Throughout our lives, large and small stressors are inevitable, inescapable, and, for some, chronic. Worry, stress, anxiety, and perhaps even fear or terror, are often encountered in daily life. Children may feel pressured to excel in academics or competitive sports. They may live in poverty or crime-infested neighborhoods. Across psychological models of anxiety, such stressors contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety spectrum disorders (see, for example, Kessler & Greenberg, 2002; Spielberger & Sarason, 1978; Watson, Mineka, Clark, & Starcevic, 1999).
Children may respond by feeling vague, generalized apprehensions; develop specific worries and anxieties; experience stress-related physical symptoms; or engage in behavioral acting out. An anxiety disorder is also more likely if a parent also has an anxiety disorder (Merikangas & Low, 2005). Estimated rates of heritability across the spectrum of anxiety disorders are 30 to 40 percent (Hettema, Neale, & Kendler, 2001). Genetics, the individual’s temperament, family environment, and personal experiences become interacting contributors to anxiety. Feeling helpless to manage these stressors is likely to exacerbate a child’s anxieties even more. As mental health professionals, we can’t change the genetic risk factors or (usually) change the child’s family or environment.
Mindfulness-based interventions offer an alternative approach that may help the child cultivate an intrinsic resiliency to stress. Enhanced self-awareness can lead to greater capacity and effectiveness in navigating difficult situations and circumstances.
Anxiety prepares us to meet the ordinary and extraordinary challenges encountered in day-to-day life. A well-documented finding is that moderate amounts of anxiety enhance physical and cognitive performance (Broadbent, 1971). Athletes “psych” themselves up before an important sports competition. Students study harder before exams. With too little anxiety, they may not be motivated to perform their best. Anxiety also provides a built-in warning system that alerts us to dangers and potential threats.
So, anxiety can indeed be a good thing. But sometimes, we have too much of a good thing...
Can mindfulness help my child?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, mindfulness training may be helpful:
- Is your child often nervous or worried a lot, even about minor events?
- Does your child have a hard time paying attention?
- Is your child often tense, restless, or irritable?
- Does your child worry about talking to others?
- Does your child get headaches, upset stomachs, or other physical symptoms because they are worrying about many things?
- Does your child avoid playing with other children?
- Is your child afraid to be in a crowded place (like a store or restaurant)?
- Does your child cry or act worried when they are separated from you?