Have we ever known a World event that has impacted every single family on the planet since the World War II? There’s a whirlwind of emotions in each home at the moment but we can take comfort in that we are not alone in our fears or worries. Many of the fears we carry are justified and begin as reasonable concerns because our brain loves certainty and sameness to feel safe, but for some of us our worries can evolve into the irrational beast, that is Anxiety.
Our brain is designed to protect us but it doesn’t know the difference between facing a hungry shark, or walking into a room full of strangers. It’s up to us to teach the brain that we are safe, as sometimes our brain can tell us big fat lies.
Anxiety is the over-estimation of what’s going to happen or we think is likely to happen, and the under-estimation of our coping skills.
Anxiety is one of the most common causes of distress in children and young people. It’s estimated that 1 in 6 children have Anxiety, yet I’m sure that those figures are a little higher at the moment!
For many children this period of momentous change that they are experiencing is the first time that they will have had to adapt to doing things differently, some children will embrace this, others will find it unsettling, and even fearful.
I’m witnessing a real Marmite effect to lockdown from children, some describe to me that “it’s like living in a cage” and others are simply having a ball with a greater amount of freedom of choice. But as lockdown continues, the initial excitement or easy adaptability of some children is beginning to wear off. And I’m seeing and hearing that more and more children are experiencing heightened emotions and some are less eager to connect with their friends. I have some thoughts on why, which I will explore, first by explaining about what’s going on in the brain during lockdown.
Anxiety and Fear sit in the Amygdala, which is a set of nuclei, shaped like an almond, near the centre of the brain above the hypothalamus. The Amygdala is the part of the brain we are born with, it’s our survival brain and it’s constantly scanning for threats to our safety.
It instinctively plays a key role in our fight and flight response, sensing danger, resulting in the body being flooded with chemicals, adrenaline. Our body gets stuck in this reptilian part of the brain, because the amygdala, greedily hogs all the blood flow, which has drained away from the pre-frontal cortex. So in essence our thinking brain has gone offline.
The key feelings that are activated by the Amygdala are Anger, Avoidance and Defensiveness. Anger represents a response from Fight, avoidance represents a response from flight and defensiveness from a desire to control. Therefore you may find that these responses are being triggered and this therefore is a sign that your child is either stressed or frightened. Because small children in particular maybe unable to express this verbally, it’s coming out in their behaviours and choices instead.
The Amygdala is greedy…..it often sabotages our deepest needs, including the need for connection.
What can we do to help our children?
We have the power, through the Mind to talk to the brain, the Amygdala, and tell it to re-calibrate through messages of reassurance but first we have to let our body send the message to our brain through the Vagus nerve to calm down.
How to get our body to talk to our Brain
When the thinking brain has gone offline, it’s no good speaking to the child you are caring for, telling them to calm down, or trying to talk them out of a panic attack, an anxious moment, or a decision that they have made. To bring the sympathetic (fight & flight) and the parasympathetic (calm) nervous systems back into balance breath exercises create more oxygen flow, therefore restoring blood back to the pre-frontal cortex. If a child doesn’t want to do deep breathing, an alternative, especially for a younger child, is to hold them tight and slow your own breathing down intentionally, taking deep breaths, which will in turn calm them.
Isolation and time out doesn’t work to calm anxiety and punishment for poor behaviour that is fuelled by anxiety will only make the anger increase. Punishment and isolation increases the amygdala’s response to not feeling safe or secure, so it is counter-productive. Children will respond to increased connection and responsiveness from you, in terms of validating and empathising with the emotion displayed, as long as you assert the boundary that has been crossed and talk about different ways of expressing their feelings in a more positive way afterwards.
Let the body heal the Brain
“there is more wisdom in our body than all of our deepest philosophies” Nietzche
For our bodies to be sending healing and positive messages to our brain, so that our Mind can respond positively, creatively and lovingly to ourselves we need to allow ourselves enough time in our new routines for:
- Sleep: 11 hours for primary school age children, 9 hours for teenagers
- Quiet Time and Being alone
- Mindfulness: letting feelings come and go
- Plenty of play and un-scheduled time
- Screen free time: 90 minutes before bed
- Time in nature
- Time for Baths with Epsom salts (full of magnesium)
I cannot emphasise enough how Play is key in helping young children emotionally regulate because:
- Develops our executive function which is our “thinking” brain
- Helps us master and regulate our emotions
- Pretend play builds empathy
- Play develops problem solving skills
Specific Caregiving Strategies that help alleviate emotional distress during Lockdown:
My Ten top tips
- Validate and acknowledge children’s worries, don’t dismiss it by using phrases such as “there’s nothing to worry about”, “it will be ok”, or try and talk them out of it. This language feeds anxiety. Explain to children the facts of Coronavirus and why you have taken the decisions that you have in an age appropriate way.
Instead, to validate, you can show understanding through empathy, using expressions like “I get it”, “I can see how scared you are.” Validate that we have faith in them that they can “find their brave”. It’s important that you work together to find solutions, rather than “asserting” solutions.
- Help them tolerate distress and accept uncomfortable feelings, that will come and go. Re-assure that it’s ok to have thoughts that worry us, and that it’s normal. Normalise “worry”. Show some vulnerability that you too are worried, but you take care that your worry thoughts don’t take over. Share what helps you….doing some exercise, watching TV, taking a bath etc. Ask them what activity they think would help them feel more relaxed.
- Don’t try and change the decisions that your children are making e.g not connecting with friends. Instead gently explain that anxiety comes from a strong healthy brain, wanting to protect us, not a weak one. However, sometimes it sends us the wrong messages. It’s up to us to control our mind, not the other way around. We can be the boss of our brain literally. Ask your child how they can be the boss of their brain when you are working out solutions. Ask them to thank the brain for the warning, but affirm that they have “got this”.
- A great technique is to make a plan if a child is becoming distressed using the “What if….then we will…..” formula
- Allocate specific “worry time” and go fishing for worries. Write them on post it notes and then stick them in a journal. When you return to the journal, see if those worries came true. Record what went well, what were the positives. Pick a regular time for this, preferably not just before bedtime.
- Externalise Worry. Switch the phrase “What are you worrying about?” to “What is worry telling you?”
- Give yourself enough time and space to stay topped up with your best resources, so that you aren’t a role model for stress and anxiety. Our children pick up key messages for safety not just through our words, but through our facial expressions and body language.
- Help them come up with some affirming mantras e.g “I’m the boss of my thoughts”, “I’m anxious but I’m strong”, “This anxiety is not mine”. “This worry will pass”
- Start a daily gratitude practice….even little ones can take part. It has been proven by Brain scans that a consistent gratitude practice over 21 days creates new neural pathways. Dan Siegal, author of The Whole Brain Child says that this is because “neurons that fire together wire together”. Finding 3 good things for every negative 3.1 is how you do this.
- Make some plans for the future when lockdown is over….somethings to look forward to.