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BY: Dr. Robin Alter

There is no doubt the “Age of Anxiety” is more upon us than it was when W.H. Auden wrote his famous poem  more than 60 years ago. If Auden were alive today the title of his article might be “Age of Panic.” Every day we hear about more and more things that generate anxiety. Even very young children seem to have the word anxiety in their vocabulary. For children the situation is even more dire because children are afraid of many of  the things that their parents are, as well as a host of other highly improbable and impossible things, such as ghosts hiding in the closet or monsters lurking under the bed.

The prevalence of children under the age of 17 suffering from anxiety is estimated at 7%, which means that in Canada approximately 500,000 children are in this group. When anxiety becomes so high that it interferes with one’s ability to function, then it is called an anxiety disorder, and in childhood and adolescence the prevalence of anxiety disorders is rising and is currently higher than that of all other mental disorders. At one of the largest children’s mental health centre in Toronto the incidence of anxiety-related problems in children has increased by 50% over the past ten years. Anxiety now represents 27% of the problems that clients seek help for at the centre. But, please remember, much of the anxiety that children show is transient, it comes and goes, and does not take over the child’s life but it can be very concerning in the moment. Here are a few tips to help you help your child get through it successfully. 

Understand what anxiety is.  Anxiety is a useful response from our brain that is designed to keep us safe. We want to avoid things that are potentially harmful or that have harmed us in the past, so our brains create an alarm system to do just that. It even remembers key elements of the dangerous situation to alert us in the future. So if something bad happened in the Library, your anxiety centre connect danger with the Library or with libraries in general just to keep you safe. This happens even though libraries themselves never did anything to harm us. We don’t want to get rid of anxiety. It protects us and helps us to react to things quickly that need a quick response, such as not touching a hot stove or not getting hit by a moving car. When we are anxious it’s not that something is wrong with us. We need to learn to understand and manage it better. 

The 9 second rule.
We have two worry centres in our brain. One is connected to the older part of our brain that’s been around since we were cavemen and women, deep in the middle part of the brain. It is also shared by other animals besides humans, so let’s call it the lower brain. There is a newer centre in the brain, which is closer to our foreheads, is the logic and reasoning part of our brain which takes a bit longer to kick in, but operates as a check on the first one. Let’s call it the higher brain. It operates to calm the first part down if it is overreacting to things. It uses logic and reason.  

Through neuro-imaging techniques we have now learned that the older part of the brain responds very quickly, because when there is real danger it is important to act quickly. The newer part of the brain takes about 9 seconds to kick in. So it is possible to teach kids and adults too, to wait and not do anything for 9 seconds, which gives the newer part of the brain a chance to kick. 

Use logic.  The logic and reasoning part of our brain can use a bit of help sometimes. We can give it a boost by providing some shorthand phrases to remind ourselves to turn on the logical part of our brain and not get flooded by the emotional part of our brain. Here are some examples of thinking emotionally and how to use logic to override it–

When we think emotionally we “blow things out of proportion”– Mom washed my favourite shirt and it shrunk.   Child says– “This is the worst thing ever!”  Logic says– “I’m sorry this happened. You have other favourite shirts and maybe there is someone else who might wear this one– a sibling or even your doll.”

When we think emotionally we “jump to conclusions.” Child says– “I did badly on this test, I’m never going to be able to understand this stuff.” Logic says– “You did well on the last test, and you are improving all the time. This stuff is hard and it’s your first crack at it. Stuff like this is always hard at the beginning.” 

When we think emotionally we “filter” and only see the bad in a situation. Child says– “I called Susie and she didn’t call me back.  She played with other girls but not me yesterday. We’re not friends anymore.” Logic says– “You guys played together a few weeks ago and had a good time.  Maybe she just got busy and didn’t call you back. Give her another ring.”

When we think emotionally we draw conclusions on the basis of how we feel to what we think. “Feelings Rule” Child says “I’m having trouble with these math questions. I have a bad feeling about the upcoming math test. I know I’m going to fail.”  Logic says – “Just because you feel you’re going to fail doesn’t make it true. You’re just having some difficulty right now. If you keep trying you will get it.” 

When we think emotionally we use words like “always” and “never,” which are not accurate.  Child says– “I am playing by myself.  I’m never going to have any friends to play with. No one ever wants to play with me.”  Logic says– “Just because you are alone right now doesn’t mean it will be that way forever and ever. You used to have friends to play with. How did you make that happen?  What might happen if you tried something like that now? What if you took a risk and asked those kids if you could join in the game?”

There are many instances you can point to that shows that children have the capacity to override impulses. Children learn to wait their turn in a restaurant and not grab food off other peoples’ tables.  They learn to wait their turn in school to answer a question when they are certain of the answer.

The Gift of Imagination.  I have discovered in my clinical practice of over 40 years that many children who complain of excess anxiety are overly imaginative.  Imagination is a delightful aspect of the mind when it serves our intentions, but it can be quite destructive when it veers off the rails and becomes frightening.  It’s another aspect of the mind which needs to be curtailed through logic and reason.

Some kids have extremely imaginative play, making up wonderfully elaborate scenarios and acting them out with dolls or action figures. Older kids write stories, plays or even novels; some compose songs, often with intricate lyrics. Other kids express their imaginations through art, creating detailed drawings and paintings. Still others build complex structures with Lego®, building blocks or clay. The realm of the imagination is limitless and takes many different forms, but many of the children who come to see me for anxiety are gifted with highly active, developed and vivid imaginations. If your child is one of these, you might want to approach anxiety from this perspective.  It may make it an easier conversation to have.  According to Professor Paul Harris at Harvard– “Children and adults have the capacity to be absorbed in a pretend world.  Once they enter that state of absorption, it is the events occurring within the imagined world that drive our emotional system,” (The Work of the Imagination).  Here are some ideas to keep the gift of imagination truly a gift:

Let the child know they have an amazing gift.  Imagination is a powerful force and when you are in charge of it and it goes where you want it to go, then it is a joyful experience. You can have a lot of fun playing with what you create with your imagination. But when it goes where it wants to go, and you have no choice, then it can be a real nightmare!

Imagination is more important than knowledge

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astro-physicist and author.

Engage logic and reason, and point out any other areas where they have learned to exercise control.  Maybe they learned to ride a bike, or ski. Maybe they understand that cars need control mechanisms to harness their power.  Use your knowledge of their experience and interests to connect them to their ability to master difficult tasks.  “You learned to ride your bike, to brake and steer when necessary, you can learn to brake and steer your imagination. It wasn’t easy to learn to ride your bike, but you did it, and now look how much fun you have with it.”

Activate a desire for change.  Using this approach activates your child’s motivation to want to use all the tools available, many of which you have probably been providing, but which your child may not be using. Many children are simply not motivated to make changes. This can be confusing because if someone is in distress, then one might logically conclude that he/she should be clamouring for change. Children, however, frequently choose a different route. They prefer to try to change the world rather than change themselves. This often takes the form of avoidance and trying to control the parents in order to avoid whatever is causing them distress. For instance, if a child is afraid of school or something happening at school, then he/she might try to avoid school, which entails manipulating the parents to allow the school refusal.

Timing is everything. It is only once the child understands about being in charge, that he/she is ready for change. You can say to a child “Your imagination is like a wild stallion. It’s strong and powerful. You need to tame it. You need to be in charge. Once you do that, imagine how much fun you’re going to have with it. If you don’t establish that you’re in charge, what is that going to be like? You’re going to be holding on for dear life and, how much fun will that be? Not much!”  Most children want to be in charge and in control of themselves.  They don’t want anxiety or imagination to be in control.

Once they are motivated then you can work on how to get control of the imagination, understanding why imaginations like to create scary scenarios, how to be respectful of the imagination but still show it that you are in charge. There are many tools available, some of which you may have already tried. They might not have worked because of lack of motivation to use them. Some of my favourites are creating a safe place in your mind, becoming aware of the thought traps described above, using lists and scales, the “worry box”, facing your fears. Many of these imaginative children prefer to develop their own tools rather than use a cookie cutter approach. I am continually inspired by these children, who, once they make the decision, find ways to take control of their imaginations and hence their lives. Children who had previously been missing out on many fun activities are now fully participating those activities– school, family vacations and hikes, birthday parties, eating out in restaurants, swimming at the deep end, braving storms, and even getting a good night’s sleep.