Anxiety seems to affect just about everyone these days. Even if you don't struggle with it personally, you likely have someone in your life who does. And, as parents, it can be daunting to figure out how to raise a child without anxiety, especially if you suffer from it yourself.
Enter Dr. Loretta Breuning. As a professor, author, and founder of Inner Mammal Institute, she has studied anxiety extensively and worked to develop a new understanding of our brains in the context of survival in the wild. According to Dr. Breuning, as you start to look at brain chemistry in animals our own behaviors are easier to understand and manage.
Here's what she had to share about helping kids with anxiety.
Mabel + Moxie: What should parents do to avoid reinforcing or creating anxiety in their children?
Dr. Breuning: First, your children will model your anxiety, so avoid sharing your anxiety with them. Children learn from our emotions more than you expect because of “mirror neurons,” which activate when the brain sees another individual experience a reward or a threat. When your child sees you suffer, their mirror neurons fire and wire them to suffer in the same way. Mirror neurons helped our ancestors learn to avoid harm without having to actually get bitten. They helped animals learn to find food before there was language. Know the power of mirror neurons so you model the behavior you want your child to learn.
Second, avoid exposing your child to worst-case scenarios. The brain is wired by early experience. If you fill their head with threat messages, they will learn to see the world that way. We don’t intend to do that, but that’s where we often end up. We expose kids to news and entertainment full of realistic life-threatening danger. We convey fears of kidnapping when they are alone. The first thing we teach them about sex is that it can kill you. These threat messages are overwhelming your kids. No one is telling them that their lives are safer and more comfortable than any in human history.
Third, get control of your own competitiveness. It is causing your anxiety more than you realize. You may insist that you’re above all that, but the mammal brain is designed to constantly compare itself to others. When you see yourself in the one-down position, your brain releases cortisol, the threat chemical. You can end up feeling threatened a lot, even in the midst of a very good life. You will train your kids to feel threatened unless you understand your mammalian social-comparison impulse.
M+M: How can parents help kids cope with anxiety naturally?
Dr. Breuning: Build confidence in your own problem-solving skills, because that’s where your child’s coping skills will come from. Confidence in your own next step is the only true anxiety reliever. A gazelle lives in a world full of predators, but instead of panicking it trusts its ability to escape. Instead of focus on the lion, it focuses on its own next step. If you calmly focus on your next step, your child will mirror that. If you focus on predators, your child will grow up to do that.
M+M: What's your advice to parents worried about their children's anxiety?
Dr. Breuning: DO NOT REWARD ANXIETY. This sounds obvious, but it's easy to ignore a calm child and shower affection on a distraught child. It's easy to exempt a child from responsibilities when they express anxiety. The brain learns from whatever gets rewarded. When you reward anxious behavior, you train your child to repeat that behavior, even though no one thinks this consciously. And be alert for teachers or other role models who may be rewarding anxiety unintentionally.
M+M: What signs should parents look for to spot anxiety in their children?
Dr. Breuning: It’s clear from the above that looking for signs of anxiety in your child can inadvertently create it. We all want to give our child what we wanted when we were young. Maybe you wanted to share your anxiety with someone, so you think you are doing a good thing by inviting your child to share their anxiety with you. But in reality, you are doing this for yourself. It meets the needs of your own inner child. What your child needs is to build confidence in their next step. I am not saying they should have false confidence that’s heedless of obvious threats. But the habit of focusing on threats interferes with the habit of focusing on one’s power to overcome potential threats.
If you initiate anxiety-based conversations with your child, they learn that being anxious is the way to connect. Make sure you offer positive ways to connect, especially when you’re longing to share your woes with someone, and your child happens to be there.
LORETTA BREUNING, PhD, author of Tame Your Anxiety, is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers resources that help people rewire their mammalian brain chemistry to live happier, healthier lives. As Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, her work has been featured in Forbes, Time, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Men’s Health, The Dr. Oz Show, and many more nationally-recognized outlets.