“Everything is alright. Calm down! There’s nothing to worry about.” Parents of anxious children know these platitudes hardly ever work. Trying to discover why your child feels anxious or stressed can be equally as frustrating. Sometimes there is a specific reason, but when it comes to chronic anxiety, often there is no monster under the bed or bully at school. Helping these kids can feel like an impossible (and sometimes isolating) task.
Thankfully, science can help. Autonomic nervous system research, specifically Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, tells us that the answer lies in understanding the stress response. Our bodies determine our safety underneath conscious awareness. A threat could be something as subtle as seeing the shade of blue that matches a distant traumatic memory. It could even be an inherited cue of danger from our ancestors, passed down to keep future generations safe. Imagine the difficulty of verbalizing such a thing to someone asking, “What’s wrong?”
Because our bodies make no distinction between a threatening shade of blue, being late for the bus, and a lurking tiger, it takes as little as 100 milliseconds to begin the first line of defense: a chain of internal reactions designed to save our lives. Adrenaline and cortisol increase both heart rate and oxygen intake but also inhibit the auditory processing of human speech and expand the processing of lower pitches such as animal growls (because of this, your kids literally cannot hear you when they are stressed). Resources are transferred away from digestion and immunity, and access to the prefrontal cortex, or thinking centre, of the brain is limited. This means that cognitive approaches to bringing a child out of the stress cycle are doomed to fail. You can’t talk your kid out of anxiety.
The fight-flight energy must be discharged through movement. Shaking, wiggling, running, even pretend sword fighting can accomplish this discharge in order to bring a sense of relief and safety to the body. Just like in all mammals, safety is synonymous with social engagement. Your child’s body is hardwired to respond to your body, to match your level of activation. The two of you can cuddle, sing, play catch, or dance together. Your calming and playful presence will signal to your child’s body that the threat is over.
The more often our kids are triggered into the fight-flight state, the more likely they are to get stuck in it. When we empower our children at the level of their biology, they learn how to face stress without collapse by using their internal and relational resources to become the resilient people they were born to be.
Laura Geiger is a somatic coach specializing in nervous system regulation and neurodevelopmental movement as a way to combat anxiety, prepare for learning, and create healthy relationships. She offers an online course for parents called Movement for Anxiety: Kid Edition. You can find her at thelaurageiger.com and on social media @thelaurageiger.