Often when I speak to people about mindfulness they get inspired about the impact it has on reducing anxiety and ask how work with their children’s anxiety. My answer is always work on yourself first, reduce your own anxiety and stress levels, because you are contagious. Not only are you contagious but through your habits you teach your children how to live and your voice becomes part of their adult, internalized voice.
One in three children will experience a clinically significant anxiety disorder before adulthood. Unless treated, many will become anxious adults. I actually think the rate is much higher; it is just a question or degrees and awareness of it. There is also now research that indicates that anxiety in children is a precursor to later mental health vulnerability. This is not only a common issue, it is a very serious one.
The consequence of our cocooning
New research from Yale University shows that one of the ways that parents tend to deal with anxious children is to cocoon them but this means children miss out on developing a sense of agency. They don’t experience a sense of “I can do this”, rather they are dependent on the parent for soothing and reassurance. By constantly reassuring, or sleeping with the child, or not having other children around, sending endless text messages to the child and allowing them not to go to school due to a tummy ache, we rob the child of the experience of independence.
Loretta Breuning PhD would say we rob them of dopamine and serotonin, the ‘independence’ hormones. (You can listen to my podcast episode with Loretta here.) This child stays dependent on the parent for decision-making and reassurance. It might be important to ask ourselves whether it is our own anxiety that leads us to these behaviours rather than concern for the best interests of the child.
The research at Yale showed that shifting the focus from the anxiety of the children to the anxiety of the parents allowed parents to better deal with the challenges of the anxious child and through that, they reduced the anxiety in the child.
We are contagious
There is another dimension to this and that is that according to Allan Schore PhD and Dr Dan Siegel “brains align and synchronise their neural activities with other brains, creating a conversation between limbic systems”. This means that we are literally contagious. When you are anxious, this is what you generate in your child, even when you are not aware of it.
In other words, we are either facilitating resilience to stress or a predisposition to affect dysregulation; a disturbance of human relatedness.
The problem is that often we don’t know that we are anxious; we think we just need to get this and that done then we will be fine, or that it is just because we have too much on right now, it is a phase. I didn’t know how anxious I was until I started to connect with the representation of the anxiety in the body.
The body can’t lie, unlike the thinking mind! So for reliable information check in with your body for signs of anxiety. This is the place where the soothing should first be focused.
The racing heart, the ‘urgent next minute’ feeling, the shallow breath, the sweaty hands, the butterflies in the tummy, these are the sensations that need soothing.
You do this by simply paying attention to the sensation and reassuring it by gently saying (to yourself if you like…) “dear body”. You can also place your hand over the most intense part of the sensation, and reassure it with: “dear body”.
Dear Body and the soothing it brings is your primary tool to use if you have an anxious child. What you are doing is downregulating from your sympathetic state to your parasympathetic, your rest and digest state, our home state. Or from reactive to responsive, and from distracted to present and connected. Just what any child needs from their primary care giver.
Stress reduction practices:
- Interrupt your anxiety with Mindful Mini Moments: ‘Dear Body’ & ‘5 Magic Breaths’ (focusing on the breath and then allowing the out-breath to become longer than the in-breath, allowing it to sink into the body) as often as possible.
- And invest in:
- Keeping the first hour of the day electronic-free
- Catching yourself out multitasking and reduce it
- Ensuring you move at least 30 minutes a day as this allows the stress hormone cortisol to exit your body.
- Doing the ABCD or Body-scan 10 minutes every day. You can download them for free here.