By Renée Small
Worries and fears are part and parcel of the various adaptive phases of child development. When anxiety and fear become excessive and persistent, and start causing notable distress and dysfunction in a child’s day-to-day living, then these worries and fears starts escalating to levels of clinical anxiety disorders. Fear is the emotional reaction to a real or perceived threat, like a snake lying across your pathway; while anxiety is associated with the anticipation of a future threat, like worrying about not passing your Math test. Although these two states work together at times, fear differs in that it tends to surge into automatic “fight or flight” responses, while anxiety results in muscle tension and hyper vigilance in the anticipation of the fearful threat (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These two states are intended to work as protective functions, but when they become chronic and persistent, they cause real disabling consequences in the classroom, at home, and socially.
Based on the definitions and distinctions of fear and anxiety, one sees that the way in which a child perceives or anticipates a stressful situation is critical to how they behave or react in response to the stressor. Our attention is often focused on the how they are behaving (anxious), and we feel confused, frustrated and helpless as to how we can help our children feel less fear and anxiety to usually non-threatening stressors.
One important cause for anxiety in many children is a hypersensitivity to sensory input, such as sounds, touch, light, tastes and textures, temperature, smells, and movement and balance. This happens when a child receives accurate and non-threatening sensory input, but when trying to make sense of that input, there is a miscommunication and the information in interpreted as a threat. The automatic response is triggered by fear and they instinctively respond with “freeze, fight or flight”. When the sensory input is constantly coming in and being misinterpreted, they eventually become conditioned by the fear and start living with chronic anxiety. When a child experiences trouble with processing sensory input and they experience a high level of anxiety or seem to be anxious for no apparent reason, it could be caused by an active Withdrawal Reflex, which is the foundation to all other reflexes.
A reflex is “an automatic instinctive unlearned reaction to a stimulus” (Goddard Blythe, 2012) which is carried out without thinking. Many of the Intrauterine and Primitive reflexes emerge during life in the womb and are active during the first few months of life after birth and then gradually become inactive as connections to higher functions in the brain develop. If these reflexes remain active beyond the age that they should inhibit, they can result in developmental barriers and barriers to learning (Goddard Blythe, 2012).
If the Withdrawal Reflex does not follow the intended route of development and does not integrate into the higher order reflexes, the child’s system may be locked in a state of fear (De Jager, 2017). It may manifest itself in a child in the following ways:
Take your right hand across to your left side and rub the indentation just below the collar bone, next to the breast bone. It is roughly in line with your left eye. Rub in a slow circular motion, up and out, like the water out of a water feature.
Rub both ears, from the top down to the ear lobes in a circular movement, repeated three times.
The child stands upright with their arms out at 90⁰ next to their bodies. The parent stands behind the child and outlines their body from head to toe, grounding the feet firmly for a moment. This is also repeated three times.
Fling the arms open wide, while taking a deep and slow breath. On the exhale, the arms close over the chest, while the parent simultaneously hugs the child from behind.
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American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Blythe, S. G., 2012. The Right To Move: Assessing Neuromotor Readiness for Learning – Why physical development in the early years suppports educational success.. In: C. Clouder, B. Heys, M. Matthe & P. Sullivan, eds. Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe 2012. East Sussex: ECSWE, pp. 16-39.
De Jager, M., 2009. Mind Moves – Removing Barriers to Learning. Welgemoed: Metz Press.
De Jager, M., 2016. Mind Moves – Moves the Mend the Mind. 2nd ed. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.
De Jager, M., 2017. Advanced Mind Moves Instructor Training Manual. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.
Goddard, S., 1995. The Role of Primitive Survival Reflexes in The Developmetn of the Visual System. Journal of Behavioral Optometry, 6(2), pp. 31-35.
MacLean, P., 1990. The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions.. New York: Plenum Press.