When Anxiety Comes Out Sideways

Anxiety isn’t always easy to recognize.

Oftentimes, when dealing with kids, teens and even some adults, anxiety doesn’t present itself as them saying “I feel worried” but, instead, as behaviors.  These behaviors may include yelling, hitting, crying, kicking, and shoving. They may refuse to do what they have been asked, attempt to control the situation, or ask questions. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping and isolating themselves. When working with an anxious child, it is important to see these behaviors as what they are: a form of communication.  Something has happened that has made your child’s brain feel threatened or unsafe and now the amygdala has taken over.  The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for keeping us safe.  It is constantly looking for threats and once it perceives a threat might happen, it activates the flight, fight or freeze response.  

Once the amygdala is in its response mode, it is difficult for the child to regulate their emotions.

Sometimes the amygdala overreacts or perceives something as threatening when it isn’t.  The amygdala can be triggered by a smell, sound, sight, thought, memory or things kids have seen or imagined.  You and your child may not know what the trigger was but the amygdala knows and it is reacting.  

Ideally, kids will learn when their amygdala is starting to take over and use coping strategies to calm it down before the freeze, fight or flight response takes over. Here is where you can help. Parents may feel at a loss when their child is in the middle of this response (often seen as tantrums or meltdowns).  Telling your child to calm down or even prompting them to use one of their coping strategies is often ineffective and can even escalate the situation.  So what can you do?

Here are a few simple steps to follow:

1).  Remain calm.  You and your child’s brains are equipped with mirror neurons.  These neurons allow you to imitate or, in this case feel, what others are doing (feeling).  Your brain is probably going to start to feel anxious, because that is what your child is feeling, but, if you can remain calm, your child’s brain will start to mirror your calm.  If you can’t remain calm and your child is in a safe place, it is okay to step away for a minute and calm your brain back down.

2).  Get eye level with your child or even slightly below eye level.  When you are standing over your child, the brain interprets this as a threat.  Crouch down so you are at their level or even slightly below.  

3).  Use reflective listening.  This is the process of just repeating back to them what they are saying to you.  For example, if your child is screaming “I don’t want to do my homework”, you repeat back “you don’t want to do your homework”.  This is validating their feelings.  It doesn’t mean you agree with them, it just means that you see and hear them.  

Once your child has calmed down, it is important for them to take a few deep breaths. 

These deep breaths help the frontal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for thinking, learning, problem solving, decision making and emotional regulation) get back “online”.  At some point, you will want to follow up with your child to see if you can help them to identify what triggered the amygdala, but right now is probably not the time.  Your child’s brain may still not be quite ready to process that information and to learn from it.  Try finding a time when your child feels safe and secure to have that conversation. Remember, when your child is feeling anxious and their amygdala is activated, their behavior is not a reflection of you, them or your parenting.  It is simply registering a threat and a child who needs to feel safe.

If you notice your child is experiencing these types of situations more frequently or over the course of several months, if their anxiety is keeping them from doing things they want to do (and are safe) or they are often getting in trouble at school, it may be time to seek additional support.  You can contact us at Champaign Counseling to schedule an appointment.  


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