Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in childhood, affecting 8 percent of all children and adolescents.
In follow up to my last post, I want to offer some strategies your child can try to help alleviate her anxious feelings. This post will only focus on brain integration strategies and represent only a few of the techniques that can help children better control their intense worry.
The Brain Science
First, let’s start with a brief lesson about the brain. Our brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left and the right. To summarize, the right and left sides of the brain specialize in some very different things:
- loves and desires order
- linear (it puts things in a sequence or order)
- cares about the letter of the law
- linguistic (it likes words)
- focuses on the text
- focuses on the details
- more intuitive and emotional
- “gut feeling” – cares about the meaning and feel of an experience
- nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate in ways such as through facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures
- focuses on the context
- cares about the big picture, not the details
- specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories
- more directly influenced by the body and lower brain areas, which allow it to receive and interpret emotional information
In order to live balanced lives full of connected relationships, it’s crucial that our two hemispheres work together. The corpus callosum is a bundle of fibers that runs along the center of the brain, connecting the right and left hemispheres. The communication that takes place between the two sides is conducted across these fibers, allowing the two hemispheres to work as a team.
The brain has two sides for a reason: with each side having specialized functions, we can achieve more complex goals and carry out more intricate, sophisticated tasks. The key to thriving is to help these parts work well together – to integrate them. Integration takes the distinct parts of your brain and helps them work together as a whole. Each side needs to do its individual job while also working together as a whole; integration is simply that.
Your brain can’t perform at its best unless its different parts work together in a coordinated and balanced way. That’s what integration does: it coordinates and balances the separate regions of the brain that it links together.
It’s easy to see when our kids aren’t integrated – they become overwhelmed by their emotions, confused and chaotic. They can’t respond calmly and capably to the situation at hand. We want to help our kids learn to use both sides of their brain together, to integrate their left and right hemispheres. This means we need to help them bring in the left brain to get some perspective and handle their emotions in a positive, more effective way.
Kids struggling with anxiety disorders, in addition to those who have difficulty regulating other emotions such as anger and frustration, are experiencing emotion dysregulation when they feel anxious feelings. In terms of development, young kids (very young children especially) are right-hemisphere dominant. That means their emotions take over much more easily and more intensely than when they’re able to integrate their left hemispheres too.
Integrating the Brain’s Two Hemispheres
So how do we integrate our brain’s two hemispheres? There are several ways we can do this, but some of the easiest, child-friendly ways for our children to try include something called “crossing the midline.” Teaching our kids some very simple techniques can help them to regulate their anxiety, and other emotions.
Draw a line down the middle of your body. That’s called the midline. Every time you cross over that line, you’re helping connect the hemispheres in your brain, resulting in integrating your brain. These exercises can help regulate the part of the brain that controls your emotions. They help you feel relaxed and safe, they release that fight or flight response, and they allow you to respond more rationally instead of emotionally.
Following are twenty of my favorite brain integration strategies to teach children. While the exercises can be used while they are in the midst of experiencing anxious feelings, for best results, it is recommended that these types of exercises should be practiced a few times a day, 4 to 7 days a week. Doing the exercises to music can help make them more fun! Click here for a pdf of the exercises to print them out and save: Brain Integration Strategies
Brain Integration Strategies to Help with Anxiety
- Simple Tap – Touch your right hand to your left knee and then your left hand to your right knee. Repeat several times.
- Bend and Stretch – Lift left knee and touch with right elbow. Life right knee and touch with left elbow. Repeat several times.
- Catch a Star – Reach with right hand up in the air to your left and pretend to catch a star. Then reach your left hand up in the air to your right and catch a star. (You can also pick apples, oranges, etc.) Repeat several times.
- Pat on the Back – Alternate patting the back of your left shoulder with your right hand and your right shoulder with your left hand. Repeat several times.
- Piddle Paddle – Put fists on top of each other as if holding an oar. Pretend to paddle on the right side of the body and then switch hands and pretend to paddle on the left. Continue to repeat.
- Nose and Ears – Touch your right ear with your left hand and place your right hand on your nose. Touch left ear with right hand and place left hand on your nose. Repeat several times.
- Hug Your Brain – Say and demonstrate these motions as your child follows along:
- Thumbs up. – Stick up your thumbs in front of you.
- Thumbs down. – Point thumbs down.
- Cross your arms. – Cross fists with thumbs pointing down.
- Clasp your fingers. – Keeping wrists crossed, hold hands.
- Bring your hands in. – Bring clasped hands down and in toward your chest.
- Give yourself a hug. – Squeeze arms.
- You’re the Best – Say and demonstrate these motions as your child follows along:
- Thumb up. – Stick up one thumb.
- Across the chest. – Bring thumb to opposite shoulder.
- Pat on the back. – Pat opposite shoulder.
- Cause you’re the BEST! – Child hugs himself.
- Push and Pull – Stand with hands on hips. Twist left and push with palms up and then pretend to pull something towards you. Twist and push and pull to the right. Repeat several times.
- Disco Dance – Put right index finger in the air and point to the left. Bring right index finger down by your side. Place left index finger in the air and point to the right. Then bring down by your side. Do several times.
- Crazy Eights – Make the figure eight in front of you with your right hand, then your left hand. Make “lazy” eights by making eight lying down, with your right hand. Make lazy eights with your left hand. Clasp fingers on your right and left hand and make large crazy eights. Lean over and pretend to draw an imaginary “lazy” eight on the floor with your right hand and then with your left hand.
- Bending Exercise – Take a small ball in your hands and bend over and touch the ball to the floor. Legs should be shoulder-width apart. Touch the ball in front of you, then in the middle, then behind your legs. Repeat several times.
- Glider Exercise – Put a piece of tape across the floor like a pretend balance beam. Have child walk across it heel to toe. While walking across it, have them raise their right hand above their head as they step, then switch to their left hand as they switch feet.
- Clapping Exercise – Use tape to create a fake balance beam on the floor. Have child walk across the balance beam heel to heel while clapping their hands at the same time. They must clap at the same time their feet are stepping.
- Bongo Drums – (may have to use stickers to match opposite hand to opposite drum, for younger children) Have child play the drums by hitting the bongo by crossing over left to right and right to left.
- Windmills – Stretch out feet. Touch right hand to left foot. Stand. Touch left hand to right foot. Repeat several times.
- Picking Peppers – Stand with your feet stretched. Bend to the left and pretend to put something beyond your left foot with your right hand. Stand. Bend to the right and pretend to pull something with your left hand. Repeat several times.
- Shopping – Pretend to steer a grocery cart and then reach to the left with your right hand and take something off the shelf and put it in your cart. Reach with the left hand to the right and put something in the cart. Repeat for a few minutes.
- Climbing – Act like you’re climbing a ladder as you reach up with your right hand and lift your left knee. Reach with your left hand and lift your right knee. Repeat several times.
- Put the Fire Out – Pretend to get a pail and scoop up water on the floor by your right foot. Throw that pail of water over your left shoulder. After several times in this direction, scoop water from the left and throw it over your right shoulder.
Stay up to date and follow along for more upcoming posts about anxiety in children and teens, including more tips that parents can use to help alleviate their child’s worries!
“The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson