Child Psychologist/Professor Dr. Abigail Gewirtz Shares Insight on Anxiety
Navigating Emotions at Every Age
Unlike you, most children can’t consciously practice for “blown fuses.” Here we look at how children experience emotions at each stage of life, and how you, as a parent, can give them emotion-regulating skills that enable them to feel more secure and confident at any age.
The Toddler and Preschool Years
As we’ve seen, the early years are important ones for a child’s developing self-regulation. Most toddlers are learning that the world is ripe for exploration, and explore they do! But their desires are often thwarted by parents whose job it is to keep them safe. What to do? Explode into tantrums! Some toddlers, rather than grasping for independence, fear new situations and people and must be nudged into trying anything new. These children may cling to you for dear life when afraid. Peeling them off won’t help unless you can also soothe their fears. Because toddlers take their cues from you, if you are anxious, they will be, too, and if you are thrown off and upset by their tantrum, they may further spiral. Tantruming toddlers are best contained by calm and clear directions, or by being gently but physically removed from the situation (especially if you’re in public!). If you do need to peel an anxious toddler off you, do so gently. But sometimes, both the tantruming and the clinging toddler will just need to stay in your arms.
How can you set up your toddler and preschooler to manage big emotions? They can’t do it on their own. Their emotions are too overwhelming for them still, and the tools to handle them are not yet in their toolkits. Toddlers and preschoolers still need their parents’ help to calm down. Think about them as “babies-plus.” Like infants, they need soothing, but like the independent children they will become, they are beginning to understand words and eventually will use them to manage their own feelings. Until then, you are their translator.
Ways to help toddlers and preschoolers learn to regulate their emotions:
1. Talk it through. Talk about big emotions when they come up or soon after, as Tim’s dad did above. Name them. You might say, “Looks to me like you are feeling scared. Where do you feel it? In your tummy? (Point.) Here in your heart?” (Bring your child’s hand to her chest to feel the beating.) 2. Breathe together. It’s never too early to teach kids to breathe deeply to calm themselves. Do it together. Count on your fingers for the deep inhale. On the exhale, pretend you are blowing up a balloon. Try to make the balloon as big as you can! Mime the growth of the balloon as you breathe out, and have your child mirror you. 3. Apply gentle firmness. If tantrums develop, be gentle but firm. Young children need to know that, even if they are out of control, their parents won’t allow them to be in danger. Hold them if you fear they will bang their head or otherwise hurt themselves, to show you will protect them as they cannot. This is no time for discussion, but soothing words can help. Also use limiting and validating words, such as, “I would be really mad [validating] if someone took my toy away, but hitting isn’t safe [limiting],” or, “Visiting a new place can feel scary [validating], but we still have to go. I’m holding you [setting limits] so you know I am here to protect you.”
The Elementary Years
By the time children enter school, they have more tools to regulate themselves. School readiness is predicated on children’s ability to manage their emotions and behaviors. A child who can’t comply with teachers’ directions will have a hard time accomplishing academic tasks. Some anxiety about school is normal, but unusually fearful children can find it hard to manage anxiety in the face of the new experiences school brings. Unlike his toddler self, however, the school-age child can now talk about all kinds of emotions. Harnessing this verbal capacity is key.
Here are ways you can help children at this age to use actions and words to manage their emotions:
1. Name and locate. Identify the emotion, and help your child figure out how he experiences it—where he senses it in his body, what expression it brings to his face. Mirrors and cameras can help with this. 2. Talk it out. Encourage your child to describe the emotional experience. This helps them learn about their emotions and it cues you toward the best way to respond. Children’s fears at this age may grow out of real-world concerns. But their interpretation of those concerns may morph and become more terrifying than reality warrants. A brief conversation about rising seas across the planet, for example, could leave an imaginative child picturing floods in his local streets, enveloping family and friends—a huge and scary leap. 3. Use your tools. Help your child identify calming strategies that work for her. Breathing is an easy one. Children at this age can also identify activities that help: coloring or other calming crafts, going for a walk, cooking or baking with a parent, or taking a bubble bath.
The Middle School Years
By fifth grade or thereabouts, children’s parents often know what unsettles them. And parents by this age are also familiar with the similarities and differences among their children and between their kids and themselves. Most parents will see aspects of themselves—their child selves, especially—mirrored in their children. But sometimes, that close identification can trip them up. Parents’ own turmoil can complicate how they handle things when their children confront similar issues.
Children at this age can increasingly govern and identify their everyday personal needs and emotions, but for difficult events and crises, they still rely on adults to help them deal. Helping them deal with big emotions means helping them to articulate their challenges and find ways to face them, rather than avoiding the things that scare them.
Ways you can you help your preteen cope with emotions:
1. Listen and watch. Children of this age may express fears in both verbal and physical ways. 2. Identify. Have your child identify and keep track of which strategies help him calm down when he is overwhelmed. Encourage shorter-term strategies, like deep belly breathing, baths, or exercise, and longer-term ones, like regular yoga or mindfulness practice and questioning or reframing thoughts. 3. Confront fears. Carefully help children confront their fears. This is tough even for adults, of course—we’d just as soon avoid or limp along with our fears until they really stop us living our lives. When something’s scaring your child, bring it up for discussion in a natural way, so he gets used to you talking about it. Spend some time examining it with him. For
example, if your child is scared of thunderstorms, help him to understand their function. Talk about why thunderstorms scare so many kids, and how literature and film often portray them as ominous and catastrophic. Knowing about something and getting used to talking about it—what psychologists call “habituating”—can make what once seemed like a “bogeyman” seem more ordinary than terrifying and help overcome fear.
The Teen Years
Welcome to puberty and the teen years, when a child’s world grows infinitely more complicated. Adolescents wield more control over their lives than ever before, from greater liberty during their after-school and weekend time, to possibly having jobs and money in their pockets, to driving and using transit to get themselves where they want to go. All this makes monitoring teens tougher because they may often be out of the house, away from parents and other adults and engaged in multiple activities within and outside school. So it’s not surprising that teens can sometimes get into trouble when unsupervised.
It’s hard to figure out how to help teens. They look like adults but can behave like children. That’s not surprising considering this is a phase of rapid brain development. While some aspects of teens’ intellects are fully developed, their “executive function”—the ability to execute complex plans, and put the brake on impulses, among other self-management tasks—won’t reach full maturation until their mid-twenties. Kids this age can be sensitive about maintaining privacy and autonomy, so parents may not know anything is wrong until something bad happens.
Ways to help teens, even if they don’t want to talk to you:
1. Listen. Try not to react or judge, at least initially. While toddlers’ behavior can be annoying, their innocence and winsomeness help parents forgive wayward behavior. But teens look more like adults, so parents often feel they should “know better,” and react accordingly. See your teen for who she is: vulnerable and still developing, simultaneously savvy and clueless, independent yet childlike. And perhaps nothing will help you empathize better than recalling the challenges of your own adolescence. 2. Scaffold without enabling. Help teens help themselves not by encouraging their avoidance, but by sharing strategies for working through their challenges. You have skills for self-calming and problem-solving that they are only beginning to learn—skills they will need all their lives. Rather than making problems “go away,” therefore, position your teens to learn from them. Don’t make excuses for them. Letting them bear consequences now will help them avoid similar mistakes as adults, when the consequences matter more. Make sure your teen has a “go-to” list of calming strategies, and encourage strengthening them through practice. 3. Share, share, share. You’ve been there! When it makes sense, share stories from your own adolescence, especially ones that show your vulnerability. Teens may think they’re unique, the “only one” beset by their current trouble or weakness, so it helps to hear that others, even their parents, may have faced the same worries or concerns.
Listening provides a cornerstone for conversations about difficult things. We can help children of all ages learn to respond to big emotions with short-and long-term strategies for communication.