How to recognize and respond to your child’s stress & anxiety
From the anxiety of wanting to ace all your tests to the stress of feeling like you have to curate a perfect social media presence, adolescents today are under a seemingly constant barrage of stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety has become so prevalent in students that the National Education Association has labeled the rate of student anxiety as an “epidemic.”
Stress & the Adolescent Brain
Just like in sports it takes time to develop any skill. The same is true with the skill of emotional regulation. The problem facing adolescents is that the human brain does not fully develop until around 25 years old. This means that while adolescents are being asked to juggle academics, extra-curriculars, and the basic reality of being a teenager, their brains are not fully developed and have not mastered the skill of emotional regulation.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, expert in adolescent anxiety, uses a hand model of the brain to help us understand the science of stress. In his model, your thumb represents the limbic system, also known as the “caveman brain.” It contains the amygdala, which houses the fight, flight, or freeze response. This biological stress response was designed to help us in life-threatening situations.
But most of the time, your brain triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response for situations that aren’t actually dangerous. Your brain and body can’t distinguish between imagined or real threats, so the stress response is the same for encountering a saber-toothed tiger and taking a history test. If you perceive something as a threat, your amygdala will sound the alarm.
When your hand is in a fist, your fingers--above your fingernails and below your knuckles--represent the prefrontal cortex, also known as your “thinking brain.” Your thinking brain controls executive skills like problem-solving, decision making, and concentration.
Take your thumb--the limbic system, where the amygdala is--and put it in the middle of your palm, then fold your fingers--the prefrontal cortex--over your thumb.
When you feel calm, your brain acts like a closed fist. Blood flows and your brain communicates in a balanced way. When you’re calm, your heart rate slows, your breathing is deep and relaxed, your muscles are loose, and you’re aware of your body and what’s going on around you. Calm is more than just being quiet--it is a feeling of peace.
When you feel stressed or anxious, your fingers go up and you “flip your lid.” Under stress, you lose your thinking brain due to decreased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, so your caveman brain is in control. When you are in the fight/flight/freeze response, your heart rate increases, your breathing is shallow, and your muscles are tense.
Adolescents are predisposed to “flip their lids” more often because their brains are not fully developed. With increased practice in techniques, such as Mindfulness & Positive Psychology, adolescents become more attuned to their emotions and are in a better position to tame their stress.
What parents can do
1) Be a witness
The #1 way any of us can help adolescents develop better emotional regulation is by being a witness for what that looks like. One way to help is to make use of UCLA’s Feeling Thermometer in your house. By using the thermometer and labeling when you’re stress or uncomfortable you are helping your children in multiple ways. First, you’re showing them that even adults have to deal with stress. Second, you’re modeling to them what it looks like not to “flip your lid” when you are stress.
2) Prompt preventative practices
After one particularly rough day at the plate for my childhood baseball team, I was pretty down on myself. In the car ride back to my house, I told my dad that I hoped I didn’t have another game like this. My dad responded with “hope is not a strategy” and prompted me to develop a concrete plan for how I’d improve my hitting little by little each day.
We cannot simply hope our sons & daughters learn how to deal with stress and anxiety. We have to help them develop preventative practices that reduce their daily stress and increase their resilience.
One way to do this is to help adolescents recognize how stress manifests in their body. ASSET’s “Taking Stock” worksheet helps individuals reflect on how they physically feel when they’re getting stress so that they are more likely in the future to recognize when they are about to “flip their lid.”
3) Facilitate reflection
Whether it be in your use of a mindful breathing practice or a positive self-talk visualization exercise, it is important to ask your daughters/sons how the activity made her/him feel. The purpose of engaging in social & emotional learning is to help foster increased awareness and emotional regulation. Having frequent conversations where you prompt your child to reflect on whether an activity helped calm them is key.