The Anxious Child: Red Brain, Green Brain

One of the things that came up with a few of my kids is anxiety. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. There is one conversation that helped me incredibly and I’ll share the outcome of it here in case anyone needs a starting point (this was the starting point for me).  A Developmental Specialist Paediatrician changed my mindset about tacking anxiety with my kids and it went a little like this:

DSP: Developmental Specialist Paediatrician            M: Me

DSP: Intelligent parents often attack problems in an intelligent logical way.  So if a child is anxious and stressed about an issue, you immediately attack the problem with gusto.

M: Sounds familiar.

DSP: Although problems need to be addressed, when a child is anxious or upset, the world around them seems bleak.  Issues that usually may not bother the child seem larger than life when they are agitated.

M: {light bulb moment}

DSP: At the first point of call, forget the issue.  Focus on the emotions first.  Once the emotion has been dealt with, and the child is in a calmer state, then talk about the issue.  This may be the next hour or the next day.

Red Brain / Green Brain

This conversation leads me to the Red Brain, Green Brain scenario.  Visually it looks like this:

Helping Kids with anxiety

Red Brain, Green Brain, is an easy way to explain anxiety to a child. When the child is anxious, it’s like their brain is red and everything they see is red: grim, sad, bad.  In a post by Planning with Kids, the author cited Louise Porter in relation when a child has lost control over their emotions.

“When someone is drowning that is not the time to give swimming lessons.” (You just go and save them!!)

On the other hand, when the child is calm and happy (aka Green Brain), their mind is clear and they are able to make decisions with clarity of thought.

Tool Box

Once this change of mindset was established, it’s important to create a skill set for regulation to deal with anxiety.  I call it a toolbox, and over the years — through ages and stages — we filled the ‘toolbox’ with different options depending on the child and what works. There might be a different one for school and one for home (because school is a little more restrictive in what you can do).  The idea is to empower the child to use items in the toolbox to combat anxiety (and get back to green brain).  Below is an example of a tool box one of my kids came up with.

Helping Kids with anxiety

Putting it together

This is how used to attack anxiety with my kids.

Helping Kids with anxiety

I remember with one of my daughters, when she was overcome with anxiety, she would spill out issues from a second ago to a year ago, many of which were so trivial, it’s a wonder she even remembered them. Then, I tried to help her work it through it all.  It was an exhausting exercise, usually ending up with her in hysterics and me pulling my hair out.

Scenario 2

I’ve learnt to address anxiety this way:

Helping Kids with anxiety

Obviously, the pretty picture above is the blueprint of how I try approach things.  In reality, it’s often difficult for my kids to let go of anxiety; however, acknowledging how they feel, holding them close and telling them how sorry I am that they are experiencing such a yucky feeling has proven to be edifying for both parties. We focus our energies, not on the problems, but on getting the kids back to a place where their mind is comfortable and we then talk about the issue (if it’s still an issue) when they are feeling better.

I too, suffer from anxiety, and when I think about it, I’ve developed strategies to manage from having a cup of tea to talking about it with someone I trust.

I’ve been using this process to help my children through anxiety now for over five years now, and by doing so, giving them life skills to take through the teen years and beyond. It’s about self awareness, acknowledgement and choosing tools proactively to combat anxiety.

On a very small scale

If you have a toddler, give this a go! When my children were young (2-5 years) are upset, instead of asking “What’s wrong?” I say “Do you feel sad?”   90% of the time my child calms down right away.  Then, when they are in a better place in themselves, I may ask “What happened?” or “Why are you sad?”

What the experts have to say

A Monster Problem: Children and Anxiety

The Child Developmental Network: Anxiety

Raising Children Network: Anxiety and Fears 

Focus on the Family: Childhood fears

Happy Child: How to Help Your Anxious Child

Note: I’m sharing personally, a snippet of what I’ve learnt in my journey of mothering children with special needs and anxiety.  If you are worried about your child, visit your Doctor.

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  • Reply
    June 24, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Fantastic post. I really like that way of looking at it. I find it important to help my girls identify the emotion they are experiencing – are you sad, are you hurt etc because often they have trouble even processing that.

    We use red light / green light to describe behaviours – red are dangerous behaviours that child should not do. Green are good behaviours.

    Also my 7yo has a worry box that she writes her worries in, red paper for big massive worries, orange paper for middle range worries and green for minor worries. It has been very helpful.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 25, 2010 at 7:39 am

      A worry box… that’s a great idea Marita. You would understand, having speical needs children yourself, how important it is to acknowledge the emotion. It really has been a revelation for me.

  • Reply
    June 24, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    I totally agree with the red brain /green brain line of thinking …when anyone is anxious yes they need to calm down to think rationally again…Great ideas Kelly…I have always been a worrier and my daughter worries about things too …it is great u have such a beautiful chid that God gave u to help u understand anxiety and how ppl cope with it etc…I always love to read your thoughts on how to deal with differences in people….(so glad we were all made so differently too makes life much more interesting)…thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 25, 2010 at 7:41 am

      Thanks Trish… I too am so glad for diversity in people… makes life so interesting and special

  • Reply
    June 25, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Thanks for the great post. There’s lots to think about there. My eldest son is quite anxious and I have realised that I need to help him calm down (get to green brain) before dealing with the issue, but I still hadn’t resolved how to help him calm down on his own.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

      Yeah Catherine, there’s quite a bit of trial and error to get to that point. You may like to ask him, as I did my daughter, what helps him feel better (tool box)

  • Reply
    June 25, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Great post Kelly. I’m already guilty of the “talking through the issue” style. When I think about when I am sad/ angry/ anxious, I really need to just have a hug first, then start talking!

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 26, 2010 at 9:54 am

      Well, it took me a long, long while to learn that less Julie. You’re way ahead of me 🙂

  • Reply
    June 25, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I love that these are simple but powerful strategies that help kids to help themselves.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 26, 2010 at 9:55 am

      Oh Book Chook, you put things just right. Help kids to help themselves is exactly right.

  • Reply
    June 25, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Wonderful post Kelly. Kids are very visual and don’t have the vocabulary that we do to describe how they feel. I love this approach.

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 26, 2010 at 9:56 am

      You know Nicole, I learnt a lot of these sort of things from my OT. I just wish there was more encouragement from OTs in general parenting not just with special needs children… but there is not enough of you to go around.

  • Reply
    Amanda S.
    June 25, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I have a new friend who suffers from frequent anxiety attacks, thankyou very much Kelly for this post!

  • Reply
    June 26, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Thank you for that post, I’ve never thought to look at it like that. I suddenly feel like I’ve been absolutely dreadful to my kids, trying to be rational instead of dealing with their emotional states. I hope it’s not too late to fix this…

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      June 27, 2010 at 6:35 am

      Dororthy, it’s never too late. I too wish I did this earlier. *sigh*

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    August 23, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    This is relevant for me tonight. Thanks Nell.

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  • Reply
    March 25, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    HI this pst was bookmarked and i have referred this to so many friends! It has truly helped me to help my daughter develop tools to help her cope. Also by asking her that simple question “Are you upset” she does calm down by 50%!! Can’t say how much this has helped.Thankyou ?

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      April 12, 2012 at 12:24 am

      Hi Kylie! Thanks for coming back and giving me this feedback! I’m so very glad it has helped. Very. x

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    April 16, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I so needed this post today, Kelly. We’re dealing with this a lot lately. Thank you!

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    February 15, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    Thank you although this post was written along time ago tonight it has helped me! I’m madly googling childhood anxiety – in the hope I can help my son and be a stronger mum. I too have anxiety and it’s killing me to watch my son literally vomit every night before bed.

    • Reply
      Kelly - Be A Fun Mum
      February 16, 2015 at 6:40 am

      Dear Leesa, my heart goes out to you! What you have written is testament to what a wonderful caring mum you are! It’s so tough to see them suffer like this, because it’s not a tangible thing! This was a big starting point for me, and it’s helped me all the way through to the teen years with my daughter. You get through it!

      I too suffer from anxiety, and I wrote about it here, if that useful to you http://beafunmum.com/2014/10/meet-my-companion-anxiety/

    • Reply
      May 18, 2015 at 11:56 pm

      That’s aweful, I have lived through that myself and its a horrible cycle.
      I found this interesting
      And reading the happiness trap yourself may help too.
      He is not alone, it is very common, and he will overcome with your loving help.

  • Reply
    dawn bassett
    February 16, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Hi kelly! I have just read your article on child anxiety and for the 1st time in years i dont feel alone with the situation i live in!
    My 6 year old son is being assessed for autisim but it is a very long drawn out process!
    My son has been suffering with bad anxiety for 2 years and has been bullied on amd off since starting primary school and feels that no one listerns to him!
    He also has sleep apneoa and takes 5mg circadin every evening but anxiety of school the next day often leads to him fighting against his medication and usally has 2- 3 hours sleep a night!
    We use the green/red system at home and i give him the option of discussing things now or having time out but a cuddle 1st!
    His school intially said they will use the system but since starting there have never done it with him!
    When he is really anxious at school he tells me he sometimes he needs to talk to me but school wont entertain the idea of a quick call to mum!
    He has very poor social skills due to the suspected autism so he only has one or two friends and feels like the world is against him!
    I feel so sad as a mum that i can not help take this problem.away and make it all better!
    I oftem feel when i describe things to physcologist they tell me to see what things are like in 6 months, when i talk to school i get smiled at! So just reading that other mums sadly have chikdren who suffer from aniexty makes me feel im not as alone as i have felt for 2 years!
    Thank you great read! Dawn x

  • Reply
    February 16, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I agree with what you’ve written wholeheartedly. This highlights the issue of how important it is to expand your children’s vocabulary. As kids get older they are exposed to many feelings and depths of emotions. Being unable to describe them (beyond swearing) means they don’t have the capacity to put them in check… Think of it yourself. Does everything “p**s you off” or do some things just mildly irritate you… Notice the change of the depth of emotion? Notice the ability to handle mild irritation in comparison to being “p**ssed off”. How we help our kids learn how to effectively express their feelings directly reduces their agitation & frustration for simply not knowing how to express them at all !!

  • Reply
    February 16, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    thanks for this article Kelly. My 9.5yr old daughter suffers with anxiety. I’ve worked out that I need to help calm her down before tackling the issue, but we haven’t worked out the calming method yet. She’s a full on tornado when she’s at her worst with no reasoning or rational thinking.

    • Reply
      May 18, 2015 at 11:53 pm

      When she’s a tornado that’s exactly what it’s like in her mind, would a 9.5yo respond to loud headphones with her favourite music? If you talked about it prior to the moment perhaps? When your mind is dark and you can’t see clearly I wonder if drowning out the demons might help to just bring her down a level that she can then attempt other methods such as breathing, exercise, meditation. I’m talking from experience but as a 35 year old trying to remember what it was like being 9. All the best, and also read the happiness trap. Anxiety is very normal, very common, and very treatable.

  • Reply
    February 17, 2015 at 1:19 am

    Thank you thank you thank you!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you so so much. My 6 year old suffers from anxiety and this way of looking at it will help him immensely. We have been exploring ways to help him self regulate himself but none were working and he was getting more worked up. As you out it, they lay all their issues on the table, even from 1 year ago. So now we will be working out a toolbox of things that he can try to help himself and then we can chat when he is in the green zone.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    May 18, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    have you read the happiness trap? A few fantastic lightbulb moment insights you will love as well as a whole new strategy on dealing with anxiety. I think it will help you and your whole family.
    A fellow sufferer I find knowledge is power. I have a 2yo and my life’s goal is for her to not suffer like I have/do, thank you for sharing some great ideas! I also found this article great as a wake up call that dealing with anxiety in children is different to adults, which you have already figured out but still might be worth checking out.

  • Reply
    November 27, 2016 at 3:21 am

    That’s a wise answer to a tricky question

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