Sometimes the worst thing about anxiety is not knowing why it is happening. Understanding that anxiety serves an important function for our survival, can help children to know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them. Teaching your child about why the anxiety is occurring, and learning about what is happening in their brain, can provide both you and your child with compassionate, non-judgmental language for how to talk about anxiety, and equips your child with a sense of control as they develop new skills to monitor and respond to their anxiety symptoms.
The brain is like a house
This analogy is adapted from Dr Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, The Whole Brain Child. Drawing the brain house with your child, as well as having them draw their own version, can help your child to process this information visually and creatively, making it more meaningful and memorable.
We start by explaining that the brain is built like a house, with a downstairs level (brain stem and limbic system) and an upstairs level (Prefrontal Cortex). We teach them that the downstairs level is our survival brain. This part of the brain controls parts of the body without us having to think about it, like getting our heart to beat and our lungs to breathe. The Downstairs brain also helps us to survive by taking over when we feel threatened, and controls our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. When we go downstairs into our fight/flight brain, we either want to confront the threat or run away from it, and our brain becomes geared towards taking action not thinking. We might also notice during these times that our breathing and heart rate becomes faster, we may feel hot and sweaty, and we might feel sick in our bellies. This is a very helpful response if we are in real danger, because it helps us to react quickly and protect ourselves.
The upstairs part of the house is our thinking brain. When we are upstairs, we can play, learn, feel empathy, problem-solve, control our impulses, think about consequences, manage our emotions and focus our attention. Both upstairs and downstairs parts of the brain are really important: we need both to function as healthy human beings. The stairs between downstairs and upstairs in the house help us to use both parts of the brain when we need to.
Sometimes though, we can get trapped in our downstairs brain, unable to use the stairs; stuck in feeling scared, worried, and anxious. How does this happen?
The guard dog of the brain
Every brain-house has a guard dog (the amygdala), that sits on the stairs, and its role is to bark when it can sense danger, to protect the house. We all need a guard dog so that we know when we need to be on alert when there is a threat to us. For example, when a stranger walks close to the house, the guard dog might bark to let us know to be wary of the stranger. When the guard dog is calm or sleeping, we can use the whole house, and walk up and down the stairs when we need to, but when the dog barks, it stops us from being able to use the stairs, and we can get trapped downstairs, unable to access the upstairs part of the house. When we are stuck downstairs, and the guard dog is barking a lot, we can’t hear properly; we are distracted by the noise of the barking. We cannot think well or clearly. We cannot focus on anything but the danger that the dog is barking about.
When we have anxiety, the guard dog can become wild, and begin to bark at everything! It will bark at every noise and might even bark at people it knows. When our guard dog goes wild, it can no longer tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat, so it barks all the time, leaving us trapped in our downstairs brain.
After talking and drawing about the house and guard dog with your child, a conversation can then be facilitated about what types of things make your child’s guard dog bark. This is a wonderful opportunity to connect with your child about their worries and fears. Children often find that externalising their anxiety and talking about what makes their guard dog bark, is much less confronting for them and reduces shame around irrational fears. It can also be helpful to talk about how adults have guard dogs too, and sometimes their dogs go wild! You can model self-awareness and self-reflection, by talking to your child about times that your dog has been barking and you’ve been trapped in your downstairs brain (e.g., “remember the time when Daddy was late for work and I couldn’t find my keys? My dog was barking so much I couldn’t think straight!”).
Taming the guard dog
Let your child know that we are all capable of taming our own guard dogs. Our guard dog needs to feel safe in order to be tamed, so that it only barks at real threats. How do we tame the guard dog?
Collaborate on a list of activities or rituals that help your child feel calm and safe, explaining that these things will help to tame the guard dog in their brain. Teaching emotional regulation in this way can be fun, creative and empowering.
Activities that engage the breath and body are great ways to regulate the brain stem and limbic system.
Some of these could include:
- Taking 10 slow deep breaths
- Going for a walk
- Having a bath
- Get a hug from mum or dad
- Listen to your favourite song
- Play with your pet
- Draw a picture
If you have used other ways to be creative with supporting your child with anxiety and emotional regulation, comment below – it would be great to hear about them!
For more ideas about talking about the brain and anxiety:
© Thania Siauw, Psychologist