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  • Writer's pictureAnika

How to help your anxious or worried child

I’ve recently been learning more about the brain – particularly how a child’s brain works and develops. We have what has been called an ‘upstairs’ and a ‘downstairs’ brain and these develop over time into early adulthood. The ‘upstairs’ brain is the rational brain that is responsible for helping us make sensible choices and function in a well-adjusted way throughout life. The ‘downstairs’ brain is the ‘primitive’ brain that is there to ensure our survival. This brain takes over when we are in fight or flight mode, or, as I have learnt recently, when we are under prolonged times of stress. The downstairs brain is also the brain in charge when our children are overwhelmed by big feelings or tantrums – and will be in charge more often during childhood, as the ‘upstairs’ brain is under construction for much longer. A great book on this topic is The Whole-Brain Child by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson, if you want to read more.

One thing that I didn’t realise and that has stuck with me, is how we all have what one of authors lovingly called a ‘stress bucket’ that we put in all our negative thoughts and feelings throughout the day. When this stress bucket overflows that then triggers our fight and flight response – even in day-to-day situations that don’t warrant this response. The best way to empty this stress bucket is through good quality REM sleep – although this takes time, as each night’s sleep will only really allow for 20% of the bucket to be emptied…. The three main fight-or-flight responses show up as

  1. Anger – which would have kept us safe in cave times as the increase in adrenalin would have helped ward off predators,

  2. Depression – which would have kept us at the back of the cave, away from harm, not wanting/ needing any food, instead shutting down until the danger has passed, or

  3. Anxiety – that makes us hypervigilant and see the extreme negative outcome in any scenario to help us plan for any eventuality and survive.

So, I have found all this fascinating because in our family, I realized that one of my children was having a hard time and would often see the negative in things. Even seemingly tiny little incidences would trigger a strong reaction – whether this was anger, sadness/ withdrawal or anxiety. My child was also not sleeping well, so I started to wonder whether, for whatever reason their ‘stress bucket’ was full and they were having difficulty emptying it on a regular basis to find their way back to their equilibrium and happy place.

Other than good sleep, how do we help ourselves and our children empty their ‘stress buckets’? One really simple thing that can really make a difference is to help our brains reframe situations to see more of the positive. Although this won’t necessarily empty the stress bucket, it will mean that more negative feelings and thoughts aren’t added to it throughout the day to make it overflow – giving the brain a chance to empty the bucket over time.

I am not talking about totally denying any negative feelings – as these are important of course! It is also not about denying any genuine stress that may be going on in our or our children’s lives – whether that is work or school, moving or friendship issues. These are all valid things. It is more about helping ourselves to see the positive in something that normally wouldn’t really bother us and rephrase this incident again into something that we can accept and ‘let go’ rather than harbour negative feelings around. Just for a little while to help our brains find their equilibrium again.

Another author I’ve been reading talks about ‘building positive bridges’. And we have started doing this in our family. Whenever something annoying happens we stop and take a look at it from first the negative and then we try and find to build a bridge into something positive that we could take from it, to help reframe a negative situation.

One example was the other day when we were having an ice cream at home and one of my children dropped the flake that was in it on the floor. They acknowledged how annoying and frustrating it was to drop the flake on the floor, but then added ‘Oh well, luckily it happened at home and the floor is clean, so I can still eat it’. (Well – sort of – we were at home, so the dropped flake could be replaced by a new one rather than eat the one from the floor – but you get the idea!) :-)

I love this concept, and it has really helped me be more conscious about what I let myself be swept up in, in the day to day as well.

The other thing that we’ve adapted temporarily is our ‘best thing/ worst thing’ question at dinner. We normally sit and ask each person around the table what was good and not so good about their day, to gauge what has been going on for them. We’ve now moved that to ‘give me 5 things that were good about your day’. The children take great pleasure in sharing all that was fantastic about their day – and when they want to add things that weren’t so good, they do this too, but try to reframe it to see the positive in the situation, or the lesson they might have learnt. Moving away from ‘what was your worst’ thing to trying to figure out what they might have learnt from a situation really seems to help us all take a more measured view on things while at the same time still acknowledging a tricky situation they may have had to deal with during their day.

Again, this is not about sweeping any negative feelings or situations under the table – far from it. It is about reframing those situations that can be reframed into more something more positive, to help the already overflowing stress bucket and allow it to empty itself and the child to find it’s way back to their inner sense of equilibrium and perspective.

Alongside the positive reframing for the smaller, day to day things, I still will actively listen to their troubles, acknowledging that they are never alone in any of this, and that we will find a way to solve whatever it is that they are struggling with together. As always, it’s about that balance, isn’t it!

What are your thoughts on this? Does this resonate for you?

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