My anxious child


You may wonder why your child is prone to anxiety. Why she so often resorts to tears, fears and avoidance behaviours. While there are many possible reasons for this, it is sometimes useful to consider the actual development of the brain and how this may contribute to becoming an anxious person.


A principle of brain development that was described by the neurologist John MacLean, demonstrates that the brain develops from the bottom to the top and from inside out.  The more primitive systems, being the brainstem, pons and medulla, develop first. This makes sense because they are our survival systems, controlling unconscious functions like heartbeat, breathing and so on. The systems regulating our emotions (the limbic, thalamus, hypothalamus and so on) develop next. Finally, the cortical systems that act as an executive control centre including decision making, problem solving, attending, controlling impulses and more, complete development at about the age of 25 years. These are the ‘smart’ brain systems.


Brain scans and imaging have shown how the primitive brain systems take over higher systems in situations of danger or threat. This is due to the natural need to enhance our survival and explains why when faced with a threatening situation, we cannot think clearly or act rationally.  Oxygen supply to higher brain systems is reduced so that more oxygen can be directed to muscles and other body parts required to protect ourselves by fighting or running away.  When in imminent danger, we don’t need to stop to problem solve – we need to react instinctively to survive. This summarises the stress responses of fight or flight and is a useful mechanism when really needed.


The downside is that if the stress response is activated too much or too intensely at a very early age (within the first twelve months from birth), the development of neural pathways to the brain’s frontal systems becomes compromised.


The reasons for this are threefold. First, the primitive systems are activated very strongly and stronger wiring in the survival brain systems results in weaker wiring in the higher level ‘smarter’ brain systems. This results in the development of the ‘anxious brain’. Secondly, chemicals are produced that are linked to the primitive brain structures. These chemicals (adrenalin, cortisol and others) are geared towards enhancing primitive survival and inhibit chemicals such as serotonin, which is geared towards smart brain development. Thirdly, ongoing electrical activity (firing between neurons) in the primitive systems strengthen the neural connections so a viscous cycle results – with primitive brain areas being gradually more and more in control with less ability to use the higher level smart brain systems.


This is why a well developing brain needs a safe, enriched environment to develop. Secure, enriched environments downregulate the overactivation of primitive systems that result in an anxious brain developing.  If the child’s environment is compromised, it constantly activates threat or risk of not surviving, leading to the protective behaviours that are seen in stress responses.  It is simply devastating for healthy neural development.  Remember too that it isn’t only an emotionally unsafe environment that can predispose a child to becoming anxious.  Physically illnesses also convey a sense of dis-ease and insecurity so even in the most loving and attentive families, a child prone to illnesses may be at risk for developing an anxious brain.


In order to help, what is needed is a bottom-up approach.  It doesn’t help to ‘talk’ a child out of being anxious.  Remember that the higher brain systems aren’t functioning efficiently.   You are not going to want to discuss philosophical matters while a snarling dog is rushing towards you. The child has to be helped to feel safe both physically (including health) and emotionally.  


Some of the basic needs that should be met in order to promote development and wellness are:

  • The need for control (having our survival needs met, such as being fed when hungry, comforted when distressed) and understanding the situation. The latter refers to a child needing help to appraise a situation and to understand why she feels as she does)
  • The need for attachment (closeness of the primary caregiver; trust)
  • The need for distress avoidance and pleasure maximization. (We are all motivated towards pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant or painful ones. This includes physical, psychological, emotional or social states, which we automatically evaluate as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.) A child needs more ‘good’ experiences than ‘bad’ in order to develop optimally.
  • The need for self-esteem enhancement and self-esteem protection. A child needs to evaluate her or his worth as a person as valuable and worthy.  Positive feedback from others and unconditional love are important to developing a healthy self-esteem.


 Fortunately, we know that the brain is plastic and can be changed. Neural connections can be established or weakened so by contributing to the child’s sense of security, her brain can reorganize the neural networks and begin to shift the firing of primitive systems to those of the higher level systems.


Stress is a major factor in children with learning difficulties, which is why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners address signs of stress in our clients.  For more information about ILT, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We also list practitioners around the country and elsewhere if you are looking for help.  


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