Standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter recently, I overheard a conversation between a young child and their mother. The child seemed very worried about being late to basketball practice. “Oh, don’t be such a Worry Wart,” the mother replied. Things only escalated between the two from there. This triggered something deep within me because when I was a child I was labeled “Worry Wart” by my parents and the name still stings a bit.
I worried about all sorts of typical childhood things like monsters hiding underneath the bed, learning to swim, losing my first tooth and the first day of school. As I got older I worried about things like grades, friend issues, my parents getting ill, how my body was changing and getting an acceptance letter to my dream university.
What I didn’t understand as a child was that worrying can actually be a good thing. Research has taught us that the limbic system in the brain controls emotions. The amygdala deep inside the brain, acts as a sort of traffic cop protecting us from danger. When a person is in a positive emotional state, the amygdala sends information onto the thinking, reasoning and learning part of the brain. However, when one is worried or overly anxious, the amygdala prevents the input from moving along and blocks reasonable, higher level thinking which can cause one to “fight, flight or freeze.” The impulse to move away from a falling branch or defend yourself when threatened with physical harm, are examples of our bodies not having to think about what to do, one reacts without thinking. (Mind Up) When I teach this to my students, they often feel a sense of empowerment. Learning about how the brain works helps students understand how their brains respond to anxiety and the importance of creating a positive mindset. In small doses, worry can be easy to manage, and we understand that children will experience some level of anxiety as they move through the various stages of childhood. Yet when it gets in the way and prevents a child from doing what they want to do or need to do, these anxious feelings can become debilitating and a disability.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder and approximately 7% of children aged 3-17 experience excessive fears and anxiety each year. Experts don’t always agree that it is on the rise, but instead acknowledge that people are more open about discussing their anxiety and are seeking treatment for it, thus the rise in the statistics. There are several contributing factors, such as genetics, environmental factors, social media, poor sleep habits, financial stress and rising housing costs just to name a few. “Anxiety has become a way of life and it’s contagious,” states Madeline Levine, Ph.D and author of Teach Your Children Well. It makes sense that if adults are anxious, so are their kids. When a student is feeling anxious, it can be very difficult to learn. Many parents would be surprised to learn that one of the biggest factors causing anxiety in young children is sleep deprivation.
All parents want their children to do well and want to spare them the curve balls life can throw. Highly educated parents who have a lot of resources often try to protect their children from experiencing hardship, rejection or failure. They seek to give their children an advantage. They might hire tutors, sport coaches, music and dance instructors just to name a few. Such enrichment can be a great thing. Yet, overscheduling activities can be hard on children and families. It’s important to consider the child and to be reasonable. Seek a balance of fun, scheduled activities and plenty of unstructured down time. While there is value in supporting a child’s interests and passions, many children are overscheduled. Most of their structured activities take place indoors. Their brains are overstimulated, their bodies are restless and they are tired. Teachers see this in their classrooms everyday. Madeline Levine further suggests we are robbing our children of their childhoods because there is little time for unstructured play where children learn to handle life’s obstacles and make mistakes without adult supervision.
PBS was one of the very first schools to value the importance of a child’s emotional health and well being. We have always known that children can only thrive in their academic learning if they possess the awareness and strategies to manage their emotional state. As part of our Emotional Intelligence curriculum we teach our students mindfulness practices which helps them deal with the stress of worry and anxiety independent of adults. Walk into one of our classrooms on any given day and you might see children practicing a breathing exercise to calm their bodies or you might see the complete opposite and see children waking up their bodies with a quick two minute “dance party” or “brain break.” Many of our classrooms have a cozy nook in the classroom designated at a Safe Space, where kids can go if they are feeling overwhelmed or need a moment to just be by themselves. These practices help children manage any anxiety they might be experiencing. Visit the Phillips Brooks School Curriculum Guide to learn more about mindful practices and our EI program.
Listed below are some important things parents and caregivers can do to help calm your child’s worries as suggested by the Child Mind Institute.
- Validate their feelings but don’t empower them
- Share a personal story about a time you felt worried or anxious about something
- Model healthy ways to handle anxiety yourself such as breathing exercises, meditation, a healthy diet or going for a walk
- Listen to their concerns and brainstorm ways to work through them together
- Break things down for them - Take baby steps (Rome wasn’t built in a day).
- Remind your child of a time they were anxious and how they overcame that anxiety
- Limit the number of after school structured activities throughout the week and let your kids play!
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please read an interview with Shimi Kang, MD. She is the author of a fabulous book called, The Self Motivated Kid, How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children Who Know What They Want …(2015)
Mind Up Curriculum - Brain Focused Strategies for Learning and Living Copyright 2011
- Emotional Intelligence