Updated: Jun 26
Last week I touched on how children everywhere are understandable anxious about the idea of returning to school after being in lock-down and learning from home. The rules have changed and keep changing. School was "safe" then "unsafe" and now "safe" again. When they are back the rooms are different for social distancing, break times might be different and then there is all the hand washing.
In last week's blog I went through how to help our kid's manage anxiety by Acknowledging it, Explaining Anxiety, Releasing Anxiety and finally Problem-solving to make a plan. However I didn't really go into detail about why these steps work and how we can continue to build bravery in our kids.
Anxiety and the Brain
The brain is amazing. We once thought that neural pathways were set and there was nothing we could do to change them. We now know that the brain is always changing. Every time we learn something a new pathway is made. The more you practice something, the stronger those pathways are. That's why learning something is hard to begin with but as those memories and learning are practiced it becomes easy. The ability for our brains to change like this is call Neuroplasticity.
When it come to Anxiety, Neuroplasticity is both a blessing and a curse. Whenever our brain perceives a threat, this wiring of pathways takes priority over other wiring. So if we are anxious our brains will automatically focus on the threat and on what strategies we use to deal with it. So when we are in the fight/flight (anxious) mode, and we have had a tantrum (fight) or avoided (flight) in the past, we will automatically want to do these strategies again. However the good thing about Neuroplasticity it that we can change this automatic response, but it does take practice.
The "fight/flight" response is an autonomic response from the sympathetic nervous system. It is a good thing, we need it. When there really is danger we need our bodies to react quickly and without too much thought to have a quick response. The problem is that when we are anxious it is over-reacting and we need to learn to calm. There is another nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for the "rest and digest" responses, basically the opposite to the anxiety. The main nerve that controls this system is call the Vagus Nerve. So why am I going into so much detail about the nervous systems? Well when the Vagus Nerve is stimulated Neuroplasticity is more effective.
Even if by being anxious a pathway has been made that leads to a fight/flight response, if we can stimulate the Vagus Nerve while using new strategies our brains will learn this new way of responding easier. The key to stimulating the Vagus Nerve is slow diaphragmatic breathing. This is why Psychologists go on and on about controlled breathing for relaxation. Quite literally, when we breathe slowly this sends a message to the Vagus Nerve which then causes the body to release calming chemicals.
So I will say it again, find a way to teach your child controlled breathing. There are so many ways to do this (see my previous blogs on relaxation). They can be fun and imaginative such as pretending to slowly smell a cup of hot chocolate and then slowly blowing on it to cool it down. Or they can simply focus on the breathing by placing your hand on your diaphragm (just below your ribs) and focus on breathing in slowly making your tummy come out not your chest and then slowly breathe out. It doesn't matter which one you do just as long as you breathe slowly. It helps if you practice this when your child is calm such as at bedtime. This way when they recognise that they are anxious, being able to do the breathing will come easy, they won't have to learning it in the midst of anxiety.
Now that I have explained some ways to manage anxiety, how do we keep the momentum going and build courage in our children. We need our kids to see their bravery so that when anxiety comes they know that they have overcome it before. They need to understand that anxiety and fear are normal, we all feel them. Even the bravest people in the world get anxious. Kids usually think that bravery is doing something without fear, but we need to teach them that Bravery is doing something in spite of fear.
1. Lead by example
For your children you are their hero, well for young children at least. Most likely they think that you never get scared. Some parents think that they have to uphold this image but you might just be doing your children a disservice. I'm not saying you should tell your kids about every worry you have. We certainly don't need to put more stress or worry on them. But it is okay for them to know that you are a bit nervous about a big presentation you have to do at work, or worried about meeting people for the first time. This normalizes anxiety for our kids. It is particularly effective if you include them in the strategies that you use to manage the anxiety such as, "I'm feeling a bit nervous about tomorrow so I'm going to go for a walk to feel better", or "I need to do some breathing to calm, will you do it with me?"
2. Use Imagination
The imaginative world is so real to kids it would be such a waste to not tap into this. Get creative with your child. What is something that they could use to feel brave? For some kids you could choose a rock together. You could hold the rock together and put brave feelings into it. That way when they have to go to school or somewhere that triggers anxiety they can have their rock in their pocket and feel the brave feelings. It could be wearing superman underwear and having that reminds them to be brave. It can seem completely ridiculous but if it works for your child then go for it.
3. Celebrate Bravery Not Success
Nothing reinforces fear more than failure. If they were scared, tried and failed chances are they won't try again. We need to change the way we view failure. If a child was scared to try something new but they did try then that is a success. Praise your child for the bravery and make sure you label it as bravery. Kids need to realise that they are brave even if things don't work out the way they want. When they realise that they had some success, they will have the confidence to try again.
4. Brave Board
It is easy to forget the times we were brave or not even realise that these things were bravery. But if we want to our kids to build confidence and manage their anxiety then we need them to recognise their own strength. If they can see all the times that they have been brave than this is evidence that they can be brave again and they can overcome fear.
Make a poster and decorate it however you like. have your child brainstorm all the times they have been brave. Chances are that you will need to help them remember these times. Once they have done something they may forget how anxious they were to begin with.
Have this board up where they can see it daily. Remind them of all the challenges they have overcome. Add to the board when you can, as they do more and more brave things. That way they and see their bravery continues to grow as they continue to overcome their anxiety.
When we understand how to manage anxiety and build our kids confidence in overcoming their anxiety, then we will build their bravery for future success.