Anxious Kids

Anxious Kids

Anxiety in itself is within the normal and helpful range of human emotions – and it can help our kids avoid making poor, risky decisions. But when it prevents any of us from taking part in normal life or functioning normally – or when it doesn’t die down after the stressful event has passed – that’s when it becomes an issue that needs to be sorted.

How children can turn their anxiety into resilience

A conversation with Jodi Richardson

by Tracy Carter

Experts tell us we’ve been hit by an anxiety epidemic. And the statistics back them up. Even kids today do more worrying than ever before – and we’re not just talking about the little niggles that are part of everyday life. This is capital ‘A’ Anxiety! And it can weave its way into a child’s life, preventing them from participating in things they’d like to be a part of.

So … what’s to be done? How can we help our kids live full lives and not be held prisoner by unhelpful fears? 

We turned to Dr Jodi Richardson – wellbeing expert, educator and co-author (with Michael Grose) of Anxious Kids: How children can turn their anxiety into resilience – for some answers. 

Dr Jodi has nine years of university study under her belt … more than 20 years of professional experience in clinical practice, wellbeing, elite sport, and education … and (possibly the most important) has two kids of her own!

GRAPEVINE: In your own words, “Kids are in the thick of an anxiety epidemic!” What on earth’s going on?

DR JODI RICHARDSON: Well, the stats show that anxiety’s on the increase. And there are a number of likely reasons for this. For one thing, we’re more aware of anxiety these days. In 1998, a major ‘Child and Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Survey’ didn’t even address this issue; but when they did the study again in 2013, they measured anxiety and found that it ran a very close second to ADHD as the most common challenge to children’s and adolescents’ mental health. 

So reporting or recognition is one part of it. But there’s also a lot in kids’ environment today that makes them anxious. Anxiety can be dormant – we can have a genetic predisposition to it, and often it takes a trauma or certain circumstances to trigger it. In my own case, I have a predisposition to anxiety; it runs in my family, but it was triggered when I was in a really stressful classroom environment. 

GV: So some people can be ‘wired’ for anxiety – and all it takes is a trigger to set it off?

JODI: Yes – and there’s no shortage of stresses in today’s world that can trigger anxiety in kids. Take the busy pace of life: kids are highly stimulated much of the time, and their nervous systems, brains, and minds aren’t getting enough rest. We’ve lost that boredom time, that playtime, and replaced it with screen-time – and up go their anxiety levels.

Screens are designed to be addictive. And, thanks to the hours kids are spending on their devices, they’re exposed to a whole lot more information and stimulation than children were in the past. Kids see the news, and when they hear about global issues and disasters and dire warnings, they can feel personally threatened. It doesn’t matter whether or not those threats are true or untrue, they can create a lot of fear and anxiety in kids … 

Screens also impact their sleep. The blue light interferes with the production of melatonin (the hormone responsible for sleep) – and sleep is critical to their wellbeing and mental health. 

Social media use also encourages kids to compete and compare. In school holidays, for example, when your kids are home doing dishes while it seems like every other kid is on a tropical island, or their friends are getting together without them … those things can definitely trigger an anxiety we call FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. 

And another thing: kids are often overscheduled – they’ve just got too much on, so that their sympathetic ‘fight-or-flight’ nervous system is active most of the time. They need the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘rest-and-digest’ nervous system – to have more time on centre stage. 

GV: So what is all this anxiety-triggering stress doing to our kids?

JODI: Well, one thing it does is stimulate the amygdala – the fear centre of the brain – and it lowers the threshold of what’s viewed as threatening. The amygdala plays a vital role: it’s designed to keep us safe. But this lowered threshold means that for some kids, just being asked a question in the classroom is detected as a threat by the amygdala! And this causes an anxious response in the child’s body and mind, which in turn creates a cascade of changes that then make it difficult for that child to listen and learn and engage.

GV: You mentioned that one reason we’re now seeing increased anxiety in kids is that we’re more aware of what it looks like. How does that anxiety show itself in our children?

JODI: A hallmark of anxiety is worrying – and a lot of worrying is internal, which makes it hard to detect. It often isn’t obvious from the child’s outward behaviour, but parents might notice the child avoiding certain activities. Avoidance is really common in anxious kids, and it’s easily mistaken for laziness, stubbornness or lack of interest. But, chances are, these kids really want to do whatever it is they’re being asked to do, but they’re too fearful and too stuck in that self-preservation mode to take a step in the right direction. 

When the body goes into that ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, the flight response is avoidance. But equally common is the fight response to the perceived threat – which can show up as misbehaviour, angry outbursts, disruptive attitudes … 

GV: What are the risks if we fail to recognise and address anxiety in our kids?

JODI: Anxiety won’t go away on its own. It doesn’t just disappear if you ignore it. And, let’s face it, anxiety is awful: if you’ve got an anxious child, you’ve got a child who is suffering! The child can often feel broken – like there’s something wrong with them; like nobody understands what they’re going through – and their entire happiness and mental wellbeing is affected. 

Anxiety is a treatable mental health condition. But ignoring it or failing to address it in time just makes the problem worse. It might start with the child acting up at school, being disruptive, not listening. And it could end up with the child refusing to go to school, which is much more difficult to deal with. 

Anxiety can also result in depression, which is an even greater challenge – for that child and for the whole family. 

GV: If parents notice signs of anxiety in their kids, what should they do?

JODI: First of all, it’s essential to differentiate between developmentally ‘normal’ anxiety and ‘problematic’ anxiety. Anxiety in itself is within the normal and helpful range of human emotions – and it can help our kids avoid making poor, risky decisions. But when it prevents any of us from taking part in normal life or functioning normally – or when it doesn’t die down after the stressful event has passed – that’s when it becomes an issue that needs to be sorted. 

So if a parent notices these signs in their child, the first step is: go to your GP. I say to parents, “If you do nothing else but recognise that your child has anxiety, and you seek to get them the professional help they need, you’ve changed the trajectory of their whole life!” 

The GP will be able to either put the parent’s mind at rest – if the anxiety is developmentally normal (such as separation anxiety in young children) – or they’ll get things rolling so the child receives help.

GV: And how about prevention? What can parents do to build up their family’s resilience to anxiety? 

JODI: Parents can role-model how to react when things go wrong. How parents view challenges and stress teaches their kids how to do the same. For example, if a child spills milk on the floor, some parents will explode and overreact, but it’s so much more helpful for our kids if we can take a step back and respond calmly. 

My mum tended to have an anxious overreaction to things. So now that I’m a parent, I’ve had to be really deliberate about taking a deep breath and role-modelling a calm response to things that go wrong. 

Internally, I’m yelling, “Aaargh! You’ve been told a hundred times not to put the cup so close to the edge of the table …” but I’ve trained myself to just say calmly: “Uh-oh. No worries!” And we’ve got a household rule that says, “You make-a da mess, you clean up-a da mess!” When kids get a bit older, you can add, “So, what happened? What can you do next time?” “Maybe put the cup in the middle of the table …” “Well, there’s the cloth, away you go!” and help to clean it up. Hopefully, my kids have learned not to overreact to these everyday stresses. 

GV: And this practice can help reduce kids’ anxiety levels in everyday life?

JODI: Definitely. If you can demonstrate a calm response in the face of small problems at home, you’ve got a better chance of showing your kids how to address bigger challenges in life. You can say to your kids, “I’m feeling a bit stressed, so I’m just going to concentrate on my breathing …” or, “I can’t give you my attention right now because I’m feeling very stressed …” or, “I just need to focus on being mindful for a few minutes …” 

Role-modelling these stress-management techniques can make a big difference for kids. 

GV: You mentioned screen-time earlier, and it obviously helps if we parents keep an eye on the devices in our homes – and the time spent on them. We can also role-model healthy, calm responses to anxious situations. But what else can we do, lifestyle-wise, to improve our family’s wellbeing?

JODI: Daily exercise is excellent for mental health – and it’s especially important for anyone who is prone to anxiety. So, if we want to raise healthy kids, exercise is a good preventative measure. Prioritising sleep – rather than trying to fit sleep in around everything else – that helps a lot, too. 

We should educate our kids about mental and emotional health – help them understand that emotions are natural and normal, and we can’t expect to feel happy all the time. Let your kids experience their emotions – don’t just jump into ‘cheer-up’ mode when they’re feeling sad. Instead, listen and empathise. Just sit with them with your arm around them, and let them feel sad.

We can also teach kids to recognise unhelpful thinking. We’re all guilty of this. We put so much weight on our thoughts, and we automatically believe that everything we think is true. But not all thoughts are facts – and not all thoughts are good for us. So here’s another preventative measure: we should teach our kids to take notice of their thoughts, and to ask the question: “Is this a helpful thought?” 

If your child’s learning to play footy, and they miss a kick and say, “I’m hopeless at this!” … a parent is inclined to say, “No you’re not!” and give them all the reasons why they’re not hopeless. But, in that moment, they’re really feeling hopeless – and instead of disputing those thoughts, it’s actually far better to ask the child, “Is that helpful?” Don’t get into whether or not that thought is TRUE – just ask if it’s helpful. And of course it’s not. 

From there, the child needs to figure out what IS helpful – and we need to be encouraging: “Let’s keep practising …”

GV: Got any quick tips for managing anxiety in the moment? 

JODI: Well, some of the tools we recommend are breathing … defusion … exercise … and mindfulness. It’s best to get your kids to learn these tools and practice them when they’re NOT in an anxious moment – that way, they’re more likely to use them when they ARE experiencing anxiety. Take BREATHING, for example: it’s not much help telling your kids to breathe when they’re anxious if you haven’t already taught them how to take slow, deep belly-breaths … inhaling through their nose and slowly exhaling through their mouth. 

Remember what we said about noticing thoughts? When you’re locked into a thought about something, it’s called ‘fusion’. In that earlier example, the kid playing footy is focused on the idea that he’s hopeless at it, and that thought is making him feel really low. Well, the tool of DEFUSION is about giving your kids distance from an unhelpful thought. And there are a number of useful techniques … 

When kids are younger, parents can get their kids to say the thought out loud in a silly voice – maybe like a cartoon character, or like Darth Vader, or say that thought into a voice-changer. This really takes the power and strength out of that unhelpful thought, and the kids will often end up in a fit of giggles, laughing at the thought instead of focusing on it. 

Another technique is to say, “I’m having the thought that …” or, to take it even further and provide even more distance, “I notice I’m having the thought that …” Once you’re distanced from the unhelpful thought, it’s easier to determine what action you can take that would be helpful. 

Sometimes we don’t feel equipped to model these techniques, because we weren’t taught them ourselves, but it’s okay – we can learn them at the same time.

I mentioned EXERCISE before – and it’s amazing! You see, exercise uses adrenaline and cortisol and everything else that the body’s built up in that fight-or-flight moment – and it helps move that stuff through the system.
Exercise also releases endorphins – the feel-good hormones. 

GV: So breathing … defusion … exercise … What else?

JODI: The fourth tool, MINDFULNESS, is important because so much anxious thinking is either focused on the future or dwelling on the past. Mindfulness brings you into the present, which is very healing and calming. What’s more, regular mindfulness practice actually raises the threshold for what triggers the anxiety – and it strengthens the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. 

When we become really anxious, the prefrontal cortex basically goes offline. Functions like rational thinking and problem-solving are just unavailable. So when someone’s highly anxious over an issue that’s ridiculous, and it just doesn’t make sense, that’s why! 

Strengthening the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is really helpful because then the person with anxiety can see the warning signs coming on. They can notice physiological symptoms like their muscles tensing … their heart racing … their breathing-rate increasing, etc. – and they can recognise them for what they are. 

This, in turn, allows them to respond rationally – using a tool like breathing, for example, or mindfulness, to calm themselves down.

GV: One of the great quotes in your book is “Children and teenagers shouldn’t be sheltered from the challenges and expectations of everyday life. The promotion of real independence and resilience needs to be at the heart of parenting anxious kids.” That sounds easy, but how can parents promote independence and resilience?

JODI: One way to do that is to use what I call ‘step-laddering’. This approach is about moving your child in the direction that matters but doing so in an incremental way – moving them step-by-step closer to a particular goal and persevering through their anxiety in the process.

Take a child who’s afraid to go on school camp, for instance. Parents can work with them (and a professional if necessary) to come up with a plan to stepladder their child’s way to success – even if it involves 20 steps to get to that goal! It’s about getting them closer, and in the process, reminding them when they experience anxiety on the way, to practice their breathing, use mindfulness, and so on. 

Our children need to recognise that they can have anxiety but still do what’s important to them – they can still move forward and achieve their goals. Using this technique helps prevent avoidance, which is what robs kids and stops them from doing things they really value.

GV: So how exactly do we identify what our kids value … what’s really important to them?

JODI: Well, it’s not always easy – and you might need to help them identify that. But whatever it is that our kids want to be or do, that goal has to be important enough for them to accept the discomfort involved – including the anxiety.
Again, take going to the school camp, for example …

Some kids couldn’t care less about going to the camp – but sometimes it’s just about what’s good for them. They should go, even if it’s not one of their life goals …

GV: But what about the kid who craves certainty and needs to control every situation? The problem with camp is that it involves so many uncertainties for a kid like that.

JODI: I’d encourage parents to do two things. Firstly, validate for the child that it’s really hard. And, secondly, help them learn to tolerate discomfort. Building a willingness to tolerate discomfort in our children is one of the greatest things we can do for them. We can start when they’re very young. When they’re thirsty and they’re moaning, “I’m gonna DIE!” – you can say, “I know it’s uncomfortable; it’s awful when you’re feeling so thirsty – but you can cope. I’m not buying you a drink at the supermarket. We’re going home now, and we can have a drink there.” 

When it comes to feelings, it’s often our own discomfort as parents that makes it hard for us to teach tolerance to our kids. It’s awfully hard for us to sit with them when they’re anxious or distressed without trying to ‘fix’ it. But resilience comes from challenging yourself to do something that feels hard. We can be anxious and feel very fragile – but the resilience comes from acknowledging that, in spite of our anxiety, we’re going for the things that matter to us. And the sense of accomplishment when we make that effort is amazing! 

So we need to reward our kids for making that effort – choosing a movie to watch together, a special trip to the park, or a beach picnic with friends. That’s so much more helpful than punishing our kids when they’re really struggling. When kids are in that highly-anxious mode, behaving as if their life was in danger, it’s unkind to punish them for reacting in that way. 

GV: Thinking of the importance of that willingness to tolerate discomfort (including the uncomfortable possibility of failure!), ‘Growth Mindset’ is a big thing right now in schools and parenting … Is there a link between having a growth mindset and reducing anxiety?

JODI: Absolutely! A growth mindset is so freeing because it takes away that either/or thing: “I’m either smart or I’m dumb” … “I either can or I can’t” … “I’ll either succeed or I’ll fail” … It gives an understanding that you can be a work in progress! And that (with the right support) if you apply yourself and work hard, you can get there.

Having that kind of mindset takes away that need for certainty, which (along with that need to control the situation) can fuel anxiety in kids. Often kids who are afraid of failing just won’t even try in the first place. So I really do think that building a growth mindset in our kids can help diminish anxiety. 

GV: When a child is having an anxious meltdown, how should we respond?

JODI: We urge parents to stay SOBER – Stop, Observe, Breathe, Expand, Respond. Anxiety is highly contagious, psychologically-speaking, so we need to tread carefully.

So first of all, stop what you’re doing … observe what’s happening … take a deep breath (this calms your own amygdala and help you respond reasonably) … expand your awareness (asking yourself questions like, “What’s led up to this anxiety? Where did it come from?”) … and finally, respond. 

It’s important as parents that we respond helpfully to anxious kids instead of just reacting to them. We should recognise that this is anxiety … empathise with the child … get them to breathe, maybe take a few deep, calming breaths together … and do a grounding exercise to bring them into the present, because when the mind is in the present it can’t be focusing on something else … 

And then work with the child on the action they need to take next …

GV: Aside from stepladdering, and remembering to use the SOBER framework in kids’ anxious moments, what are some general things parents can do to encourage independence and resilience in their kids?

JODI: Parents can educate their children about anxiety; they can remind their kids that it’s a natural emotion, but it can become problematic when it’s being triggered all the time. (We’ve included scripts in the book so that parents can talk their kids through recognising and identifying anxiety in their own lives.) Educating our kids in this way empowers them with knowledge around their mental health – like how breathing is such a super tool for managing anxiety because it calms the amygdala.
For kids with anxiety, independence comes from self-management: first, they have to be able to recognise their anxiety … and secondly, they need to understand it – knowing what helps and understanding why that helps. 

GV: Is there anything else you’d like to tell parents?

JODI: It’s very distressing and challenging when you have an anxious child, so don’t be afraid to seek help. Are you concerned about your child’s mental health? No matter how big or small your concern, please just go to your GP. I’d like parents to know that they’re the number one person in the child’s life to help them through this challenge, and in spite of the fact that it can feel scary and overwhelming (for parents – not just for their kids!), there’s a lot that they can learn to do to support their child.

It’s also vital that parents take care of themselves and monitor their own mental health. So if you’re in need of some additional support or counselling, make sure you reach out for that.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … mindfulness!

  • Here’s one grounding mindfulness technique that’s lovely to practice outside where possible:

  • Describe five things you can see.

  • Name four things you can feel (for example, feet on the floor).

  • Name three things you can hear.

  • Name two things you can smell (alternately, name two scents you love)

  • Describe one thing you’re proud of.

(Anxious Kids: How children can turn their anxiety into resilience)