Big worries

Clinical psychologist CATHERINE GALLAGHER helps us to understand anxiety, and how we can best support our children to confront their ‘worry thoughts’.

Like all living creatures, we need an alarm system to signal threat. Deep in our brains, a chain of events is initiated that prepares us to fight, take flight or freeze, depending on what is going to work best.

Although brilliant in life-threatening/life-saving situations, this alarm system has its faults. The first is that it wasn’t designed for modern living. While it makes sense for our muscles to tighten and our heart to race if being chased by a lion, this response doesn’t tend to help us when we are trying to sleep before a big exam.

The second flaw is that our alarm system can be hacked. In other words, our thoughts about the future (what if?) and the past (remember when…) can trick the alarm system into firing and making us experience danger as real and current, in the absence of anything that is actually dangerous.

Genetics, life experiences and the responses of others can all influence how sensitive someone is to anxiety. In other words, genetics loads the gun and experience pulls the trigger.

As parents, we can’t change biology or things that have already happened, but we can notice and manage our own reactions to our child’s anxiety. This can be a powerful catalyst for change: if we can gain confidence in our reactions to anxiety, this can encourage bravery in our children (and ourselves).

Central to this is helping our child work out the difference between what is actually dangerous and what their brain might be telling them is dangerous, and the feelings and behaviours that result from this. It may sound simple, but in reality genetics runs in families, and often an anxious child has an anxious parent whose brain is pretty good at tricking them, too.

Biological and emotional systems inside of us also motivate us to do what we can to reduce our child’s distress. Naturally we want to take our child away from situations that cause them to get upset – and anxious children can certainly get upset!

Parents need to know that, in supporting their child to confront anxiety, they are not doing harm – although their child might tell them they are. They are in fact allowing the brain to build up new connections that help the child fight back when anxiety turns up.

Our challenge is to have the child experience anxiety, without the feared thing happening – social ridicule or rejection at school, for example. When this happens enough times, the child learns that their brain was tricking them, and that they are able to do things that their ‘worry brain’ was telling them they couldn’t or shouldn’t.

There are great strategies out there for helping reduce the intensity of anxiety: slow belly breaths, mindfulness, talking back to anxiety, relaxation, exercise, and, most importantly, repeated exposure.

The difficulty is that, under stress, children will usually revert to strategies, such as avoidance or seeking reassurance. While these may have worked previously, their effects don’t last for long and in fact they ultimately feed the anxiety and increase its hold.

Parents need to validate that their child is having a ‘big feeling’ and that their ‘worry brain is tricking them’; but, they also need to help their child to stand up to anxiety, which can require quite a strong behavioural stance at times. To do this, a parent has to have confidence that they are doing the right thing – because habit, their own temperament and the child’s words and tears will be telling them otherwise.

Catherine Gallagher has worked with children and their families over the last 18 years. Currently she is the Clinical Practice Manager at START, a community agency that supports children, young people and adults who have experienced sexual violence, and she also has a small private practice.