders. Like fear, it resides in the emotional part of the brain. It will keep trying to help us, sometimes disproportionally, as long as the part of our brain that should be in charge allows it. Anxiety will not know when to stop helping. We need to tell it when enough is enough.
Keeping anxiety in check
You literally need to tell anxiety to chill. Visualize it as a resident of your inner “home” that needs to follow your house rules. You will be surprised, but your anxiety will do it. Why? Because you said so.
Sometimes anxiety freaks out and thinks it is in charge of the entire house – just like our kids do if we leave them unsupervised. All we have to do to restore balance is to state firmly who is in charge. And we can teach our kids to do the same thing and talk with the anxiety within them.
What to do?
When our kids are anxious, we don’t need to be scared — we just need to take charge first of our own anxiety. How do we do that?
- Take care of your own anxiety with simple techniques such as body awareness. To do that start bringing awareness to your feet and sense them touching the floor. If that doesn’t work, run your hands over different kinds of textured surfaces (smooth, rough, furry). Sometimes, just telling yourself to become aware will help you find yourself more grounded. The internet is filled with a myriad of exercises you can do to lower your anxiety. My advice is to find the easiest technique you can use and practice it even when you are not anxious. By repeating it, the brain gets used to it and will achieve that state faster when you are actually anxious.
- Take time for stress management: relaxation, adequate sleep and rest, exercise, proper nutrition, social contact and FUN.
- Create a support network of family and friends to delegate child care when necessary.
- Continue to educate yourself about anxiety and decide what steps work best for you.
- Avoid the temptation to be a perfectionist, to control and worry about each detail. Don’t try so hard.
- Don’t over-plan or over-organize.
- Reduce commitments.
- Reduce expectations of yourself and others.
- Seek advice from reliable sources.
And most importantly:
- Take the message anxiety is informing you about, but don’t let it run the show.
- Visualize anxiety as just one member of your inner family. It has a voice, but is not the only voice. Listen to the other voices and…
- Tell anxiety to chill. You are the parent. Not it.
- Be gentle, patient and compassionate with yourself.
So, be mindfully present to your life’s stressors and empower yourself to converse confidently with anxiety in yourself and in your children. That will keep anxious responses within tolerable limits.
Raduca Kaplan works as a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Studio City, and is the founder of the nonprofit organization Afterschool Village.