What must we do to reduce anxiety in early years by Jane Evans
23rd March 2017
Whenever I speak at conferences or deliver training to professionals in early years they tell me that they have more children presenting with anxiety than ever before. A glance at articles in the media and statistics reveals that the demand for mental health support and services for children is escalating at a time when services are dwindling. Alongside of this are rising levels of early years exclusions and medication for things like, ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
- More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Less than half were treated appropriately at the time(4).
- Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression (5).
- Over 8,000 children aged under 10 years old suffer from severe depression.
What is going on for our youngest children?
In a word, isolation. Human beings are pre-disposed to be in relationships with other human beings! Brains and bodies like being around other brains and bodies, as we are primarily relational and emotional creatures. Bruce Perry often talks about the stressful modern world we have created, but have not adapted to. We are primed for relationship but sending everyone out to work, introducing screens for everyone, and stressing adults to the max is having a very real impact on children’s stress-levels and anxiety.
Humans have spent the past 150,000 years living in multi-generational, multi-family groups…..In the clans, the ratio of mature individuals to young children was roughly 4:1. That is, there were four caregiving individuals for every little one.
The focus is shifting
In addition to many children not having enough time with emotionally-available, regulated adult carers, there is also an increasing policy-led focus in early years on children being school-ready. Academic attainment is believed by many a policy-maker to be what early years and school education is primarily for, whilst attention to emotional and social needs, and wellness are only highlighted in terms of the mental health crisis, or as a way of preparing children for the rigours of life.
How to reduce anxiety in young children
The good news is that much CAN be done in early year’s settings to reduce the anxiety in children’s under-developed nervous systems and brains. It needs practitioners and leaders who pay attention to regulating themselves first so they can help the children access greater physical, mental and emotional balance. Children need adults who are more interested and focused on being with them, rather than doing with them.
When children are relaxed and feel emotionally and physically safe, they are natural conductors of experiments and full of curiosity. Alison Gopnik talks brilliantly about young children being in the research and development phase so they repeatedly test and retest until they make a connection in their brain, which is pretty amazing if you are a part of this. Of course, this can mean they repeatedly drop their spoon off the side of the high chair, as how else will they learn about gravity!
We enable this in early years by taking pressure off the children, also by being emotionally-attuned to ourselves, and our body systems so we can offer this to the children. They need face to face contact, they need to feel they are emotionally seen and they matter. Once they are less anxious it sets them free to experience joy, curiosity and create friendships which are the foundation of a good life full of wellness, love and learning.
Childhood & Parenting Trauma
Jane’s Books early year’s books are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and are widely available online.
Jane’s TEDxTalk on TEDxBristol talk on childhood anxiety – Taming and Tending Your Meerkat Brain