Props for Parents

Reaching Your Child During Severe Anxiety

Anxiety is by far the number one presenting problem in our office, for both adults and children alike. Sometimes the anxiety gets so strong and painful that it manifests itself in extreme behaviors and  resents itself like anger. In my 10 years as a school social worker, I’ve seen children yelling at staff, tipping chairs and tables, throwing items, and hitting people. The root cause of these behaviors can be anxiety and lack of ability to recognize and regulate emotions.

When emotions are heightened, the child’s brain goes into “survival brain,” and  logic, reasoning, and complex-thinking part of their brain (frontal cortex) shuts off. When this happens, a child (or adult) is unable to process new information and they will not be “talked out of” their meltdown.  An adult can, however, help by asking the child is to tap into their sensory brain, located in the brain stem, otherwise known as “survival brain.”

“Grounding” is a technique that people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) find very useful to bring them back to the present time, instead of getting trapped in flashbacks or nightmares.

I have been introducing this technique to kids in order to help bring them back to the present. I will simply ask:

Can you tell me three things you see right now?

What do you smell in the air right now?

What are your hands touching?

Can you taste something right now?

Asking panicking, out-of-control children to engage their senses and their sensory brain, allows them to center themselves in the present time, which will ultimately help them self-regulate better.

By: Hillary Nusbaum, LMSW

Natasha Kendal, Ph.D., L.M.F.T. ©2021