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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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Helping Our Kids with Anxiety

I love my memory feed. I revisited something I posted on social media from a couple of years back. It allowed me to remember a conversation a couple of friends and I had with Dr. Lisa Damour. The post was pre-pandemic. One of my favorite Facebook Pages (Grown and Flown Parenting) was hosting a virtual book club. I asked several friends to join me at my house, and we literally had a virtual book club with the author. I know this sort of event is more normal these days because of the times, but two years ago it was pretty innovative.

We were encouraged to ask questions during the call. My friend, and Girl Smarts facilitator at the time, “Selfish Mama” Life Coach Tina Unrue, asked about anxiety. I found the information Dr. Damour shared eye opening and have included her points in my program during the Girl Smarts public speaking workshop. As our children get back into the classroom, I thought it would be helpful to share Dr. Damour’s insights so we can assist our young ones as they navigate their anxiety.

We know the ways anxiety manifests physically and emotionally. The medical community clearly understands those reactions and their links from research. First there is a physical response. Our hearts race, our stomachs get upset, our palms sweat, and we tense up. There are more signs you can Google but these are some of the most common.  The second thing that happens as we experience the physical responses is we have an emotional interpretation of those responses. We can interpret them as negative when we’re facing something we are conditioned to feel anxious about. Let’s say we’re going to give a speech to the class. If we are having physical reactions like I laid out above, we emotionally link those signs to negative outcomes:

“I’m going to bomb this.”

“I hate this.”

“I stink at this.”

“People are going to laugh at me.”

Deep in our brains we are genetically hard-wired to survive. When faced with a physical and emotional threat like anxiety we will either prepare to fight, take flight, or we freeze. It’s very systematic and very predictable behavior. As we form patterns of connections in our early years, our physical reactions and emotional interpretations become linked and that link, when negative, can be very difficult to break. That’s especially true if we don’t work to disrupt the negative connections in early development.

As a parent or caregiver, it’s helpful to keep your coaching systematic when you address these physical reactions with your child. Give your children skills to help them respond to their anxiety-based reactions, but don’t wait until they are in the throes of anxiety to introduce the skills. Morning self-care routines are important to practice so our children can learn to get comfortable with those skills now. Try practicing breathing exercises, visualizing positive outcomes, power posing and even basic steps of meditation. We can control the way our bodies react, and we can retrain our brains to connect physical responses in a way that is supportive of the outcomes we want.

After your children have skills to address the physical reaction they’re experiencing, help them reinterpret the emotional responses they have. I often ask the girls how they feel before they come down to their birthday celebrations or get to ride on a really fun ride at the park, or their physical reactions on the eve of something big like Christmas, Hanukah or an impending Eid. They have very similar physical things happening, but in these situations it’s because they’re excited. They’re revved up and looking forward to the event. Talk about the fact that your children can challenge their thoughts when they are negative and reinterpret the physical signs of anxiety and take advantage of the extra energy they are feeling.

“I’m gonna blow this,” can turn into “I may not be perfect but I’m ready to share what I know.”

“I don’t know everything about this topic,” lifts to, “I know more than anyone else in the class about this.”

“I’ll make a mistake,” translates to “If I make a mistake, I’ll correct myself or talk to the teacher after my speech.”

Finally, nothing beats being prepared; for the test, or the speech, or the confrontation with the bully. Be your child’s coach and help them practice whatever it is they are facing. Let them practice their presentation with you and the first time; listen completely without talking or interrupting. Ask them how they felt about what they’ve done. Ask if they’d like your input and then coach them on the biggest areas you see need adjusting, not too many things, and give them another shot after a rework or a tweak. Always show support and “Root for their Rise” as Oprah would say. When they come home, do a little review of how things went. High five the good and discuss the lessons learned. At the end of the day, this is not about perfection or even getting a top grade, it’s about building the courage to face the things that make us anxious and grow to achieve a positive personal outcome.

They have a long journey, so pack their bags with confidence and skills for a lifetime.

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