If you consider anxiety from the standpoint of the role it has played in the survival of our species it is more hero than villain. The flight or fight response in an ancient ecosystem is not much different than the knee jerk reaction that steers us away from situations that appear risky. Without it, we would not only be incredibly vulnerable to the “predators” in our environment but our ability to assess other danger would be impaired. As a diagnosable disorder it becomes less heroic as it can inhibit us from fully participating in the experience of living. It can also present itself in a wide array of circumstances with varying degrees intensities which can often make it difficult to discern or impossible to miss. So what is important to know when you are working with or parenting an anxious child?
Where I like to begin with understanding and addressing anxiety is the work of Gordon Neufeld whose book Hold On To Your Kids addresses it from the perspective of parental attachment. His work revolves around the idea that children have an “orienting instinct” which compels them to find their direction from a source of authority and comfort. This “attachment bond” in their early life is with their parent and can be a powerful ally in keeping children safe from influences that may not have their best interests at heart. Parents also play a powerful role in signalling to their children who may be trusted when they are in new situations. The communication between the parents and other adults involved with the child can indicate the sharing of this attachment bond. This is why the relationship between the teacher and parent is so crucial. It signals to the child that their parent trusts this other adult to be the child’s source of authority and comfort (safety) when the parent is absent. Something as simple as meeting and greeting the other adult in the child’s life with warmth and respect can go a long way in alleviating anxiety. As parent or “other” adult in a child’s life, we have a huge responsibility in maintaining that authority and comfort (safety).
My second “go to” theory for understanding and addressing anxiety is the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski. Anxiety plays a pivotal role in his theory of positive disintegration which can be described as the process by which one becomes actively involved in crafting/cultivating one’s personality and engaging in the work of moving to a “higher” level. While this in itself may sound as simple as maturation, the intensity of the experience will vary and for some individuals this becoming one’s own person through “separation” from the perceived expectations the world can be fraught with anxiety as they wrestle over “fitting in” and potentially the sacrificing the “self” or not fitting in favour of claiming their “selfhood” risking loneliness. This can once again be exacerbated by gifted characteristics that make it difficult to “fit in” given intellectual abilities, learning disabilities, areas of passion, intensities and sensitivities. Once again the responsibility of the adult is creating the safety for this anxious self discovery to occur, with the added understanding of the child’s need now to challenge that authority to find and set new boundaries as they do this important work.
Seeing anxiety as natural and helpful can often go a long way in helping anxious children understand that there is nothing wrong with them for feeling this way. But when the anxiety becomes so strong that it interferes with quality of life, having support in overcoming them is necessary. From learning breathing exercises to setting up a step by step program, there are many tools available to work through anxiety. I like the AnxietyBC.com website where they have strategies and resources directed at youth, adults and parents when honouring the need for attachment and disintegration is not enough.