One of my children goes quiet when she’s anxious. Another talks incessantly and blows up when he gets overwhelmed. The third just works harder and harder trying to control whatever is frustrating her. These are three classic responses to stress, and none of them are particularly successful ways to tame anxiety.
In these times, when children are hearing about the ongoing war in Ukraine, negotiating still shifting pandemic practices, and heading into the last month or so of school, anxiety can run high. Their brains and bodies feel overwhelmed by their inability to understand or control the world around them. Social adversity and trauma can feel personal, like it has taken up residence in their bodies and is refusing to leave.
Sometimes we think that ignoring or distracting our children from anxiety-producing events might be the best way to protect them. But education and neuroscience professor Lori Desautels says that not addressing the underlying issues of a child’s stress actually creates more anxiety. They need reassurance that their feelings are normal and knowledge about why their bodies are reacting as they are.
Anxiety creates predictable sensations: a faster beating heart, tension in the neck and shoulders, a queasy stomach, tears. All of these reactions are signs that a child’s nervous system is sending out distress signals. The body wants the mind to know that something isn’t right. Without such signals, children might not realize that they need to make changes to help them cope.
Children also need to know that emotions can be contagious. They may sense that the adults around them are stressed and mirror that anxiety in their own bodies. They may also act out their emotional turmoil and see it reflected in others’ responses, which ratchets up their anxiety even more. Recognizing this spiraling effect can help them learn to pause and assess what’s contributing to their anxiety level.
Knowing what’s happening, however, only goes so far in taming anxiety. Children also need parents and caregivers to share honestly about their own stressful experiences and how they manage their emotions. These conversations should ideally begin during times when children are feeling relatively calm. However, even when children are in the throes of an overwhelming experience, providing non-judgmental comments about how their bodies are handling stress can help diffuse anxiety’s power over them.
Another way to help is to teach children practices they can use when they feel stressed. Having one or more familiar spiritual tools that promote emotional regulation gives children the power to control their own responses even when they can’t control what’s happening around them. You might:
- Show them how to take deep breaths to calm themselves.
- Model the use of rhythmic movements, such as raising their arms slowly above their heads and then sweeping them down in a big circle.
- Offer them art supplies for drawing their emotions in colorful bursts of abstract art.
Stress is a fact of life, but children don’t have to remain at the mercy of negative emotions. With a little conversation and guidance, they can learn to tame anxiety whenever it rears its ugly head.