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  • Jen Dunlap

Kids and Anxiety

Whatever the analogous challenge for the previous generation of parents was, anxiety now ranks high on the list. Without posing as an expert, here are the ideas I've gathered from working with anxious kids over the last 10 years, and researching a variety of ways to manage anxiety.

Many consider that the current generation of kids is more anxious than before, and if that's true, it's likely partly true because their parents and the general culture are more anxious. It's also possible that their anxiety reflects a reasonable uncertainty about the future and the child's own abilities. If a parent tells me that their child is anxious, there are several lines of questioning I pursue, as tact and time permit.


Environment

There could be bullying, and chaotic classroom, loud neighbors, a disorganized home, unclear or unrealistic expectations, or tension between the parents. Obviously several could go together. Add to any of these the expectation that the child behave AS IF nothing is wrong, particularly if what's wrong is between the parents, and anxiety is a natural manifestation. Living a lie is hard; living a lie as a kid is harder.


Capability

Does the child have choices about what to wear, eat, do with his spare time? Does he have responsibilities for his environment (chores) and his behavior, and HONEST feedback about how he handles these? Does he know when he does a job well? Are his life skills and academic skills appropriate for his age and at least as good as his peers?


Purpose

Does he have a vision for his future and someone supporting him in steps to get there? Does he think about ideas bigger than his own concerns and wishes? Does he consider the less fortunate? Does he think about the feelings of others?


Structure

Do the people in his life show him limits, so that he understands how to work within the framework to achieve what he wants? Or do the rules always change? Is he able to manipulate, sidestep, or bully his way past the rules? This is anxiety-provoking because it shows him that no one really cares, and he is adrift in a sea of his own passions, with nothing bigger than himself.


Enough highlighting the obvious. Now, on to nutritional strategies, with an imaginary girl:


Is she eating enough?


Particularly, is she eating enough fat and protein? Fat is a huge mood stabilizer, and I've sometimes made a cup of whipped cream for my high-intensity daughter to eat with strawberries for breakfast (lucky girl). Perhaps your child likes nuts, fried bananas, or heavily-buttered toast, or roasted sweet potatoes - these are all ways I've gotten dense, whole-food calories into my own kids. Certain nutritional deficiencies can contribute to anxiety. Anemia theoretically causes fatigue, but if a person continually pushes through fatigue, they end up feeling wired and emotional. Mineral deficiencies contribute in a more direct way, leading to muscle cramps and restlessness, the kind of background discomfort that can manifest as a touchy kid.


Does she enjoy eating?


Some kids eat plenty when it's well-prepared or novel, and eat little otherwise. This is true for most of us, and the secret of losing weight on a boring diet. But for kids, you don't need to be a 4-star chef. There needs to be decent real food, and they need to be hungry enough to eat it; eventually they need to be taught how to make their own meals so they can have something hot, salty, and just to their liking. This not only fills them up, but helps them feel capable.


Are there screens?


We call it "melted brain" here when kids can't seem to find something to do after their screen time. For kids that already have trouble regulating their mood and attention, switching from screens to reality can be even rougher. And the film style, screen cuts, and general content can add even more stimulation.


Do you look her in the eye?


A friendly level of eye contact lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, and on a basic level assures the people around you that you're interested and like them. This is relaxing for everyone. I find it easy to make eye contact with babies and toddlers who don't talk, because it's the only way to know what's going on with them, but I get sloppy about eye contact once the words are clear.


Do you smile and show affection?


Again, hugely reassuring for anyone around you, especially kids (and dogs) and anyone connected with you. I easily forget to be warm and affectionate when I'm thinking and/or doing housework, so I've set reminders to myself in various places and ways - like "HUG KIDS" on my to do list.


Are there fun and relaxing routines?


This could be family prayer, board games, walks, tea, playing catch, reading, back scratches, music while cleaning the kitchen, and all those little rituals that make life more pleasant and beautiful. Most of life is the everyday and between, so the little gestures that make these between parts better add up fast.


Does she know how to pace herself?


A hard skill for many adults, and for kids who don't see it modeled. If your child goes nonstop and then crashes or acts out, check the family pace. Is it nonstop every day? Does your kid need recharging time at home?


Does she remember to breathe?


Breathing slowly and evenly for a few minutes - not deep breaths, just the usual -can reset the vagus nerve when we've become overstimulated, and like any habit, the relaxation response becomes faster the more often we practice.


Let's learn from one another. Share your ideas in the comments !



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