Managing Your Anxiety Creates More Resilient Children
Life without worry or a one-size-fits-all solution to manage your anxiety is impossible and, according to internationally recognized psychotherapist Lynn Lyons, not recommended. She asserts there’s no growth without some level of worry.
“It is OK to feel uncomfortable and uncertain,” she explains. “It is the price you pay for moving into new territory; and to grow, you need to move into new territory.”
But, she adds, most of us are managing anxiety — our own and our reaction to our children’s — in all the wrong ways.
Citing a recent study that found 32% of children and teens in the United States are dealing with some sort of anxiety, Lyons advises, “We’ve got a problem on our hands in this country, and the only way to turn this around is to start talking very concretely and very directly about the skills kids need to develop.”
Lyons speaks to parents, educators and other mental health care providers around the world and has authored several books aimed at parents wanting to help their children manage anxiety, including Anxious Parents, Anxious Children. With a special interest in interrupting the generational patterns of anxiety, Lyons recently shared on a YPO Global Conference Call her strategies for managing anxiety that children and families experience.
Lyons uses the terms ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably. However, she points out they are different. Worry is the cognitive process — your brain imaging bad things. Anxiety refers to the physical symptoms that result from worry.
Managing your anxiety = empowering your kids
“It’s probably been 18 years since a really worried kid showed up in my office with two really laid-back parents,” Lyons discloses. According to Lyons, anxiety is cultural and contagious, and parents who are anxious are more likely to have anxious children who are at risk of:
- Not being able to tolerate uncertainty
- Not being able to independently problem solve
- Not score high on the autonomy scale
- Perceiving the world as a more dangerous place than other kids
Many parents practice what Lyons calls ‘catastrophic parenting,’ which results in higher anxiety in children. “It means that you offer the safety instructions, which is perfectly fine. You’re leaving your 10 year old alone for a half an hour, and you say, ‘I want you to shut the door after I leave, and I don’t want you to let anybody in,’” she says by way of example.
A catastrophic parent then starts talking about all the things that could happen if the child doesn’t listen to the instruction. Lyons continues, “The catastrophic parent then adds, ‘Let me tell you why. There are people out there who will steal you, and I could come back from the grocery store and you’re gone. And I’ll never see you again.’”
Lyons adds, “These are the kids who end up in my office because they won’t sleep in their own bedroom or they have trouble joining groups or going to new places.”
Anxiety is our caveman brain talking
Accommodating worry, avoiding it or not learning how to process it just makes worry worse. “We expect worry to show up,” she states blatantly. “Why? Because life is uncertain.”
The science behind anxiety is well researched. The prefrontal cortex, which is sometimes called the ‘executive functioning’ part of the brain, helps us make reasonable decisions. Its work, however, often gets interrupted by what is considered the ‘animal brain,’ the amygdala.
“When the amygdala gets a message from you that there is danger, it does not differentiate between real danger and imagined danger,” explains Lyons. “When you are imagining your kids being kidnapped, when you are imagining failing a test, when you are imagining people making fun of you, when you are imagining embarrassing yourself during a presentation, the amygdala gets a message of danger.”
Self-preservation is anxiety’s genetic purpose
Lyons describes the process the amygdala starts in the body when it receives the danger alert. It sends messages throughout the body via hormones to get the body ready for impending doom.
“If you’re being chased by a grizzly bear,” she illustrates, “the first thing we’re going to do is increase your heart rate and your breathing so blood and oxygen can get to your big running-away muscles. We’re going to dilate your pupils so that you can scan the environment, see where the danger is. We’re going to throw a little extra blood clotting stuff into your system in case the grizzly bear rips off your arm.”
In addition to this increased activity in the body, the amygdala is also telling your body to shut down all nonessential systems. “When this fight-or-flight system gets activated, your digestive system shuts down,” she continues. “You get a tummy ache, you feel nauseous.”
Fingertips? Nonessential. Lyons explains, “Nobody has ever run away from a grizzly bear on their fingertips. The blood is pulled from your digits so that it goes to these big running-away muscles.”
Being afraid of sleeping without the nightlight or starting at a new school or all the other experiences children face every day can trigger the same physical reactions. That, Lyons says, is what we need to teach children how to change.
Start by naming your worry
If your child is afraid of dogs, parents might manage the child’s world to avoid dogs. Afraid of the dark? Sleep with a nightlight. Lyons says this is the wrong approach.
“What I like to focus on is a process-based intervention,” Lyons explains. “Process-based intervention is helping kids and families understand how worry works and then teaching them to step toward what we fear rather than stepping away from it.”
Changing the body’s reaction to worry starts with externalizing it. Name your worry, she says. Afraid of dogs? Name the worry Pete. Then role play, she advises.
“We’re not talking about how we are going to handle dogs, but how we are going to handle Pete,” she explains. “When Pete shows up when we see a dog, what are we going to do to be prepared?”
Lyons suggests greeting Pete, letting him know you were expecting him, and then pivoting, keeping control of the situation. In other words, owning the worry rather than letting the worry own you.
“Does this feel uncomfortable? Absolutely,” says Lyons. “Especially at first because it’s different, but this is what develops those skills to be able to manage uncertainty.”
Retrain your brain — it’s never too late
Whether you’re 4 or 84, it’s never too late to retrain your brain to help manage anxiety and your body’s natural reactions to it. Lyon recommends the Four Bs to manage worry better:
- Body: Understand how the brain impacts the body.
- Brain: Create your worry part (name it) and talk back to it
- Bravery: Change reactions, do the opposite, be on the offensive
- Bridge: Build a breathing bridge that allows you to stop, step back, take a deep breath. Also, create a bridge back to your success so you retrain your brain to react differently to worry.