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Helping Your Child Manage Their Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health disorders and can begin in childhood. Signs of anxiety in childhood may include excessive worrying and difficulty controlling those worries along with other symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, being more fidgety, easily angered, or having a hard time concentrating. Talking to your child about anxiety can be hard. Letting them know that anxiety can happen to anyone, explaining to them how anxiety works, and teaching them coping skills can help improve their anxiety.

So, how does anxiety work? Anxiety occurs when a part of our brain called the “amygdala” thinks it needs to protect us from something and turns on when it senses any type of danger. The problem is that our amygdala does not always know the difference between real danger and no danger at all. For example, your brain responds the same if you were being chased by a bear or being called on in class. In both situations, your brain responds the same way by fueling your body with what it needs to protect you. For example, your brain tells your body not to use up all the oxygen in case you need to run away so you start taking fast, shallow breaths, causing you to feel warm or dizzy. Your heart also beats faster to get “fuel” to your legs and arms in case you need to run or fight causing you to feel shaky or wobbly. Even your stomach shuts down so you can save your energy to run or fight so you might feel like you have butterflies in your stomach or like you might vomit. Your amygdala also helps look after your emotions, so when your amygdala is working hard to protect you, you might cry or get upset. Your brain and body do some pretty amazing things to protect you, which is great when you need it, but can leave you not feeling so great when you do not need to be protected.

Now that your child understands how anxiety works, they may be wondering, now what? The good news is there are ways to help your amygdala relax. The first way is to teach your child to have powerful thoughts. They can practice by telling their brain “I got this or thanks for trying to help me but I’m good.” Another way to help their brain relax is by teaching them to take strong, deep breaths. Because your breathing becomes fast and shallow when anxious, focusing on strong deep breaths will tell your brain that you are okay and not in any danger. A great way to practice deep breathing is to have your child lay down with a stuffed animal or toy on their belly. Have them practice 5-10 deep breaths and watch the animal or toy move up and down so they know they are breathing strong and deep.

Because their brain has been protecting them for a long time, you can let your child know it may take a little time to get their brain to relax. Practicing powerful thoughts and deep breathing when your child is not anxious is a great way to improve these skills so they will work better when they need them.

If you have concerns that your child may be struggling with anxiety and need additional support, there are counseling resources available. To make an appointment at Southwest Health Behavioral Services, contact 608-348-3656.

Ashley Dixon, LCSW

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