Talk Back to Worry

By Susan Bauerfeld, Ph.D., with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Behavior is heavily influenced by the part of the brain that is most active at any given time • Helping a child deal with worry and anxiety involves understanding how the brain works and applying strategies that will help your child regain control

For children with learning difficulties, worry may be a part of their everyday experience. Is my work good enough? Are my classmates going to make fun of me? Will I fail this test? Am I going to be the last one picked for the kickball team? To help your child manage these negative, soul-crushing concerns it helps to understand where worry comes from and …

Let’s begin with brain science: The pre-frontal cortex—the “wizard brain”—is the reflective, responsive part of the brain, which controls regulation, executive functions, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. The limbic system—“lizard brain”—is the automatic, reactive, reflexive part of the brain, which is focused on survival (fight or flight) and seeks comfort and pleasure (food, sex/procreation), certainty and safety.

Behavior is influenced by which of those brain parts is most active at any given time. Consequently, when a signal to the brain suggests that survival is at stake, the wizard brain shuts down and resources are diverted to the lizard brain, to fight or flee or seek pleasure. While the activation of the lizard brain is helpful when there is a life-or-death threat (fire, shark attack, etc.), it is unhelpful when the danger is not imminently life-threatening.

Worry results from not being able to distinguish between perceived threats and real, imminent dangers.

The problem with worry is that the lizard brain takes charge when threats are detected, even if they are only perceived or imagined. So, for example, “All my friends have Instagram and I don’t” can trigger your child’s lizard brain. And when worry and lizard brain team up and take control, it is hard to listen to anyone or to anything other than the worry and the fear, and extremely difficult to learn or problem-solve, connect to friends, or cooperate with and be kind to others.

Following is a list of tips for helping kids “talk back to worry” so they can become confident and healthy lifelong learners.

Understand which part of your brain is in charge of directing your behavior. Your child has a challenging task ahead of her and others are expecting her to do it well. She may be overwhelmed, apprehensive, and fearful.  

If her lizard brain takes over and she reacts with worry and alarm (“I can’t do it; it’s a disaster; it’s hopeless”), or if she melts down or withdraws and shuts down, she will not be able to problem-solve and make thoughtful decisions. If, on the other hand, her wizard brain can take charge, she will be able to use her skills and resources to make informed responses to the challenging task at hand.

Change the goal from trying to eliminate the worry to learning how to manage it. You can never eliminate uncertainty and discomfort. So, help your child adjust her goal to learning how to manage in the face of uncertainty and discomfort.

Keep the focus on managing and regulating the worry. Kids can’t focus during a meltdown; no one can. When lizard brain is in charge, the only productive goal is to calm down and get wizard brain back in control. Develop fun ongoing ways to discuss and de-stigmatize worry. For example, find imagery and language for talking about which part of the brain is in charge; have matter-of-fact conversations about how to manage worry; and don’t allow the worry to spiral out of control.

Listen to your child’s alerts with interest, not alarm. Be able to hear your child’s despair and frustration without hyper-focusing on the content. This is particularly challenging, especially if she is expressing things such as, “I want to die.” Such statements are important to take seriously. But curiosity without alarm will allow you to make a more accurate assessment of the risk. It will also allow your child to experience you as more available and supportive—what she needs most when swamped by such feelings.

Use a 4-step process for taking charge:

  1. Notice, name and normalize the arousal feelings and alerts, as opposed to the worried thoughts; begin to see the feelings as useful.
  2. Talk back to worry and turn off the alarm/lizard brain switch. Stop listening to the internal noise of worry: “You are not the boss of me!” Remind yourself that this is not a true, immediate survival threat or emergency. When it registers in your brain that worry will not help the situation, the wizard brain will kick in, take charge, and begin to reason
  3. Allow time to reset. Use deep breathing, relaxation or mindfulness exercises to move out of worry (fight/flight/freeze) mode.
  4. Get wizard brain back in charge, step back into the discomfort, manage the uncertainty, and problem-solve.

Put your oxygen mask on first. Children feel their parents’ stress. In fact, kids with anxious parents are six times more likely to develop anxiety disorders. So how you manage yourself in front of your child matters: keep your worried thoughts to yourself; manage your worry away from your child; and be the one who is warm and nurturing. Teach yourself self-regulation skills and maximize interactions with your child when you—and not your worry—are in charge.

Keep expectations in line with “what is.” Acknowledge the struggle when you see it. Recognize that the expectations and demands on your child may not be developmentally appropriate. Take into account individual differences and skill levels: it may take your child many tries to be able to self-regulate successfully.

Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the simple, but powerful, act of slowing down, remaining in the present, and paying attention to one thing at a time. Being mindful improves access to the wizard brain, helps build internal self-management skills, and increases confidence, performance, the quality of relationships, and peace of mind.

Slow down, simplify and hang out. Increase opportunities for unstructured, media-free time and free play. For children: provide age-appropriate supervision, rather than constant adult direction and micro-management. For adults: engage in media-free, non-purpose-driven activities. Create peaceful mornings. Reduce homework pressure. Make and teach mindful choices about how you and your family use your time.

Get enough sleep. For optimal functioning, children and adolescents need between nine and 11 hours of sleep per night.

This article is based on a presentation by Susan Bauerfeld, Ph.D., sponsored by SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT). Bauerfeld is a clinical psychologist and parent coach. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET Wilton and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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