Anxiety in our kids: epidemic? What you can do about it....
Anxiety seems to be rife in our society and it seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Modern life has to play some part. I had the good fortune to be granted six hours in total with the widely respected psychotherapist Christophe Saurewein Academic Director of iCAAD (Europe’s leading Behavioural, Mental and Emotional Health Conference) who specialises in anxiety, addiction and mental health issues stemming from childhood.
Part One focuses on Anxiety. Is it happening more in kids, why? Most importantly what can we as parents (and parents of the future) do about it.
Q: Do you think there is a growing crisis/epidemic when it comes to anxiety in young children?
A: Firstly, it is difficult to measure it, but yes I do. Modern life is causing parents to be less available both physically and mentally, and most importantly emotionally. The way we now live our lives and the expectations put upon us by society (and ourselves), means that on the whole we are parenting with more stress, less time and greater preoccupation.
The statistics back this up. Mental Health UK shows that 30% of mental health issues are established before the age of 13 and 75% before the age of 17 so, on the whole, the epidemic is heavily rooted in childhood and in early tween and teen years.
Where does chronic anxiety in a young child usually stem from?
Anxiety is on the whole a ‘learnt trait’ and this comes from repetition of ‘stress’. That stress principally come in the form of two things:
The obvious kind: a big trauma/one off event (severe car accident/violent abuse etc) which untreated will damage the brain development from a psychological standpoint of a child. Thankfully this is much less common.
More complex and subtle: ‘Little T’s’ small traumas or ‘stress episodes’. The key here is the repetition. Typically the trauma (and subsequent anxiety) will develop in proportion to the level it is repeated. So - the more you do it, the worse it is...
What happens in the brain/brain development of a child when it experiences repeated stress?
Firstly, biologically, what we do with our children matters and does impact how the brain is ‘wired’. Neurons in the brain need to be connected in order for us to function, learn, and for our brains to develop. So from day zero until around 10yrs old, neural connections are formed. Neural connections occur with every experience they have. An ‘experience’ will therefore impact how these neural connections develop and how our brain is effectively ‘wired’.
That’s a lot of pressure to parent well then! So are you saying its very easy to mess up our children?!
No I’m not saying that. Life is chaotic and being attached to doing things perfectly will only create more stress. In fact, we have to let go of the notion of ‘perfect parenting’ for this exact reason. Why? Every single experience does shape the brain’s wiring which makes it impossible to totally control. Trying to do so will drive you mad. In fact, it is a bit like the butterfly effect ie. we cannot possibly say what impact an isolated incident will have - its all about cumulative knock on effects.
However, what is the case, is that repeated stress-based-experiences do pave the way for the development of chronic anxiety in a person later in life. That is for sure. However being conscious of this is a huge step in the right direction and is already a positive from a parenting perspective.
The process of neural connection tends to level out at 10yrs old and then we see a phase of ‘pruning’, this is where the brain discards the connections that are formed that are no longer deemed relevant or useful. This is typically when we see coping mechanisms and preferred ways of behaviour/set thinking established. The “pruning” works either ways in selection of healthy and unhealthy patterns of behaviours and coping strategies, becoming automatic habitual or preferred ones. The less the child is helped and supported, the more is left to his own device and choises, the more unhealthy coping mechanism are selected. What is important to understand is the mechanisme: adverse infancy and childhood leads to imbalanced neural connections in the child’s brain, and ends into unhealthy “pruning” when entering adolescence. It works like a domino chain..
There are some people who will argue that stress or anxiety is partly genetic, you argue that it is more learnt. Why is that?
Firstly, the number of genes in our bodies is less than the number of neurons in the brain. In terms of genes we have approx 10 to the power 11 vs 10 to the power 13 neurons in the brain. Essentially there is more space for programmed/learned mechanisms in the brain than there are pre programmed genetics.
Take walking for example. We have the genetic capacity to walk as we grow, however, it is learnt and relates to our brain development. That’s why there are typically wide windows developmentally between one child learning to walk and another ie. it doesn’t just automatically happen when you’re physically capable.
We also ‘learn’ how to ask for food, based on previous experiences our behaviour around that will adapt.
People also tend to confused genetic with ‘tradition’. Repeated enough over many generations it does start to set in as we adapt (Darwin’s theory), however, this takes many generations and fundamentally people tend to raise their children in the way that they were raised themselves. So, a person who has had anxiety as a child is likely (if left untreated) to parent from a place of anxiety themselves. This ‘transmission’ effect has been well documented by the likes of Robert Freedman.
Can you give an example of this ‘transmission’ effect?
Firstly think of it this way. We are programmed for survival and you can see this in the wild. Take a herd of deer. If a mother senses incoming danger, or a predator, then she will start to run. A fawn will immediately pick up on this and run also. There is no verbal communication here, instead it is by energy and physicality. Transmitted anxiety and fear. Human babies also crave survival and particularly pre-verbal pick up energy and physical signals/body language. Stress is very much an energy.
A great example of this in practice in humans the ‘still-face’ experiment (click here to see it for yourself). It shows the effect and distress of a young (non-verbal) child when a mother simply changes her body language, expression (to non emotional) and therefore connection with the child. Even over a very short space of time you can see the child’s behaviour change and distress level grow. It’s fascinating and well worth watching. It shows the effect of being cold and of being ‘present’ but really absent. No language required to increase the stress levels in a young child.
Ok, so we have established that a lot of anxiety in children comes from modern parenting, so what are the key ‘stressors’ we are potentially giving our children?
Obviously we are all human, and everyone has bad days where they snap and don't behave perfectly. The key is how often. Now and again isn’t going to do too much damage, it is when it is repeated day after day that it becomes a problem. This is usually in the form of Relational Trauma - and this is typically chronic.
Because no one can be a perfect parent all the time, it is important to become “human parents”, acknowledging to the child our imperfection in parenting: in other words be capable to admit our mistakes to our children and make prompt amends. It usually prevents the child to blame himself for parenting erors and results into better child self-esteem and less anxiety.
Do you have any examples of relational trauma?
This can encompass a whole range of things, but essentially relational trauma is things like being present but absent at the same time. Absent without explaining why, and without structure (can cause abandonment issues). Lack of emotional connection. Adult conversations in front of a child. Arguments in front of a child are even worse, in fact ‘domestic violence’ (and this does not just mean physical) is the best predictive factor for addictive behaviour to develop in adulthood.
Does an argument in front of a child impact a child who is not yet verbal?
Absolutely. One of the biggest mistakes people make is the assumption that the child is resilient/will forget or don't understand. Children from birth are aware in one way or another. At the very earliest stage that is related to survival. Once again the Still Face experiment shows the vulnerability of a child to body language. When we argue it is often not just body language but raised voices and high tension as well. The Understanding of this starts from day one.
Arguably human babies are even more vulnerable. Evolution (as we have gone from walking on all fours to on two legs) has shortened gestation. Our hips have narrowed which means we give birth earlier to smaller babies. As a result, there is a huge amount of development that needs to occur post birth. The brain/hormonal system and locomotion is all underdeveloped which brings great vulnerability for several years after birth. We are essentially giving birth to premature living creatures with a huge amount of development happening in the early years post birth.
But whether we like it or not, life is stressful. Isn't stressing about being stressed and impacting our children making it even worse?! How on earth can we stop this?
The best way of thinking about this is the example of the oxygen mask on a plane. You are told to fit your own before fitting a child’s. That way you are in a better position to look after that child. The same is true for anxiety.
Regulating your own stress is the best way to break the cycle.
This is often easier said than done though. What practical tools can people use?
Absolutely. Life by itself creates stress, the system creates stress. Life is expensive and people need to work in jobs where an increasing amount is expected and where communication is always ‘on’. This is very different from the workplace even twenty years ago. It is also very hard to rationalise away stress. Typically dong so causes more stress. In fact - stressing about being stress puts a multiplier effect on it. The irony!
The difficulty with stress is that you can't really rationalise it away. You can also quickly get into a vicious cycle where you want to connect to a child, can’t, the child gets frustrated and then you feel more shame and lose confidence.
The key is the ‘transition’.
What is the transition and why is this so important for breaking the cycle?
This is creating space between life outside the home and life inside the home. Stopping one thing and letting it go, as much as you, can before stepping in to the other. Whether it be five minutes or an hour, it is very important to take time to do whatever you can or need to do to separate the stress from the outside world and time with a child. Even a small thing like taking a break, being on your own, or switching off your phone before you go in to the space of being a parent can be very powerful.
The other thing to remember is that a transition doesn’t just happen by itself, it has to be done in a conscious fashion - it needs to be managed,
So - doing what you need to do for yourself to make that break is important. Create space, breathe mindfully, take a walk, meditate - even for just a few minutes can be powerful. Find what works for you and be proactive about it.
Creating boundaries between work and parenting will make you better at both.
What about managing anxiety in an older child?
The other key thing to remember is that not all fear and anxiety is unhealthy. Not all stress can come from a parent either. It can come of course from outside/new environments etc. In fact, fear is useful and it keeps us alive. Children can experience fear and anxiety for a whole host of reasons. The worst thing to do is to deny or suppress this, the best thing to do is to ask why. To the child there is likely a very good reason.
Telling a child that they ‘shouldn’t’ fear something can create more anxiety. When a child cries, screams etc they are usually trying to tell you something is wrong. One of the best approaches to manage this is to approach it with curiosity rather than anger or frustration. Investigate why is a huge step in managing it positively.
What about setting boundaries for a child. When is it best and how is it best to do this in a healthy way?
When a child starts to be autonomous is the time to start. However, a child usually wants to explore and usually isn’t behaving ‘badly’ when they pull down a plant or create a mess - they are just discovering and that should be encouraged. So good boundaries should be more about safety rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour in the early days.
It is important to explain when they do something unsafe that there is a boundary for their safety. It’s not about punishing, but explaining.
Once again being curious as a parent (and child) is key. When there is repeated ‘bad’ behaviour the best start is to take the time to understand why this is happening.
What about self-esteem. How do we build this appropriately?
This starts as soon as the child realises he/she has a name and body and increases when he/she realises she has an identity. Awareness and respect that an identity is forming is very important. Another good tool is affirming the child for success but also for failure - they key is that they are trying something. Celebrate those attempts and the choices they make about what they like/want to do from early on.
The trouble with affirmation only for success is that it creates perfectionism, something that western society is increasingly focused on. Instead affirm the attempt not the outcome.
Low self esteem isn't usually visible until later, but, the seeds are planted early. Identity and self esteem typically starts to build more rapidly once the child becomes verbal.
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