What to do if your kids have anxiety and are overwhelmed
It is a sad reality that today, millions of North American children and young adults are prescribed stimulants, antidepressants, and antipsychotic drugs. Statistics show that more than 50% of kids before the age of 18 will be diagnosed with a mental disorder. The chances are very high that if you have children, you are dealing with a child that is, at the very least, experiencing high levels of anxiety, overwhelm, and restlessness. In this article, I will share with you one absolutely fail-safe way to support them and the biggest mistake I, and many parents I work with, make when trying to support their children.
Every child needs two things in order to be at peace within themselves: safety and belonging. The perception that they are physically safe and accepted is vital. Renowned physician and acclaimed author, Dr. Gabor Mate, identified two specific needs that every child has to satisfy the sense of belonging:
- Love and acceptance from their “tribe” or environment
- Rest - knowing that they don’t have to work very hard for the love and acceptance
Meeting these needs will have the greatest impact on a child’s ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is the ability of a child, or anyone for that matter, to physiologically create the experience of safety within their nervous system. For us to physiologically feel safe and for our nervous systems to be relaxed, we must perceive that we are physically secure and accepted in our relationships. If either of these things is in question, we will feel anxious, overwhelmed, and restless.
Let’s start with feeling physically safe in the environment. How would a child know if their environment was safe? They go off of what the adults around them are feeling. If the caregivers in their tribe are overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, and restless, they will perceive that the adults must feel this way because something is wrong. It would be analogous to a mother deer sensing a mountain lion in the area and becomes hyper-alert and attentive. Her fawns immediately pick up on her attentiveness and fear and know something is wrong. If mom is afraid, then that means it’s not safe! This is an example of essential communication between adults and their children to keep them safe. Where it goes wrong is if the adults are in the experience of perceiving “mountain lions” all day long.
So where does it begin? It begins with us. If we, as parents, don’t learn how to manage and self-regulate our own needs for safety and acceptance, then there is no way we can expect our kids to be able to do it. This dilemma would be the case if a parent has a history of anxiety, overwhelm, and feeling unsettled within themselves. In this scenario, one way a parent can attempt to self-regulate themselves is through their children. This attempt of regulating oneself through children becomes one of the most daunting burdens for a child. A child’s ability to self-regulate now depends on their ability to self-regulate their parents... Yikes! This regulation fiasco takes me to the BIGGEST mistake I’ve made, and I see many parents make, which will put everyone in a never-ending spiral of anxiety and overwhelm.
This spiral is the kiss of death because it creates a vicious cycle:
There is only one way to break this cycle, and that is for the adult to do two things:
- OWN the fact that they never learned how to properly integrate their basic needs for self-regulation.
- Find someone to help them learn how to do this.
There is no way around this solution. This reality can either be taken head-on or ignored and dismissed. Either way, it will still be a factor. Taking the step of ownership and focusing on oneself takes a ton of courage and bravery. It is a matter of opting into the temporary discomfort of looking within and learning how to self-regulate to ensure a place of long-term peace and rest.
The only other option is to opt-out of the temporary discomfort and position yourself to suffer long-term. Door number 2 means learning how to manage, cope, and numb yourself from what is happening with things like alcohol and other distractions. Of course, there is also the traditional mental health model that provides people with plenty of medications.
If you are a parent reading this and feeling like this may be you, understand that it isn’t your fault. The current system and society are not conducive to thriving as a parent. Within the last 100 years, we have shifted towards more isolated families. Each family operates in its own silo. It is no longer about a community of people focusing on providing a space of safety and a sense of belonging to our children. It usually lands on one set of parents. And these days, it more often falls on ONE parent. There is no way for ONE person to meet all the needs of one child, not to mention the needs of multiple children.
Understanding this model is why it is essential for each of us to break the cycle and change the trajectory. Breaking it begins with understanding ourselves, taking full responsibility for our ability to self-regulate, and doing our part in owning the influence we have on the whole.
Once we can start to self-regulate ourselves better, we can now address the next piece of the puzzle: to do our best to let our kids know they can be at rest because they know they are accepted and loved. And what is the best way to do this? It's to LISTEN to them and let them know they are heard. Acknowledge what they are saying and seek to UNDERSTAND them first. Understanding them means not telling them they are wrong for thinking and feeling a certain way or that they should look at it another way. It is simply acknowledging what they are saying and feeling - that’s it.
Isn’t that really what any of us really want? To know someone is actually listening and taking in what we are saying and not dismissing it by sharing what they think. If you want someone to feel safe and accepted by you, just do that simple thing. Genuinely care about what they are saying and seek to understand what and why they are saying what they are saying. In Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” he states a few rules that directly correlate to creating safety and understanding.
- Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
- If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
- Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
I believe these three rules are even MORE important for our children, especially our adolescent and teenage children. Now I do want to point out one important thing, listening and understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. You can hear someone, understand where they are coming from, and disagree with their position. When someone feels heard and understood and then hears your different perspective, they are much less likely to feel threatened.
So how do you help a child with anxiety? These are the keys things to look at and address if you feel like your child or children seem excessively anxious, overwhelmed, or unsettled:
- Start with you. How well are you able to self-regulate? Are you constantly looking for the world to make you feel safe and validate your sense of belonging? If so, start to address this head-on and own this for yourself. Slowly take steps to take the burden off of your children to self-regulate. Ask yourself if you are engaging with them to empower themselves or to make yourself feel better.
- Am I making it my priority to understand what they are saying and ensure they feel heard? Or am I dictating what they should be doing, thinking, and feeling?
- Am I making an effort to put myself in their shoes and consider why they may feel unsafe?
- Do I openly admit and own when I am wrong in their presence so they, too, can learn to take ownership of their mistakes?
These key components are certainly not quick fixes, and it is time to stop looking for them. There is a significant systemic problem in our society that needs to be addressed beyond gratitude journals and meditations. The Self-Help industry was valued at over 41 billion dollars in 2021 and continues to grow just as quickly as the mental health of our society simultaneously diminishes. We as a society keep hitting the bullseye on the wrong target by addressing the symptoms. It’s time for each of us to “know thyself” and understand and take ownership to what we find. This shift is the only way we can change the trajectory of the “mental health” of our future generations.