Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Been thinking a lot about anxiety this week. It seems rampant and we (Kary & Kim) are not immune. We wanted to acknowledge and normalize that.
Our amygdala (reptile brain) is so good at being alert for signs of danger and, holy moly, they are everywhere right now even when we are safe in our homes. Add to that the fact that our usual coping mechanisms are largely unavailable to us- going for hikes, socializing with friends, grabbing a dinner out, staying busy with our usual errands... and then add to that again if you’re a parent because, seriously the volume dial of anxiety is permanently set higher than before once you have a baby and it’s no wonder that we are all battling a feeling of unrest and worry (on the mild end- many of us are experiencing full blown panic attacks and trouble sleeping, eating, coping.)
That reptile brain response to stress and fear (which is our sympathetic nervous system at work- a pathway that’s AUTOMATIC and not a response we are choosing) is powerful. The sympathetic nervous system evolved to be fast and to make it so our more refined “thinking brain” doesn’t have to waste time to think up solutions in a life or death situation- the reptile brain just goes ahead and by-passes that upper brain and starts driving the bus, mobilizing us to fight or run, even if the threat isn’t all that immediate or even real. This is all normal. We’re not going crazy. This is a healthy response to a challenging and scary time.
We want to take a minute though to connect back to kiddos and to mealtimes (because that’s what we do!). There are many directions we could take this but we are going to narrow in on 2 ideas in this post. The 1️⃣ is that many of our picky kiddos experience daily anxiety around food and mealtime. And 2️⃣ will discuss what we can do for ourselves and a child.
Picky Eating & Anxiety
If you’re feeling anxious right now, it’s a good time to tap into empathy and recognize that it’s a very uncomfortable feeling. Anxiety also makes it quite hard to think clearly, get things done, see the positive side of things and be flexible. No matter how much someone tells you, “you have nothing to worry about- it’s fine!” It’s very challenging to believe them.
Our picky kiddos are nearly always anxious about how food will taste or make them feel. When a child is nervous about tasting and eating unfamiliar and non-preferred foods they face that uncomfortable (or paralyzing) anxiety regularly because we all eat several times a day. That’s a lot to manage.
They aren’t “tricking” us, being naughty or “acting” stubborn when they cry, gag and won’t eat. Their amygdala is sending their body into an automatic fear response, which overs-rides their thinking brain that hears you say that they should eat, but just can’t. Kids want to please their parents. If they are acting in ways that frustrate us it’s often that they “can’t act how we want and not that they won’t” (Payne-Bryson). So the first message here is just that reminder to bring empathy to yourself and to your child right now.
One of the most powerful antidotes for anxiety is having a person you trust and love empathize, hug you, stay close to you and tell you you’re safe but you’re also not crazy. It often feels SO much better to hear, “you’re perfectly right to be scared and I’m here for you and we will get through this” instead of, “there’s nothing to be scared of.” The first phrase acknowledges that you’re not crazy and helps you feel understood.
We can do this for our child. It’s generally less important that your child eats unhealthy food at any one meal (or even if they eat unhealthy food for every meal for a few years) compared with the health impact of chronic anxiety and stress without buffering from a loving caregiver. This does NOT mean that yelling or losing your cool sometimes is damaging your child OR that you should only serve them food they like so they don’t feel anxious. You can teach a child to eat healthy foods and also acknowledge that it’s understandable that they feel scared. Remembering to bring empathy first is essential and once you do, you can start to soothe the child’s anxiety before diving in to teach a lesson or skill.
Last thing on this part- if your child is picky and highly anxious at meals it doesn’t mean you aren’t being empathetic enough or that you haven’t been doing it right. You most certainly are. But with all things learning, practice and repetition are essential and often with kids it takes hundreds of thousands of repetitions before they can master a really challenging skill. Stay the course and keep it up.
What Can You Do
The second topic we will get to in this post is that anxiety is not unstoppable. It’s hard but we can practice quieting the reptile brain and then over-riding it with our higher level “thinking brain.” Same goes for our kiddos. When it comes to children, there are 2 pieces involved in this:
♥️ The first is you modeling how to relax and use coping strategies.
♥️ The second is an often forgotten 🗝 step. You must make your feelings and your use of coping strategies EXPLICIT for your child.
Modeling coping strategies means you practice the strategies in front of or with your child.
🗝 Take slow, deliberate deep breathes
🗝 Sing a song you love 🗝 Stretch
🗝 Do an online exercise class
Showing your child what he/she can do to calm down is important, so is showing your child that even adults need to use those strategies regularly. The last super important part of this is to talk about all this directly with your child to make sure he/she understands what you are doing and to make sure the correct message is getting across. If you have a child who is older than 2 years, you’ve probably experienced at some point that what you thought you were teaching your child on a topic was not what your child understood.
Making the lesson explicit
Making the lesson explicit for your child means saying to her/him things like, “wow, there’s a lot going on in the world right now and I have to say, I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed and scared, even though we are safe. I can tell because my stomach feels like it’s tight and in a knot. Also my heart is beating a little fast. [Pause for a moment to see if your child responds.] I’m anxious, even though I know we are completely safe. How have you been feeling?”
Labeling and describing can help your child understand how to interpret their own sensations and emotions. It can also help your child see that those feelings are normal and you feel them sometimes too. Next you can actively tell and show them one way you cope with your anxiety and help your brain and body calm down.
♥️ You can take a few calming deep breathes.
♥️ You can sing a song together. ♥️ You can practice a simple mindfulness activity of noticing and naming 5 things in your environment that you can see, then 5 things you can hear, smell, touch...etc. to bring you to the present moment, where you’re safe instead of letting your brain spin about possible dangers in the future.
Even if your child refuses to participate with you, just seeing you practice this is powerful.
Practicing these coping strategies frequently, especially when you’re triggered helps you build a strong pathway in your brain between the thinking brain and your reptile brain so that in the future when anxiety starts to creep in, that pathway to find and use your coping strategies will light up and be easier to use. Modeling shows your child that it takes practice- learning to remain calm and cope in the face of fear and anxiety is a life long pursuit. This crazy, stressful, unprecedented time is giving us all plenty of opportunity to start practicing these skills which is hard but invaluable for you and your child.