Anxiety and burnt toast...
I've been trying to make sense of a situation I encountered with a girl at Forest School this week. I found it a bit odd at the time and it is only through reflection that I've started to understand what happened much better.
Lily is a very timid, softly spoken 11 year old girl with physical and learning disabilities. She is very uncoordinated, has poor motor skills and is uncomfortable and awkward in social situations. I've also come to realise she experiences quite a bit of anxiety and fear about things that most of us would feel entirely comfortable with (See It's been emotional! post for an account of when Lily first experienced fire).
Today I was helping Lily make beads out of elder for a bracelet, but she was struggling to concentrate because of a game some boys were playing nearby. They had made bows and arrows and were running around the woods making all sorts of noises, including howling. Lily's eyes kept darting over in their direction and she looked anxious.
The following dialogue ensued:
Lily (in a soft whisper): “What's that noise? It sounds like wolves. It's scary.”
Me: “It's just the boys playing a game.”
Lily: “I think they are shooting arrows at each other.”
Me: “Do you?” (I looked over to check on them, but they were just running around the wood). “I can't see them shooting arrows at each other. They look ok to me.”
Lily: “You should stop them.”
Me: “Don't worry, they are just playing. They're safe so it's not necessary to stop them.”
A few seconds later, Lily's eyes widened like she had just realised something terrible. She seemed deeply concerned.
Lily: “I hope they are not going outside the boundary!”
Me (a bit confused as I can see they are not outside the boundary): “They don't seem to be, but if you are concerned about what they are doing, we could go have a look and check everything's ok?”
We headed off in the direction the boys were playing and Lily immediately grabbed hold of my hand. She remained securely clamped to me as we approached the boys. As they ran past us she quietly asked them, “What are you doing?”
They replied that they were playing a game and proceeded to explain some of the rules, including the need to protect their base and how they were using noises and calls as code to trick the other team (hence the howling). They carried on playing and Lily and I observed for a while. I just stood there with her, holding her hand until eventually she seemed to be sufficiently satisfied that what they were doing was safe.
She smiled, her shoulders relaxed a bit and and she said, “Ok, let's go back to camp now.” When we arrived back at camp, she finished making her elder bead bracelet.
For some reason, Lily had found the boy's harmless game stressful. Her stress response system began to kick in, triggering feelings of anxiety and fear. Response to stress is controlled by a part of our brain called the amygdala, which receives signals from our senses and detects anything that might cause distress.
When the amygdala perceives a threat, it signals an alarm message to all parts of the brain preparing us for 'fight or flight'. We experience physical symptoms like increased heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. This can all happen even when stress is non-life threatening (such as hearing howling noises from boys playing a game). It also affects our ability to concentrate and learn, because our 'thinking brain' is shut down when we are stressed so that we may react more quickly. This limits our ability to process information properly (Tennant, 2005).
Lily's stress response system seems to be overactive, producing feelings of fear about things that most people would consider irrational. There was absolutely no threat to her safety or anyone else's, but Lily perceived that there was and the stress was preventing her from finishing her project. The following description about the cause of anxiety puts Lily's situation into great perspective:
“Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can't tell the difference between smoke from fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn't care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can't tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won't, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it's switching on for. It's always working hard to protect you – even when you don't need protecting. It's a doer, not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe” (Hey Sigmund, 2015).
At first, it was the howling that Lily found scary. My first method was to try to reassure her that everything was fine (Of course it wasn't wolves, it was just the boys playing!). Reassurance is a typical reaction to a situation like this and it was my immediate response without even thinking about it.
However, I realise now that when the stress response system has been activated, reassurance doesn't make feelings go away – Lilly still felt scared. By 'reassuring' Lily that it shouldn't be scary, I invalidated her feelings. I think that is why she then felt she had to escalate the issue by claiming they were shooting arrows at each other. When I attempted to reassure her a second time, I denied her feelings further.
Perhaps that's why she then questioned whether they were staying in bounds. She wanted her feelings to be validated and needed me to understand that there was reason for concern – her feelings were real! I didn't realise this at the time, but I'm certainly glad that I stopped my attempts at reassurance and decided to actually accept and address her concerns.
By attempting to make Lily feel better through reassurance, I was actually making her feel worse. When people feel a strong emotion, they don't want to be told that they should feel better “because”.. or “at least”... They often just want someone there to support them as they work through those feelings. By taking Lily's hand and checking out the situation thoroughly, I demonstrated empathy.
Empathy differs from reassurance in that it is not motivated by the desire to make someone feel better quickly (though it can have this effect, it is more of a side effect than the main purpose!). It is about letting someone know that you understand their feelings, recognising them as genuine and powerful and offering non-judgment. This can be done verbally (like saying “I see you are concerned”) and physically (through gestures like hand holding).
I love this quote by Heather Plett (2016) which sums up very eloquently how we can best approach empathy:
"To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can't do it by taking their power away (i.e. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (i.e. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (i.e. giving them more information than they're ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it's needed and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes."
As a result of me showing empathy today, Lily was able to alleviate her anxiety and put her mind at ease. This method was obviously much more effective! And, not only did it calm Lily down, it also helped her practice how to deal with her stress and anxiety in the future, developing her emotional intelligence.
Margot Sunderland (2006) states,
“A vital part of emotional and social intelligence is the ability to find solutions for the stressful times in life when we are thrown into intense states of emotional arousal” (pg. 174).
Lily spoke to an adult about her concerns and I listened (eventually). I was able to provide emotional support by holding her hand as we checked out the situation further and allowed her the time she needed to finally feel comfortable. I now recognise the power of this empathetic approach and I will certainly do my best to think twice before jumping straight to reassurance the next time a child (or anyone!) expresses their feelings to me!
Hey Sigmund (2015) Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life, http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/comment-page-1/#comments, 10/05/2016.
Plett, H (2016) What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone, http://upliftconnect.com/hold-space, 15/05/2016.
Sunderland, M (2006) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.
Tennant, V (2005) The Powerful Impact of Stress, http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Keeping%20Fit%20for%20Learning/stress.html, 12/03/2016.