Creating Calm: How to Spot Anxiety in Children

Drawing from our interview with Katie Campbell-Elsdon (B.Ed., M.Ed. (School Counselling), RCC), Meg Kapil (MA, CCC-S, RCC) and Heather Vale (RCC) the co-facilitators of Creating Calm, a therapeutic group approach that helps children alongside their parents to develop the tools and skills they need to better manage anxiety, the following information covers some key signals children can send when they are struggling to manage anxiety and/or worry.

It is helpful to be reminded at the outset that anxiety does serve an essential biological function to keep us safe. Meg describes, “When we first meet with kids we tell them that we don’t actually want to get rid of their anxiety and they’re totally surprised. Well, actually, first of all they’re a little suspicious because everyone else has been telling them they need to get rid of their anxiety, and they think, Oh, you can’t help me.

“But then we start questioning them. We ask, ‘Why wouldn’t we want to get rid of your anxiety?’ and the answer that you can come to in a variety of different ways is: without anxiety we would not be safe… so they start to really quickly understand that we need that system in our brains and bodies to keep us safe. And for them we reframe it as their minds are now just too good at it. Their minds are interpreting things as threats that aren’t there. And they start to take a kind of pride in just how good their minds are at anxiety!”

But problems occur for children when this biological function can’t switch off and starts overestimating threat. As Katie says, “When it’s out of balance, even what we would perceive as the littlest thing, becomes a huge deal and they can’t manage. We’re seeing really extreme reactions to common everyday things.”

Meg adds, “Their brain and body is like, ‘I’m going to the jungle with you because we are NOT getting eaten.’

The problem becomes when everywhere is the jungle.

“So very early on we’re shifting the ways they conceptualize and relate to anxiety. Really what we’re trying to do over time is to make friends with anxiety. So when you put it in the way that anxiety is our pal, it’s there to keep us safe, but right now it’s seeing tigers and dragons and things that actually don’t exist… The physical part is really, really important because most of the stressors we face in our modern world aren’t physical. Kids aren’t going to die from going to school, but they feel like they will. Helping them understand that the system – and the feelings that go along with it – is to protect us from physical harm helps to make sense of it for them.”

Signals Children Struggling with Anxiety Might Send:

  • School avoidance
  • Misbehaviours at school
  • Being defiant about work or not engaging in class in ways they used to
  • Self-isolating behaviour – when a child stops playing at lunch or socializing in the classroom
  • Becoming quieter than usual or withdrawn
  • Persistent sleep disruptions
  • Any other form of patterned avoidance (sports, extra curricular activities, birthday parties, etc.) – their world and interests narrow in a significant way
  • Repeated physical complaints (headaches, tummy aches, etc.). However, these types of issues should NOT be automatically attributed to anxiety. ALWAYS seek medical advice as a first step to physical complaints

While these behaviours can be very upsetting and worrisome and, when part of a larger pattern, can have complex layers behind them, the Creating Calm team teaches parents that in that particular moment all they have to do is:

  • Regulate themselves first (i.e. bring their own anxiety down)
  • Let go of the urge to ‘fix’ the problem
  • Connect to their child using compassionate listening
  • Ensure that their child feels loved and supported

 

This helps to bring kids and parents back into regulation. The Creating Calm team emphasizes the difference between short- and long-term anxiety management strategies. Short-term strategies such as the list above are about calming and regulating in the moment. Only after everyone is calm, can you begin to apply longer-term strategies. As Meg says, “Long-term focus is about healthy habits over time. That’s what all the Facebook memes and books are about. And that’s really good work, but that can only be done when everyone is calm to start withThe focus is not on how to get rid of anxiety; it’s on recovery and how we facilitate a quicker recovery.”

If you think your child is struggling with anxiety, please reach out to a trusted safe adult for support such as a friend, family member, or Registered Clinical Counsellor.