A Different Take on Anxiety


Worried. Nervous. Scared. Stressed.  There are so many ways to describe anxious feelings, and more and more we are hearing children express feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a variety of reasons.  As caregivers, it can be difficult to find ways to support a young person in distress.  This is especially true when the perception of anxiety is that it’s a “bad” experience.  A more helpful idea is that anxiety can have benefits, though it can be unhelpful at higher, chronic levels.  Understanding the complex duality of anxiety can allow us to support our children in navigating this experience.

Without some sense of urgency or worry, we wouldn’t be very effective at meeting deadlines, responding to emails or phone calls, or even waking up in the morning.  It’s important to recognize that anxiety serves a purpose.  It functions as an internal alarm system — at its highest level it keeps us safe and alive and at lower levels keeps us doing the things we need to do.  Clearly, this can be beneficial to living.

There are times, though, when our alarms system can become overactive.  Our mind starts to tell us that everything is an emergency or that we are in danger when we are not.  These can be considered “false alarms.”  Our children can experience an overactive alarm system that includes both “false” and “true” alarms.  By getting a better understanding of the purpose anxiety serves in our lives, we can support our children in distinguishing between “true” and “false” alarms, give them a better understanding of how anxiety can be both helpful and unhelpful, and identify steps to manage their anxiety if it is interfering with their day.

False Alarm vs. True Alarm

Our internal alarm system exists to keep us safe and alive through our Fight, Flight or Freeze Response System in our amygdala, housed in the limbic system of our brain.  When a person has an overactive alarm system, they may feel in danger when they are not.  For example, an upcoming test or a sport game may produce a level of anxiety akin to that experienced in a life-threatening event.  The amygdala of a child with an overactive alarm system then misidentifies a relatively benign stressor as dangerous.  Their Fight, Flight or Freeze Response is activated.  We do want to acknowledge that the anxious feeling is a very real experience for the child, and we also want to help them explore whether the amount of anxiety they are experiencing is proportionate to the stressor event.  If the anxiety seems disproportionate to the stressor, we can engage them in reflecting on how their anxious feelings (e.g., excessive worry, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, etc.) may be related to a “false alarm” rather than a “true alarm.”  By exploring this worry with the child, we can help them identify that feeling some anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation. If it becomes clear that the worry may feel bigger than the situation, we can support the child in finding ways to manage their worry so that they can focus on the benefits anxiety can have while diminishing the negative experience of too much anxiety.

What you can say:

      • I can tell this is really impacting you, and I am here to listen if want to share anything with me.
      • Do you think anyone in your situation might feel some level of anxiety?
      • What would you tell a friend that is going through a similar experience?
      • Can you think of any ways that worrying might help you improve this situation (e.g., study more, ask for help, etc.)?
      • When I worry, I often ask myself will I be worried about this in 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months or 5 years.  How long do you think you will be worried about this? (Based on response) Let’s talk about whether you think the energy going into this worry fits the amount of time you think you will be worried about it.
      • Thank you for trusting me with your feelings and letting me be there for you.

*Remember, your main role is not to solve the problem, it is to provide a loving and supportive space during a tough time for your child.

The middle school years can be challenging ones for children and parents alike.  Each child is unique and so are their life experiences.  As caregivers, being a consistent, supportive and loving adult in our child’s life is one of the most valuable resources a child can have to thrive during these years.  

In my next column I will share more tips on ways caregivers can support children in managing their anxiety.  If you would like to hear more on another social-emotional topic, please email me your question or area of interest to nstebbins@spusd.net.

Helpful Short Reads:

Signs and Symptoms of Stress in Kids

Does Social Media Cause Depression and Anxiety in Teenagers?

Books to Check Out:

Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help, by: Phyllis Fagell

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, by: Jessica Lahey