Parenting an anxious young person – how we help – and how we hinder

Parenting an anxious young person – how we help – and how we hinder

There is no doubt that biological factors play an important part in causing or contributing to anxiety in young people.  Some research has suggested there is a genetic component to anxiety (e.g. identical twins are more likely to have similar rates of anxiety than non-identical twins).  Other areas of research have identified physiological differences (for example heart rate reactivity, a number of brain structures/processes) between more and less anxious children.  There are other areas of research which have found differences in infant behavior between children who then grow up to be more or less anxious. 

All these fields of study put together indicate that at least some tendencies towards anxiety in humans is “hard wired” into some young people much more strongly than in the average young person.

However there are other research studies which show that aspects of a young person’s environment (in other words what happens to and around them) also influence their anxiety.  Studies have found factors such as early traumatic life experiences, friend and peer relationships, school life, sleep quality, nutritional intake, exercise and technology use – also contribute to how much anxiety children and young people experience.  

Not surprisingly therefore, most psychologists believe it is a combination of biological and environmental factors which cause anxiety in young people.

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4 ways to increase kind behaviour in children and young people with social, emotional or life challenges

4 ways to increase kind behaviour in children and young people with social, emotional or life challenges

A few years ago I had to cancel an appointment with an 11 year old girl as I was ill that day.  The next session she bought me a detailed “get well” drawing which she had obviously spent some time on.  It was a lovely gesture which made my day - and I stuck it up on my office wall where it stayed for quite some time.  It also told me something about this child’s strengths in empathy and emotional connection skills.

Many research studies have found that children who frequently act kindly towards other people are more likely than others to do well in many life areas.  For example, a longitudinal (long range) study published in 2015 by Jones and colleagues found that children who showed a much kindness and other “prosocial” behaviour when they were 5 years old had better mental health, lower levels of substance use, better relationships with others and better performance in the workplace when assessed nearly 20 years later (and this “more kind behaviour – better outcomes” relationship held true regardless of low or high school achievement at age 5).  This theme has been replicated in other studies – children and young people who act kindly have better outcomes in many areas.

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“I’m an idiot” and “I’m so stupid”: Helping young people to use self compassion to manage self criticism

“I’m an idiot” and “I’m so stupid”: Helping young people to use self compassion to manage self criticism

Many years ago I was mid session with a bright and engaging 5 year old when he looked me in the eyes and tearfully said the following: 

"I'm so ugly.  That’s why no-one wants to play with me". 

As an early career psychologist working with children at that stage, it was a confronting moment.  Like many adults, I'd believed (or perhaps just hoped) that children of this age did not have excessively critical thoughts about themselves the way many adults do. 

Sadly, as my working life progressed, I’ve come to realise this is not true.

Many children and teens are absolutely capable of - and frequently do - view themselves in harsh and negative ways.  Although it some young people do this less than others, and some not until they are older - eventually almost all young people berate, criticise or feel negatively about themselves at least on some occasions during their childhood and adolescence.

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“It’s not fair”, “You’re an idiot!” and “He cheated!”: Kids and teens ‘angry talk’: teaching them what to say instead

 “It’s not fair”, “You’re an idiot!” and “He cheated!”: Kids and teens ‘angry talk’: teaching them what to say instead

When we are angry, we have a strong instinct to express our outrage and needs in strong and emphatic ways.   We use our words to defend ourselves, attack or defeat someone – or something.  

As adults, we are (sometimes) able to disguise or dampen these themes, but in younger people (without fully developed brains) they are often expressed loud and clear.

  • James and his brother were playing a ball game which ended in them both yelling “You’re a cheater”, “this is stupid” and “Shut up!”

  • Ruby wasn’t bought something she desperately wanted at the shops, and she stomped, cried and shouted “This is so unfair” and “You are so mean” to her Mum.

  • Jordi was furious at Sara for telling others something told to her in confidence and texted her:“You’re a liar” and “Don’t ever talk to us again”

  • Tom* was asked to get ready for school three times until Dad took the ipad away from him which prompted him to yell: “Give it back to me” and “You’re horrible”

Unfortunately, while it is entirely normal for young people to speak like this at times - not only does it often make them feel worse, it makes people around them less likely to want to be with them, negotiate with or support them.   Which in turn makes them feel worse.

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Cool thoughts for angry kids: how kids who get mad think differently - and what to do about it

Cool thoughts for angry kids: how kids who get mad think differently - and what to do about it

I was watching an episode of The Good Wife the other night (I know, as usual about a decade behind the times) and there was a discussion about the way some people say “sorry” when they accidentally bump into someone in the stress and others say “hey, watch out!”.

It reminded me of a topic I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about lately – the way children think about arguments, problems or difficult situations with their peers (psychologists sometimes call this thinking “attribution style”) and how this influences how they act either angrily or calmly to these problems.   

Research on this topic started back in 1980 when a few pioneering psychologists (eg William Nasby, Ken Dodge and Nicki Crick in particular) started a series of experiments in which they showed children pictures of or told them stories about hypothetical problems with peers – for example someone getting knocked over in a game – and then asked them to say whether they thought another child had done this deliberately and intentionally or whether it had been an accident.

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