What causes child anxiety and how do you fix it?

This week’s question isn’t one that has been sent my way. It’s one I’ve ginned up to give me an excuse to address a bunch of smaller questions.

I’m using this question to explain that there are a lot of reasons why your child might have a brain that is more prone to anxiety and so there are a lot of ways to address is. 

Anxiety is a helpful, healthy part of being human but some of us, as you know, are more prone to dysfunctional anxiety than others and that might be because of genetics. We can inherit the shape of our brains from our parents. 

It also can be learned. We may learn how to be anxious by watching our caregivers. 

There might be a trauma history and not just big T trauma — like a cataclysmic event or an act of violence — but also little t trauma, which might be harder to identify or not generally recognized as a trauma. This might be something like a difficult birth or an early separation. 

Anxiety can also be part of another diagnosis such as ADHD or autism. 

It might be caused by other health issues. For example, sometimes children with gut issues or celiac are more anxious and that can be a chicken and egg scenario where it’s difficult to tell if anxiety caused the stomach problems or the stomach problems caused anxiety. 

Children may have allergies or sensory issues that make their bodies feel more anxious. It’s hard to feel calm if we’re itchy or if we’re struggling to know where our body is in space or if our vision or hearing is overwhelmed.

The reason this is so complicated is that we complicated. We are mind and body and spirit and we are also our relationships. We exist in community and this is especially true for children who spend their growing up leaning on us — asking their parents to complete them — until they are old enough to stand on their own. And that takes longer than you think, especially for anxious kids. 

The many different treatments for child anxiety depend on how the professional is conceptualize what’s going on, which depends on their training and their theoretical mindset. 

As someone trained in child development and clinical mental health, I see things through the lens of mind and relationships. More specifically the family system and the relationship between parent and child. That is my go to, that is where my research and understanding is, and that is where my skills lie. 

But what I do is not the singular answer. It can be. For some families that’s where the healing begins and end but for other families — in fact I’d say for most families — it’s just part of the puzzle.

This is one reason why I host Eve Hermann, of Source Embodiment. Eve is a licensed massage therapist, cranial sacral practitioner and somatic experiencing professional in my Child Anxiety Support membership each month. She understands the body and the brain from a perspective that is different than my own. Her training is different, her background is different, and the solutions she offers are complementary because they are different. There’s tremendous value in having more than one way of considering your experience and your child’s experience with anxiety.

Your family’s healing — and your child’s journey — might include working with someone like her. It might include medication, working with an allopathic doctor. It might mean working with an occupational therapist or a pediatric chiropractor. It might mean examining your child’s physical surroundings whether that’s school or your home to see if there are things you can do to make it a better fit. You might bring in an executive functioning coach or a professional organizer to create a more supportive environment.

I don’t want this to seem overwhelming. Instead I want you to understand that helping your child, helping your family, and helping your self is an opportunity to explore what works. It’s not just about some magical fix; it’s about finding opportunities to grow and learn about what we need and how we can flourish.

Often what families need is a mix of services or supports. For example, a child with an auditory processing disorder needs this identified and addressed as part of anxiety treatment. Or a parent who is completely stressed out can’t focus on the kind of intervention we plan in the program. They may benefit from starting an exercise routine or learning to meditate or getting a weekly massage. When we are anxious we can’t access that higher order brain that lets us plan, that lets us follow through, that lets us offer our children the regulation they may need to borrow to get through their anxious challenges. Again, that’s why I’m so grateful that Eve is in our site. She offers a monthly exercise to guide us towards calm.

I think it’s important to understand that no single professional, no particular modality is a silver bullet. Child anxiety can’t be cured in one session with any particular expert or healer; It’s more of a long commitment to healing and growth and every family has their own particular pathway.

I met with a pediatric chiropractor here in town the other day. Her name is Dr. Gabby and she’s at the inside space here in Columbus. I’ll link to both her and Eve in my show notes. Anyway, Dr. Gabby says that working with her families is like a dance where she is participating in the experience with her clients, trusting them to show her what they need. She observes and listens and brings her expertise in choosing how to respond. I totally get what she means here. We meet our clients wherever they are at, we trust who they are in the moment and are curious about how they will show us what they need. 

We don’t see our clients as broken. That’s not helpful and it’s not true. We all have specific challenges but there isn’t a perfect version of ourselves or of our children that we need to chase. Perfection is not the goal. Right here, in this moment, you are who you are. Your child is who they are. That’s enough and it’s always the right place to start.

I think about this because I can remember introducing my newborn son to a relative who gazed into his eyes and said, “It’s a shame that someone so perfect is going to be messed up by the world.” My gosh, I was devastated. And that’s how I parented for the first few years, from this place of fear. Everything felt like a threat to his perfection and I felt like I was in a losing battle to protect him from harm. I know that some of you are having that experience, too.

Let me tell you, now that my kids are grown I see how wrong I was and how much that point of view caused me unnecessary sorrow and insecurity. We are meant to experience the world and we are built to withstand it especially when we have the loving support of committed, attentive and attuned parents.  

None of us are projects to be fixed or perfected; we are here to grow, learn, and discover.

One of the ways I approach anxious kids is to talk about the great adventure that is life. We talk about their heroes — fictional or not — and how those heroes go through difficult times. That’s what makes them heroes, right? I tell those kids, This is your adventure tale. You are facing dragons. You will have stories of survival to tell and to inspire people. It’s hard work. That’s why we write books about it.

If you are parenting an anxious child know that you are writing your own story. Parenting this child at this time is part of it. I am here to help you with the mind part, the relationship part. I am here to address the family systems part. There are other wonderful practitioners who can be a part of your journey, too. 

If I had my way, I’d assign every family a whole team of supporters, and cheerleaders, and educators, and service providers. But you only need to start with one. Just start at the start that is most accessible to you and through that particular path, you will find other helpers, too. Remember, no silver bullets but with those people who come alongside you, you — and your child — can overcome anything.

Do you have a question you'd like me to answer on the show?

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