5 Ways to Help Our Kids be Less Anxious…

Children’s Mental Health Week

This week is ‘children’s mental health  week’, and perhaps never before has it been more important to help our kids cope with the possible anxiety of modern-day life. ZenMuma and ZenKids Children’s yoga teacher trainer Jackie Heffer-Cooke gives us 5 ideas on ways to help our kids be less anxious.

mental health children

How does the human condition deal with thoughts?

It’s only the last 200,000 years we have been modern humans: homo sapiens. The ‘Sapiens’ translates roughly into ‘wise’.

Our mammalian brain is about 100 million years old, and it’s the mammalian part of us, unlike other animals, that wants to get ‘all emotional’ and bond with others.

The more developed Neocortex of the ‘sapien’ means we are aware of ourselves. The upside of this; planning, connecting, building relationships, solving problems, speech.  The downside; worrying, deliberating, fearing for ourselves, for others, wondering why we are all here, and how we are going to die.

We analyse everything, based on how much threat it is to us. As adults we can start to negotiate our way through this (a bit), for children and teens it is at times totally confusing. What is a real threat to us and what is not? There is so much to worry about! Friendship groups, gossip, opposite sex, parent expectation, school expectations, exams, career choices, sibling comparisons, how we look, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… the list is endless, it’s no wonder our young people experience huge anxiety, getting bigger all the time as we ‘advance’ in this modern world.

In neurology the regions of the prefrontal cortex activate error signals, which are there to help you NOT do things like walk into the sea out of your depth without learning to swim. Error signals work like ‘stop signs’.

The problem is we also have error signals which are known as concepts like judgements and self-criticism – we believe these are ‘life savers’ too! They are there to keep us in good survival. The problem is they are less tangible, they take different forms, have different interpretations, and can mean different things to different people.  SO much harder to analyse. Let’s spend all our time just worrying about it instead!

Who am I?

This question in itself causes huge conflict in the brain. Why are we here? What is my identity? How do I feel? Why? The analysis of this to the human condition contains the biggest ‘truths’, ‘lies’ and everything in between, and has been great fodder for science, religion, philosophy, art, literature, and culture for hundreds and thousands or years – and will be forever more, whilst we hang out on this earth.

So, what can we teach our kids?

  1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is absolutely living in the present moment. When we do that the brain can take a break from the negative thinking, from the exhaustion of continuous busyness, the past, the future, the problems, the planning and it can just ‘be’.

We know that chronic stress can actually cause the brain to shrink! It can cause long term damage by producing more myelin producing cells and less neurons.

So, Mindfulness redresses the balance, and gives us a ‘brain rest’ for a while. It teaches us to be in the present moment, and to begin to enjoy the small moments in life that bring us happiness and joy and teaches us to do more of them.

With kids encouraging mindfulness is simple – “wow look at that cloud, what shape can we make from it”, “look at that beautiful sunset, what colours can you see in the sky”, “how does that chocolate fudge brownie really taste in your mouth!”

  1. Progressive relaxation

Progressive relaxation is all about mindfully working through the body letting go of various muscle groups. You can relax from head to toe, or toe to head, or progressively around the body. When the muscles are all totally relaxed the body knows it is not in a state of tension (otherwise the muscles would be tense in the ‘stress-response system’ ready to fight, flight or fright) so it begins to introduce feel-good hormones endorphins, and a state of calm and well being ensues.

With kids you can easily help them with this, particularly at night when they are snuggled in bed. Help them move around their body relaxing each part as they go, until they end up in bed feeling just like a ‘rag-doll’, totally soft and ready for sleep.

  1. Breathing Techniques

When we breathe deeply the body reacts favourably, deciphering that the body can’t be in a stressful situation. When we are dealing with a threat the oxygen pumps blood around the body faster via the quickened heart rate as adrenaline activates the stress-response system to fight, hide or run from the threat.

So, when we slow our heart rate down by using deep breathing physiologically our heart rate slows, our breathing deepens, and the good time endorphins are sent back in promoting good health and a calm state of mind.

With kids use lovely fun props to help the focus on their breath. Breathe bubbles together, help them imagine blowing up colourful imaginary balloons in their belly and softly breathing them out into the sky, use a straw to blow bubbles with paint.

  1. Non-Screen Time

Whilst we know that screen-time is not particularly bad for us, and indeed we know that we can learn a lot from the internet and access to the world at large, the problem comes really if we are focused on the screen too much, or of we see or read something that disturbs or upsets us. So it’s a great idea just have to have some boundaries and rules.

child mental health

A recent report showed that children how had limited screen time to just 2 hours a day were linked to better cognition. But perhaps, more than that, we know that real human connection and physical activity promotes those feel good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin and limits stress hormones like cortisol. So this will lead to better general and mental health.

It’s a great idea to teach our kids to stay connected at the dinner table. There is no replacement for actual attention and connection from the adults that love us. Also, perhaps remove their gadgets at night, to ensure they can’t be tempted, or see or read something that will worry them and cause them to lack sleep.

Post 10am on a Sunday (we have a lie-in and read until then, we need ‘me-time’ too!😊) we have no-screen Sunday. Sunday is our family day wen we choose other activities, cycling, canoeing, games. Its lush, give it a go!

  1. Simple Breathing Techniques

These techniques are great for exam stress!…

Breath as a wave

Take time to arrive on your mat. To draw a line under the rest of the day. To be in this space. Be aware of what is flickering around in the mind, then begin to let it go and draw attention to the body.  Be aware of your breath, how does it feel today? Our breath can often tell us our state of self. Have we been holding it all day? Holding on? Is it choppy and even a little erratic? Is it lethargic and slow? Or is it calm and fresh? Don’t make judgements, just be aware. Then take gentle control, breathing in, pause, breathing out, pause. Just like a wave of breath. Repeat.

Full lung breath

Brilliant at taking full control and slowing the breath right down. Start with breathing into belly, breathe into belly and sides of belly, breathe into belly and sides of belly and chest, breathe into belly and sides of belly and chest and then back, repeat.

Also remind your kids to ‘Check in’

Teaching young people how important it is to check-in on how they are doing today is a valuable skill. Teaching your teens how to check in throughout the day is even better!

Humans are often under the illusion that we are fixed beings, and that once we make up our mind about something it has to be rigid, unchanging. It gets us into all kinds of problems! In the words of the great Verve song 😉 “we’re a million different people from one day to the next” – to really understand this is an important skill to nourish and respect.

We are fluid, changing, beings, perhaps with some keen vales, attitudes and beliefs, but unconsciously we shift around and some days we feel productive, some days down, some days envious, some days hurt, some days excited, some days bored. Some hours productive, some hours down, some hours envious, some hours hurt, some hours excited, some hours bored. Some moments productive, some moments down…

To learn how to appreciate this, to observe it as it happens, to not judge it, to befriend it…

That’s the joy in it. 

‘Checking in’

Just close your eyes, get comfortable for a moment, and ‘check-in’. How am I?  What is that I am feeling? How can I observe it?  How can I help it? How can I be with it? Then focus on your breath meditations for a few moments, and perhaps repeat a simple affirmation three times that you need, i.e. “I am calm”, before coming back to your day.

So there you go some ideas. The good news is that the very fact you  are reading this blog means that you are a conscious parent, aware that you want to do the best by your kids. That is amazing. Why don’t you do some of these techniques together, just make them part of your day or week, make them ‘normal’ and in doing so you are encouraging strength in your children’s emotional health and wellbeing.

I like this quote:

”There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child, there are seven million” – Walt Streigtiff

If only we can remind our kids (and ourselves) to keep seeing them!

Want to make a difference in children’s lives and help them mange their anxiety? Why not train with our sister company ZenMuma and learn to become a children’s yoga teacher.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to bring some movement and mindfulness into your school, get in touch. We can bring a fully trained, insured and DBS checked ZenKids children’s yoga teacher to your school to run yoga classes or after school lessons designed to help relieve stress and encourage positive coping mechanisms for anxiety.