Anxiety in children can be triggered at a moment’s notice, by things totally beyond your control. Perhaps your son or daughter got into an argument with a friend and now they’re too fearful to go to school. Perhaps someone teases them on the bus and now they refuse to ride it to school. Anxiety in children is extremely common; in fact, some studies estimate that 93% of school age children will experience anxiety at some point during childhood. Some parents don’t want to confront their child’s anxiety because they are afraid that it’s a reflection on their parenting skills, or that they will make the problem worse. Rest assured, anxiety is rarely caused by parental skills (or lack thereof) and making changes to help your child can often greatly improve the problem.
Anxiety needs to be dealt with swiftly because it can creep up and cause serious damage to your child’s life. Studies show that children who experience regular panic attacks are more likely to exhibit poor school performance, have fewer friends, and have trouble developing the necessary social skills they need to make it through adult life. So by confronting the issue head on, you can give your child the skills they needs to succeed – not only at school, but for the rest of their life.
Learning how to manage stress and combat anxiety effectively are both crucial life skills that can and should be learned by everyone in the family. In fact, by making it a family affair, you can remove some of the “elephant in the room” feelings about the issue. But before you begin implementing a strategy for dealing with your child’s fear and anxiety, you have to understand how anxiety affects your child both in mind and in body.
The Role of the Amygdala in Your Child’s Anxiety & Panic Attacks
It can be difficult for a parent to cope with seeing their children suffering with anxiety or panic attacks. Understanding what causes the attacks, why they happen, and what your child is going through may help you to be able to support them better and to understand that it may not be something that they can fully control without treatment.
There are a wide range of symptoms and feelings associated with child anxiety and panic attacks, and although there may be other factors affecting it as well, many symptoms can be traced back the amygdala-it is frequently here that all anxiety and panic disorders begin. This is a complicated structure in the brain that is found in the temporal lobe, at the bottom of the brain and understanding what it does can help make sense of the panic attacks that seem so mysterious.
The amygdala is actually part of a pair, one each side of the brain, and is part of a more complex system in the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system is a collection of several parts of the brain, and includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, the thalmic nuclei, and limbic cortex. This system functions by influencing both the endocrine (hormone) system and the autonomic (that which cannot be controlled) nervous system. Overall it has a profound effect on your childs anxiety, emotion and behavior, their long term memory and sense of smell.
The function of the amygdala is complex, but primarily it is involved in the processing of emotional events and the formation or storing of memory associated with those events. It also has a role in emotional learning-that is, when a person is exposed to the same event multiple times, the other things that are associated with the event can end up triggering the same reaction when experienced alone.
This is what happens in fear conditioning. A person experiences fear at the same time as an innocent, companion event repeatedly. They try to protect themselves from what causes the fear and the amygdala is responsible for coordinating the protection response. Future exposures to the companion event on its own can cause the protective response because the amygdala so strongly associates the two that it automatically starts the response.
It is important to remember that the amygdala takes its input from many regions and senses-basically from all sensory input from the outside, such as the things that we see, hear, touch and feel-including pain, as well as our hormones. It also takes input from our sense of smell-and since the limbic system is closely linked with the sense of smell it makes sense that certain smells can trigger memories and can also trigger panic and anxiety in children.
The output from the amygdala is equally diverse, outputting to many different systems including the endocrine (hormone) system, the sympathetic nervous system, even causing the release of certain chemicals in the brain (neuromodulators) that affect and enhance the way that memories are processed. This means that when a memory is stored that involves a particularly strong emotional aspect, it is stored with added significance-the brain views is as being bigger, or more dangerous than it necessarily was.
Another output from the amygdala calls on another area of the brain-the hippocampus to kick start the sympathetic nervous system which in turn causes a stress reaction in the body such as what is experienced in children with anxiety. This reaction is known as the fight or flight reaction, and is a caused by a combination of changes, including hormone release, increased blood sugars, increased heart and respiration rates and changes in brain chemicals. The reaction in the body, includes increased heart and respiration rate, sweating and a number of other symptoms which may be uncomfortable. At a future time, even remembering the emotion can trigger the same physical child anxiety reaction, despite there being no danger.
There are times when the amygdala may malfunction. It may be that it is activated-set to a higher level of anxiety so often that it forgets how to switch itself back off and go back to a normal level. This may happen because of ongoing exposure to stress at home, or school, because of bullying or a feeling of needing to succeed so as not to disappoint, as well as many other reasons. It is also possible that for some people, children included, the amygdala simply gets it wrong for no reason, and becomes hyperactive.
When it does happen, the result is abnormal fear, anxiety or feelings of panic because of the way that the amygdala triggers the stress response. These feelings build, causing physical reactions too that may scare the child, and so cause further feelings of fear. This becomes an inappropriate negative feedback loop, with the anxiety causing scary sensations that then cause further fear, which reinforce and make worse the physical feelings, until they escalate so much that the child cannot control them. This is a panic attack and can be a terrifying experience for anyone, but especially a child.
Children with ongoing but less severe anxiety have equally little control, and ordinary or situational anxiety in children will affect your child in similar ways, but will be of shorter duration. It is possible to help the amygdala to reset itself, and return to a normal baseline instead of being at a heightened baseline. There are several ways to accomplish this including drug therapies and effective self-help programs.
The Physical and Emotional Symptoms of Stress
Think about the last time you experienced an intense feeling of fear. Maybe you had a close call while driving on the highway – how did you react? Chances are your heartbeat increased, your breathing became shallow and rapid, and your palms began sweating. You may have felt that you were losing control or that you were going to die. This was the fight or flight response triggered in your body by the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Of course, as adults, we typically recognize the fear response for what it is.
But kids are often unable to completely understand this feeling, and the physical and emotional feelings that the stress response creates in the body can scare them and leave them confused and frightened long after the fearful event has passed. This leads to a vicious cycle of fear and fear response which can be difficult – if not impossible – for your child to break free from without help. In addition, the stimulus and response to stress are linked in your child’s brain through the formation of neural pathways – shortcuts that make the stress response kick in more quickly and intensely the next time he or she is exposed to the same stimulus. So how can you break this cycle and help your child manage or prevent panic attacks?
Let’s look at the different types of treatment available for anxiety in children, so that you can decide what will work best for your child.
Treatment for Anxiety in Children – How to Treat
Phobias and anxiety disorders in children can be treated in three distinct ways: drug therapy, traditional psychotherapy, or self-help treatment for stress reduction. Drug therapy in children is controversial and many parents are understandably reluctant to place their children on antidepressants or any other type of medication. These drugs do carry troubling side effects that can pose serious health risks to kids. Traditional psychotherapy can be cost prohibitive, especially for families who have limited or no healthcare available. Sessions with psychologists can also be intimidating for kids, so it can be difficult to get your child to see a therapist or to adequately engage with the professional when they’re there.
Self-help treatment has three very clear benefits to parents and children. First, it’s a cost-effective way to treat phobias. For the price of a single counseling session, you can purchase an entire treatment program for your child. And since insurance companies do not get involved, your child’s privacy is assured. Second, self-help techniques can be introduced and implemented at home, making them much less intimidating for kids – in fact, you can get the whole family involved. Finally, self-help treatment is completely customizable – your child can follow whatever techniques work best for her, and discard the ones that aren’t as helpful for dealing with their anxiety.
Now that we’ve established how to treat your child’s anxiety, what are some of the techniques she will learn in a self-help program? Read on for a sampling of behavioral therapy techniques they may learn and implement, depending on the program chosen.
Self-Help Techniques for Conquering Anxiety
Your child can learn to put the brakes on an impending panic attack with stress reduction techniques. Studies have also shown that reducing stress will help in other areas of life, such as sleep quality and quantity, which will also help prevent your child from being as vulnerable to stress-induced anxiety attacks to begin with. You can help your child learn these healthy lifestyle skills and implement them as a family – it’s great for everyone to get involved.
- Yoga – yoga is often called “meditation in motion” and has been a stress-reduction technique for thousands of centuries. It’s also good for your physical well being too.
- Breathing – also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this special technique helps your child prevent hyperventilation as it allows more oxygen into the bloodstream.
- Meditation – allows children to visualize peace and serenity, and to recall this feeling during moments of stress or impending panic.
- Laughter – studies show that laughter can actually improve sleep quality and quantity. Encouraging your child to laugh often will help her feel better and to put things in perspective.
- Catastrophic Thinking Reduction – children are prone to runaway ideas, especially when it comes to the question: What’s the worst that can happen? Allowing your child to speak out her worst fears and then working through ways to deal with these worst-case scenarios can help to curb catastrophic thinking.
Of course the above is just a very small sampling of mainstream stress reduction techniques. If you decide to begin using a self-help program, you can learn far more than we have listed, as well as advanced strategies and techniques to use with your child.
Implementing a self-help program can give your child the tools she needs to deal with stress effectively and lead a full and productive life. Let’s have a look on some breathing techniques, which can be used in self-help program.
Teaching Children Breathing Techniques – Overcoming Anxiety and Fear
Anxiety has become an epidemic with children of the world. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America one in every eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. These staggering statistics are beginning to raise the awareness of how serious anxiety in children can be. As a parent becomes educated about the seriousness of anxiety they begin to look for tips to help them help their child. As awareness grows scientists are discovering links between very old therapeutic techniques and why they work. Breathing exercises have been around for millennium, they have phased in and out as fads but always come back. Breathing is a time tested and true way to ease the discomfort and symptoms associated with anxiety.
In the past breathing exercises have seemed to be reserved for adults and Yogis. However, it has come to light that anyone and everyone can benefit from controlled breathing, especially children who experience anxiety. Breathing is among the many treatments being developed for children who have anxiety. The wonderful thing about breathing is that it is free, easy to do, and can be done virtually anywhere and anytime. Breathing exercises can be learned at any age and can develop into a very healthy and lifelong habit. They can be used to cope with stress, reduce anxiety levels, and put a child in control of their own mind.
One of the most difficult parts of learning and developing breathing exercises, that will help your child reduce stress, is the reluctance of the parent. Almost all children, even ones who experience excessive anxiety, are very receptive to breathing exercises when they are presented in a way the child can understand. Often, parents feel awkward about during breathing exercises and teaching them to the child. This is an important hurdle to overcome. The best way to teach your child to use learning techniques to overcome anxiety is to teach your child breathing exercises and to do them with them.
Eventually the child will learn to do breathing exercises on their own but in the beginning a parent is the most important asset to the child. Children pick up a great deal from their parent and tend to mimic what their parents do. If the child sees that you feel perfectly comfortable with breathing exercises then they will be more receptive to try them. When a parent does breathing exercises with the child, both the parent and the child will feel less fear and anxiety. This is a win-win situation.
Clearly the first step is for the parent to learn breathing exercises so that they can teach them to the child. There are thousands of developed breathing exercises and variations of focal points. These give a large variety of breathing exercises to choose from. Furthermore, if one is not working for you and your child you can simply try another one. A parent can also modify them to be relevant to a childs personal needs. The point is to be persistent and patient with breathing exercises.
The simplest breathing exercises involve concentrating on the breath. With this you would explain to your child that you want them to focus on breathing, and only pay attention to breathing. As you have them do this you direct them to draw a slow breath in for four seconds, pause, and then a slow breath out for four seconds. Ask them to clear their minds of everything and only focus on the even and continuous breath. This exercise can be done standing, sitting, or laying down.
Some children may have trouble with that simple breathing exercise because of their specific learning styles. If you find that your child is a kinesthetic learner (learns through moment) then you can use movement to help them focus through the breathing exercises. Have them lay on the floor with their legs slightly apart and lay a small book on their abdomen. Ask them to breathe in until the book is as high as it can go, pause, and then slowly lower the book with an even slow breath out. In this scenario the child focuses on breathing through focusing on the task of raising and lowering the book.
A third alternative breathing exercise is one that would be optimal for children who are visual learners. In this breathing exercise you would use visualization as a focal point combined with deep breathing. With this exercise you instruct your child to lay flat with their legs slightly apart. Ask them to close their eyes and picture a beach. Describe ocean waves washing up on to the shore and then receding back into the ocean. Ask the child to visualize themselves laying on this beach and feeling the waves hitting them as they breathe in. As they breath out slowly describe to them the waves receding melting all of their worries away. Use vivid description to help the child focus on the scene as they breathe.
These are just a few of the many types of breathing exercises that a parent can teach their child. The possibilities are infinite as long as the basics stay the same. The basics are the slow deliberate breath in, and the slow deliberate breath out. It is also to create a focal point for the child. As the child becomes comfortable with this focal point they will learn to concentrate on it instead of allowing fear and an anxiety to be the focal point.
The result will be very calming and relaxing. The child’s breath will slow, blood pressure will stabilize, and the brain will be getting an optimal amount of oxygen to compensate for the flight or flight response which draws oxygen away from the brain. Not only will the childs focus be moved away from the anxiety, but they will also be alleviated of some anxiety symptoms such as dizziness, light headiness, and confusion. When a parent does breathing exercises with their child, both the parent and child will be left with a sense of well being that will improve the quality of life. When it comes to anxiety in children, breathing really can be the best medicine.
You don’t need to watch your child suffer with their anxiety when effective treatments are within reach. Help your child conquer their anxiety and get back to the life they were meant to have. Overcoming your child’s anxiety and panic attacks will take time and effort and in the meantime you will continue to have to help them cope, but by eliciting the help of an effective treatment, your child can learn to eliminate their excessive anxiety, panic, and fear and you can become an essential support to them as they grow.