Kids' Fears Have an Off Button. Here's How to Install It.

New research: Mindfulness training lowers amygdala reactivity to stress for kids

Posted Aug 27, 2019

Groundbreaking new research finds that mindfulness practice—specifically, paying attention to breathing and focusing awareness on the present moment—may physically change the amygdala’s response to stress in middle school students.

Previous studies have demonstrated that mindfulness training can help children lower perceived stress and improve executive functioning. This is the first study to provide evidence of actual changes in brain functioning as a response to mindfulness training.

Why Is the Amygdala Important?

If you haven’t watched Pixar’s Inside Out yet, run, don’t walk to your nearest streaming service. Inside Out chronicles the emotional life of a middle-school child, using characters to represent her emotions. There’s Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. Each emotion gives the child different messages and ways of understanding her world. 

When I see the character Fear, I think of the amygdala. Fear’s job is to keep us safe. He’s going to react – and overreact – to anything that could be a threat. The best line in the movie is when Fear and Joy are cataloging the day’s events, and Fear says “We did not die today! I call that an unqualified success!” That’s fear’s job – noticing and reacting to all stressors, from minor ones to truly threatening ones.

A brain structure that plays a major role in fear is called the amygdala. It processes uncomfortable emotions, like fear, stress, and distress, and helps mediate the response. For example, this might be your child's brain dialogue upon noticing a strange dog:

There’s a dog. It’s growling. Its body posture tells me it is angry. I think I’d better not approach it.

On the other hand, your child might notice a different dog, also barking loudly, and the internal dialogue could be very different: 

There's a dog. It's barking loudly. Maybe it's a threat! Oh wait, it's on a leash, the owner says it’s friendly, its tail is wagging and there’s a playfulness to its movements. OK, the dog is friendly. I'm safe. It's OK to approach. 

The amygdala can stand down now. Mr. Fear has done his job, and he can go away.

When Fear Takes Over:

Sometimes, however, the amygdala is over-reactive. It continues to send out “distress” signals, even when a situation isn’t all that scary. For example, if a child feels trapped and bored in class. Is it dangerous? Not really. Is it uncomfortable? Sure! But the if the amygdala overreacts, seeing this as a threat, that’s a problem. The child won’t be able to concentrate on the lesson very well, right?

When I treat children with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, we are frequently talking about an overactive amygdala. These are children whose brains have been conditioned to see many stimuli as stressful or dangerous. The amygdala – Mr. Fear – keeps reacting to everything as though it’s a threat. My best friend is sitting elsewhere? DANGER! My teacher is frowning at me? OH NO, I’M IN TROUBLE! The school bell is too loud... The hallways are confusing... Everything neutral becomes a potential threat. We can see how this is going to make school complicated. An antecedent is a condition that facilitates a behavior. In this case, an antecedent for the stress response would be that over-reactive amygdala.

The Challenge of Middle School:

Middle school is an inherently stressful environment because it’s a transitional stage. Children are transitioning out of the “child” years, and not yet firmly in the “teen” years. This “tween” stage can be very stressful for two reasons:

  • Social Challenges 

The social environment is stressful in middle school because kids are transitioning away from the elementary school “everyone in my class is my friend” attitudes of early childhood towards the “my friends help define my identity” attitude of adolescence. Peer group acceptance and finding a tribe become paramount. Social rejection is therefore much more dangerous in middle school. If an elementary school child is rejected by a potential playmate, she might shrug and move on to the next kid. If a middle school child is rejected by the group, she is much more likely to feel intense shame and self-consciousness. Suddenly, who you identify with matters, and that can be threatening.

  • Academic Shift

Elementary school years are all about basic knowledge, building up connections in the brain, and creating automatic processes that support quicker and quicker information processing. Basically, elementary school years teach children how to learn. In middle school, the expectation is that this happened already. There’s a broad knowledge base of facts. Reading and basic math should be automatic.

In middle school, you must actually use that knowledge. Critical thinking and inferential learning are suddenly much more important than basic memory or skills. This transition can be tough. Teachers are less available to walk a student through the nuts and bolts of a task. In many middle schools, this is the first time students are faced with departmental teaching – having to adjust to different teachers, with different demands and styles, in one day.

 Igor Yaruta/123rf
Does your child have a hard time finding the "off" button for his fears? New research shows mindfulness training can help install it.
Source: Igor Yaruta/123rf

Enter Mindfulness Training:

The ability to shift focus from feeling stressed to planning how to deal with it is key to navigating middle school, which is good preparation for high school. The researchers behind the new study demonstrated two key findings: Mindfulness training increases executive functions and specifically attention control, and mindfulness training directly impacts amygdala function, leading to an enhanced ability to deal with stress.

In the study, middle-school students in Boston were taught simple mindfulness techniques, such as attending to their breathing and bringing attention back to the present moment. Neither technique is terribly difficult to teach, and neither requires sophisticated equipment or background in meditation.

I like to use a meditation I call “Hi, Mr. Fear,” where I have a child think about the sound of a metronome. Every time the child feels Mr. Fear trying to get his attention, I have him click a tally counter. After a few sessions practicing this, we notice that the tally counter has a lot fewer clicks on it than it used to. There are hundreds of meditation exercises online that teach this skill. Anyone wanting to use this approach should Google topics like  "Mindfulness Meditations for Kids"—there are many apps, free videos on YouTube, and articles that detail many extremely easy mindfulness exercises that teach kids to shift their attention back to the present moment or pay attention to their breathing. 

Being able to shift attention away from “I wonder what’s for lunch?” and toward the science lesson is obviously a useful skill for a child to develop. Being able to shift attention away from “I’m so mad! That teacher is so unfair!” or “I wonder why my best friend is sitting with someone else” is even more useful. That’s not only an academic skill, but it’s also a self-regulation skill for the child to attain for life. This is literally the installation guide for shutting off the "stress/fear" response when it's unnecessary. 

In my Targeted Parenting System, each letter of the word TARGET stands for a parenting technique. The letter “G” stands for Goal Directed Behavior – we want to teach our children to be goal-directed, no matter what stressor they face. (To read more about Goal Directed Behavior, click here).

Our goal is to always be teaching our children life skills. The ultimate life skill is stress management and attention control. If our children graduate from middle school having learned that lesson, the sky's the limit! 

References

van de Weijer-Bergsma E, Langenberg G, Brandsma R, Oort FJ, Bögels SM. The effectiveness of a school-based mindfulness training as a program to prevent stress in elementary school children. Mindfulness. 2012;5:238–248.

Zoogman S, Goldberg S, Hoyt W, Miller L. Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness. 2014:1–13.

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