Helping children face fears and anxiety with Dr. Dawn Huebner
This week on The Less Stressed Life Podcast, I am joined by Dr. Dawn Huebner. In this episode, we discuss helping children face their fears, phobias and anxiety. Bonus, this can work for adults too.
- Cognitive behavior therapy triangle
- Exposure based approaches
- Amygdala vs. prefrontal cortex
- How to retrain the brain
Dr. Dawn tells us about her new book series, Dr. Dawn’s Mini Books About Mighty Fears, which speaks with warmth and humor to children struggling with specific phobias while teaching the tools needed to break free.
Dr. Dawn Huebner is a psychologist, parent coach, and the author of numerous self-help books for children including bestsellers What to Do When You Worry Too Much and Outsmarting Worry. Specializing in childhood anxiety, Dr. Huebner’s work is known around the world, with books translated into 23 languages. She has been featured on the TODAY Show, WebMD, Parents Magazine, and a host of other news and information outlets. Her newest series, Dr. Dawn’s Mini Books About Mighty Fears, speaks with warmth and humor to children struggling with specific phobias while teaching the tools needed to break free.
The parent of a once-anxious child, Dr. Huebner faced anxiety in her own life, making the same mistakes most parents make before finding the keys to breaking herself and her child free. She now teaches those keys to others, sharing with parents, therapists, school counselors, and educators the skills they need to help anxious children live happier lives. Her TEDx talk, Rethinking Anxiety, has been viewed over a million times.
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[00:00:00] Dr. Dawn: Anyone who has had any difficulty with anxiety knows that it's a really uncomfortable feeling. And when you feel anxious, you want nothing more than to stop feeling that way. And typically the fastest way to stop feeling that way is to avoid whatever's making you anxious.
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[00:00:59] Christa: All right. Today on the Less Stressed Life I have Dr. Dawn Huebner, who's a psychologist, parent, coach, and author of numerous books for children, including Perennial Bestsellers. What to Do When You Worry Too Much and Outsmarting Worry. Her newest series, Dr. Dawn's mini books about mighty fears, speaks with warmth and humor to children struggling with specific phobias while teaching.
[00:01:19] Christa: The tools needed to break. Well, I just told her offline, and there's a little bit about this in the bio, she has a TED Talk that's been viewed over a million times and it has such good storytelling. I'll ask her about some of those stories today. But welcome. So after hearing your whole all about your family now, I just feel like I, even though we've never met until a moment ago now, I feel like, oh, I just love her and I'd like to give her a hug.
[00:01:43] Christa: So anyway, thank
[00:01:44] Dr. Dawn: you. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:46] Christa: Yeah. In fact, I know we have, um, quite a bit we can cover today, but I'd love to start a little bit with how this all happened for you because I think it makes us so much more relatable when we realize that this person that's talking to me dealt with the same things and that's how she came into this work.
[00:02:04] Christa: So do you wanna tell us a little bit about, I thought it was especially hilarious how. You took your son to a child psychologist and what happened there? So will you tell us a little bit about that? Yes, yes,
[00:02:16] Dr. Dawn: I'm happy to. So I am a psychologist myself, as you said, and I trained as kind of a general psychologist and was in private practice seeing all sorts of people.
[00:02:27] Dr. Dawn: And I think I helped people get better at that point, largely because I was nice and I listened well, but I didn't really know the things that I know in terms of how to treat anxiety, uh, the things that I know. So I had a child and he happened to be very anxious, and one of the things that he was especially afraid of was the possibility of getting splinters.
[00:02:48] Dr. Dawn: And that morphed into a fear of wood, of anything made out of wood. And even though I was a mental health professional myself, I didn't know about anxiety in particular, and I. everything wrong, mainly accommodating his fear, and it got to the point that I went around touching everything that was made out of wood before him rubbing my hands over it to reassure him that he wasn't gonna get a splinter.
[00:03:15] Dr. Dawn: And reassurance and accommodation like that is not the right thing to do. I did it. for the same reason that all parents do it, which is because it hurt my heart to see him so afraid, and I wanted him to not be scared. And so I was trying to reassure him, but his fear got worse and worse and worse, and I eventually brought him to a therapist who recommended things that were not at all used.
[00:03:38] Dr. Dawn: Useful to us. And it was then that I realized that I needed to learn more. And so I kind of went on a quest to understand anxiety in a different way than I had been taught about it. And I started implementing the things that I had learned, which was largely about how you need to move towards the things that you're afraid of rather than a way.
[00:03:59] Dr. Dawn: And it was just transformative for him and for me both. And so that led to the publication of my first book. Things followed from there.
[00:04:09] Christa: Yeah. And then I also loved how you just, you weren't able to find time to speak after being asked for two years to speak.
[00:04:17] Dr. Dawn: Yes. So my excuse was that I wasn't able to find time to speak, but the truth was that I was afraid to do it, and I had a pretty major fear of public speaking.
[00:04:29] Dr. Dawn: I didn't initially really recognize it as a fear, which sounds bizarre to say, but that's the truth of it. But I was just making excuses about not being available to speak, and it got to the point that I realized that it was so hypocritical to have written what quickly became a bestselling book about managing anxiety differently and then being afraid to talk about it.
[00:04:55] Dr. Dawn: So I realized that I needed to do something about it and. You know, kind of took some of my own medicine. I did the things that I was encouraging children to do in terms of, um, gradually facing what I was afraid of and practicing the very thing that I had been avoiding, and lo and behold it worked.
[00:05:15] Dr. Dawn: mm-hmm. , and it got to the point of me being much more comfortable with public speaking and all of that. Really humbling and useful to me both to have a child who struggled that significantly with anxiety and not know how to help him, and also facing anxiety in my own life and needing to do the hard things that I was recommending.
[00:05:38] Dr. Dawn: I think both of those experiences just made me a much, much better therapist than I would have otherwise. We
[00:05:44] Christa: learned so much through experience versus anything else. People can absolutely ask us all day long, but if we have the chance to walk the walk and talk the talk, it's the biggest educator we could have.
[00:05:55] Christa: Definitely. So you mentioned something I think is interesting, and this is kind of a very tricky. Situation. I wonder if you have any advice around this. You mentioned I didn't really recognize that my fear of public speaking was an issue. You just thought, well, I'm, I'm busy with other things, but it was a form of avoidance.
[00:06:10] Christa: A very sneaky form of avoidance. Yes. Probably other did actually. Did someone else point it out to you or did you figure it out?
[00:06:16] Dr. Dawn: No, I realized it myself. I grew up in a family that. You know, we didn't really talk that much about feelings. We definitely didn't acknowledge weaknesses, you know, quote unquote weaknesses.
[00:06:28] Dr. Dawn: We just sort of toughed things out or avoided or may do or whatever. And so I, I think that I was pretty anxious in lots of ways, but I didn't. Really recognize it as anxiety until much further along. Anxiety can be like that, you know, with children and adults, both. Anxiety, often masquerades as something else.
[00:06:50] Dr. Dawn: And with children, especially often when they're nervous about something, they'll stay instead. That's. Boring, or I don't like that. You know, I don't like soccer. I don't like gymnastics anymore. I don't wanna do that. It's boring when really they're nervous about it. And sometimes the child recognizes that they're nervous, but they're uncomfortable talking about it.
[00:07:14] Dr. Dawn: Often they don't recognize that it's anxiety, and so it, it does have that masquerading quality.
[00:07:20] Christa: Hmm. So if we're trying to kind of identify where some of our blocks or issues are, what we're avoiding, might be a good place
[00:07:26] Dr. Dawn: to start. Absolutely. Yes.
[00:07:29] Christa: Because that's our tendency pretty much we all avoid, right?
[00:07:32] Dr. Dawn: Yes. And we do that for good reason, right? So when we feel afraid, it's because our brain has told us that we're somehow in danger, that there's the potential for harm of some sort. And dangers really broadly defined. So anything that could hurt us or embarrass us or cause us difficulty or make us feel unsure, right?
[00:07:54] Dr. Dawn: And so when we think we might be in danger, we wanna protect ourselves, of course, right? Anyone would wanna do that. And one of the main ways of protecting yourself is avoiding the thing that might be hurtful, right? Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . You know, we do that for a good reason. It's actually really important to teach children about that, right?
[00:08:13] Dr. Dawn: To teach children what's going on in their brain, what normal processes are happening in their brain that leads to them feeling scared even though something is safe, or wanting to avoid something that makes them feel unsure, because then kids can, are more likely to be able to kind of get on board with what's essentially the, a process of retraining their brains.
[00:08:36] Dr. Dawn: to be able to manage things or be okay with things. The common
[00:08:39] Christa: theme that I see a lot, and I've talked about it in different ways, and I wanna go into learning about the brain and the Amy Amygdala, and I don't know if this fits here or after, but I know in your TED Talk you talked a lot about, do we call it the cognitive behavior triangle?
[00:08:56] Christa: That thoughts create actions which create results.
[00:08:59] Dr. Dawn: Well, yeah, I mean, there are three points, thoughts, actions, and feelings. It's not necessarily that one creates the other, it's that they're all related to the other. So there are bidirectional arrows, right? Mm-hmm. thoughts are linked to feelings in both directions.
[00:09:15] Dr. Dawn: Feelings are linked to actions in both directions. Mm-hmm. , right? And so the idea with cognitive behavioral therapy or interventions is that, The things that we have some amount of control over are our thoughts and our actions. And so if we wanna change what we're feeling, we look to what we're doing or what we're thinking, and we try to make changes there.
[00:09:38] Dr. Dawn: And that ultimately leads to changes in how we feel. .
[00:09:42] Christa: So I am just curious if this is something that you learned about in school or if you really learned about it later. And I bring this up because I had done some coaching a little over a year ago, and this was the entire foundation of it was literally just unraveling things and it was the most useful thing I'd ever done.
[00:10:02] Christa: But it was coaching, not therapy. And I'm wondering if it's a common therapy tool in the therapy tool.
[00:10:09] Dr. Dawn: So I think now it is. I went to school long enough ago that cognitive behavioral thinking was not mainstream, and it was something that my particular graduate school program had not embraced. So I didn't learn about it in graduate school, but that was back in the eighties.
[00:10:26] Dr. Dawn: The students, for the most part, do now because it's what's considered best practices or evidence-based. It's the thing. Is most reliably linked to positive changes. And so yes, it absolutely is taught in graduate programs now.
[00:10:42] Christa: So to continue with the story, when your son was dealing with his fear of all wood, I know there was mistakes in between there, right?
[00:10:51] Christa: We bribed him to. Go outside for bee stings and different, different things. But when did this come in, or how did you figure out that this was, is this what you used or is this how you helped him and how did you figure that out at that time?
[00:11:06] Dr. Dawn: Yes. So he struggled for years and got to the point that he was.
[00:11:12] Dr. Dawn: Pretty incapacitated. He was afraid of anything that could poke him, so that was splinters bees shots, and it affected life in a pretty big way. And we did things that were inadvertently making it worse for years. So it wasn't until I started learning on my own about cognitive behavioral ways of approaching anxiety that I made a change then away from fostering avoidance and towards what's called exposure, which is a sort of systematic process of helping someone practice the things that they're afraid.
[00:11:51] Christa: Cool. I'll come back to exposure in a little while, but I actually wanna ask a little bit, let's talk about the big picture of anxiety before we kind of jump back into helping people understand what's happening in the brain, especially children, right? Because I never really resonated with the word anxiety and you bring up, you know, everyone's got a little bit of anxiety when it's worse.
[00:12:14] Christa: I wanna know anything you wanna tell us about, kind of defining that, how prevalent it is, but also. . Where does it sometimes start from? Come from trigger. What do you think? As someone who had a son who had some somewhat debilitating anxiety, you had your own things that you were like, well, this isn't anxiety, but then later realized it is.
[00:12:34] Christa: So you've been in both shoes where it's more overt and more sneaky. So big picture anxiety. And then what are your thoughts about kind of where it manifests? Yeah, so
[00:12:44] Dr. Dawn: anxiety is one of those words that we kind of throw around and different people use it to mean different things. But basically anxiety is when we worry about something that might happen or that could happen.
[00:12:57] Dr. Dawn: So it's about kind of potential danger and the feeling that we need to somehow protect ourselves from that. Danger. Mm-hmm. . And that makes us feel uncomfortable inside. It makes us feel uneasy and at risk and unsure. And so often people respond to those feelings by doing something self-protective and the self-protective things that they do.
[00:13:23] Dr. Dawn: Strengthens the cycle. It sort of makes them feel better in the moment, but it teaches their brain that protection is necessary. Mm-hmm. When in truth it isn't necessary, but it, it becomes like a cycle, um, or a trap that can then be very hard to break out of. Mm-hmm. in terms of where it comes from, there's a strong genetic component.
[00:13:44] Dr. Dawn: It is related to kind of how certain brains are wired. So there's more activity in a certain part of the brain called the amygdala that's kind of on the lookout for these potential signs of danger. And so some people just have heightened activity there. They're more likely to perceive potential danger, and then to feel this kind of kes of alarm and worry and response to that potential danger, there's a strong learning component that has to do both with.
[00:14:12] Dr. Dawn: The things that we observe. So do we observe the people around us afraid, avoiding things of that sort? Or do we observe bravery around us? And then also there's the learning that happens inside our own bodies, right? So like, let's say I'm standing in a really tall building, looking out of a window when I feel nervous, when I'm looking down from that tall window.
[00:14:34] Dr. Dawn: And so I take a step back from the window. . Mm-hmm. , I've taught myself that it's dangerous to stand by that window, right? Mm-hmm. , I've taken my fear and I've acted as if it was giving me useful information that I actually was in danger. So I took a step back that's gonna, that. Taking a step back makes it so much more likely that the next time I'm near a window of a tall building, I'm gonna be afraid again, and I'm gonna wanna take a step back again.
[00:15:00] Dr. Dawn: Mm-hmm. . So there's that kind of learning that happens in real time when we respond to the danger alarm that our brain is setting off. Mm-hmm. . Right. And interestingly with anxiety, problematic anxiety like that interferes for people. It can be about anything. So, you know, someone can have a small fear of animals or an incapacitating fear of animals.
[00:15:24] Dr. Dawn: They can have, you know, a small fear of splinters or an incapacitating of fear, you know, so it's not so much what it's about. It's more about how much is, does the fear get in the way? Like, how much do you start changing what you're doing because you're trying to protect yourself, or trying just to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being nervous or afraid.
[00:15:44] Christa: Totally. This brings us all back to what's happening in the brain and all day we're getting messaging, right? That's right. That's kind of conditioning what our neural pathways are gonna do. Right? Exactly. The road to work, the exact same road to work, right? We're conditioning that neural pathway and so let's talk about some big picture steps.
[00:16:02] Christa: You talk about how it's important for kids to learn about their brain, and I've talked about this a little bit here, but to reiterate, these are the things. I have been taught or told or whatever is standing in my position. And then I'd love to hear about making this fit for kids. So, you know, there's the two parts of the brain, right?
[00:16:17] Christa: The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. And the prefrontal cortex is the parent part, and the amygdala is the child part, right? And the amygdala is like, All protection all the time. So, and, and some people say that, you know, 95% of the decisions come outta the amygdala, right? So we're coming out of this perspective of fear or whatever.
[00:16:35] Christa: So this is what I'm kind of coming in with and interpreting it in this way. I want you to correct or adjust, or how would you change this? How would you talk about this to children? Yeah, so I think
[00:16:46] Dr. Dawn: you can start talking to children about this at a pretty young age, like kids as young as five. I start talking about this, so definitely it's important to talk about the amygdala, and that's like the alarm center in your brain and its job is to keep you safe, and it takes that job very seriously.
[00:17:03] Dr. Dawn: The prefrontal cortex, I just call the thinking part of your brain, and that's what helps you make good decisions and remember things and solve problems and do your. The amygdala is kind of like a smoke detector. And a smoke detector is a really good analogy for children because they all have the experience with it.
[00:17:21] Dr. Dawn: So the smoke detector, as kids know, is set up to alert us in the event of fire, but actually it's not calibrated to fire. It's calibrated to smoke. And smoke can be caused by lots and lots of things. Right. So it can be caused by fire, but it can also be caused by a piece of toast that's gotten stuck in the toaster and overdone or something smokey that we're cooking close to the smoke detector or candles, right?
[00:17:45] Dr. Dawn: All of those things are gonna set off the alarm. The smoke detector, one of them is an emergency. Fire is an emergency, the others are not. Right. So when the alarm goes off, we shouldn't go running out of our house immediately. We first need to take a quick look around and see is this an actual danger? Is there a fire or is this a false alarm?
[00:18:07] Dr. Dawn: Is there a piece of toast stuck in my toaster? In which case I need to just free up the toast, not go running out of my house. Right? So our amygdala is like that smoke. , it alerts us to possible danger, but possible danger is different from actual danger, right? And so we all have to learn ways to tell the difference between a real danger and a false alarm.
[00:18:32] Dr. Dawn: And I always start with some kind of explanation like that with kids, right? That your amygdala is there to keep you safe. That it's a good thing, that it sets off alarms like that, that sometimes our amygdala is kind of. Overzealous , you know, is, is trying too hard to keep us safe and sounds an alarm about things that aren't actually dangerous or that we don't need to be protected from, and then we need to recognize that as a false alarm, and we need to teach our amygdala when to ring and when not to ring, right?
[00:19:02] Dr. Dawn: Mm-hmm. . And the way to do that is by, Essentially slowly approaching the things that we feel afraid of, especially when we look around and we see that other people aren't afraid. Or when the people who care about us, like our parents or other grownups are telling us that the thing is safe.
[00:19:21] Christa: Interesting. So exposure.
[00:19:22] Christa: Right? Right. Okay. You talk about exposure. You have another great analogies for exposure for kids to think about. Yeah. Will you share some.
[00:19:32] Dr. Dawn: Yes. So the idea with exposure is that we're trying to get used to the thing that we're afraid of. There's actually two things that we're trying to get used to the very thing that we're afraid of.
[00:19:44] Dr. Dawn: And we're also trying to get used to our own fear, our own apprehension, right? Anyone who has had any difficulty with anxiety knows that it's a really uncomfortable feeling, and when you feel anxious, You want nothing more than to stop feeling that way. And typically the fastest way to stop feeling that way is to avoid whatever's making you anxious, but that kind of keeps the problem going.
[00:20:06] Dr. Dawn: So an analogy that works well for teaching kids about exposure is that your brain can learn how to get. Used to things that seem scary at the part in the same way that you can get used to the cold water in a swimming pool. It's again a really good analogy for kids cuz essentially all kids have had the experience with this, with getting into a pool and having it be really cold, but staying in and eventually the water feels fine and it's not as if the temperatures changed, it's just that you've gotten used to it.
[00:20:34] Dr. Dawn: You stop noticing the cold, your brain and body get used. And the pool analogy works well because there are two ways to get into the pool to get used to the water. One is to jump in and deal with the water all over your whole body all at once. And the other is to go step by step. So when you are thinking about starting to face your fears, you have the same choice.
[00:20:54] Dr. Dawn: You can do a plunge in kind of method, do it all at once in a big way, or you can go step by step a little bit at a time. Usually children elect to go step by step, which is totally fine. And then it's up to kids and parents to kind of think of those steps, you know? What's a small step to go from not being able to go upstairs alone to being able to do that alone?
[00:21:16] Dr. Dawn: How do you take a step towards that? Or what's a step when you're terrified of dogs, how do you get yourself more comfortable being with dogs? You're not gonna do a plunge in, you're gonna do one small step. Mm-hmm. . . One of the things that's really important when you're thinking about exposure to fears is that these steps need to be done intentionally and often.
[00:21:38] Dr. Dawn: So you don't wait until you're in the situation where you feel afraid and then try to get yourself to manage it differently. That doesn't work well. You need to kind of choreograph the practice and practice over and over, and over, and over and over again. It in small doses is fine. You know, 10 minutes of practicing something is helpful, but it's intentional, frequent, sequential practice and exposure can be used to help with virtually any form of anxiety, virtually any fear.
[00:22:08] Christa: So would the steps be something like determining what the fear is, then creating a situation to help you gain some exposure, whether it's step by step or jumping in and then repeating? Correct. Great. Obviously this could be vast, but I think sometimes it's, I think what you just mentioned there is very important that we don't wait until it's A, we're actually afraid that's not actually gonna work at all.
[00:22:32] Christa: So, When people are trying to understand, sometimes we have to work in chunks of something that feels approachable, right? From both the parent and the child. So, okay, we've choreographed this thing that we're gonna practice, right? How many times should we try to experience it? Or what are some of the things that you've seen where things start to get better after so many exposures?
[00:22:54] Christa: Something like that. What does, what does that look like? Where does a parent know like, oh man, I've been doing this a long time and I'm not seeing changes, but maybe I should get some help. Where does that line
[00:23:02] Dr. Dawn: start to come in? So unfortunately, there's not a formula like that because just like if you think about in a pool, if you're going into a pool step by step, you might take one step and then a second step in a gingerly way and a third step.
[00:23:15] Dr. Dawn: And by the time you get into up, in, up to your waist, you just feel ready to dive in the rest of the way, right? It's not unusual for that to happen with getting into a pool. And with fear exposure hierarchies. So it's not so much about, you know, you can count on by X period of time, it's gonna get easier.
[00:23:33] Dr. Dawn: Although you should see if you're doing small enough steps and a child is actually doing them, you should see that things are getting progressively better. So let's just talk about a specific example to make this more concrete. Let's say there's a child with major separation anxiety. So a child who can't, you know, Go to activities by themselves.
[00:23:52] Dr. Dawn: Can't go to birthday parties or friends' houses, can't sleep alone, can't walk around their house by themselves, needs to have a parent with them at all times, or a pet, or a sibling or something. Child with major separation issues, right? Mm-hmm. . So to start exposure about that, you would start with getting a child used to being by themselves in the house, which is something that, you know, a place that you can practice frequently for tiny increments of.
[00:24:17] Dr. Dawn: Right. So it might be that if you have a staircase in your house, a parent is standing at the bottom of the stairs and you're having a child just run to this top of the stairs and come run back down again 10 times. Run up, run down, run up, run down. The next day you might have it be that the child's gonna run upstairs.
[00:24:32] Dr. Dawn: Parent is standing at the bottom of the stairs and the child this time has to touch every doorknob upstairs and come back down. Right? And the day after that, you might have it be that instead of running up there, walking up and then you move to parent isn't at the bottom of the stairs, they're standing further away.
[00:24:46] Dr. Dawn: So you're just adding on a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time to help a child move towards what you ultimately want, which in this case might be going to a different part of the house alone. , right? And staying there for a little while, and that might take a lot of different steps, but for what I'm describing, it's possible to move a child from not being able to navigate their house alone to being able to do that in something like two weeks, right?
[00:25:14] Dr. Dawn: It shouldn't take months and months and months, but that's if you're practicing every single. , um, and making it, you know, just a little, little, little bit harder each time. Mm-hmm. and having kids practice on purpose. Right. So sometimes parents will try to like trick their kids, oh, your tablet is upstairs and if you wanna use your tablet, you have to go get it.
[00:25:34] Dr. Dawn: And sometimes a child who's afraid will run upstairs because the incentive is big enough. They want their tablet. But that's actually not a useful way to do it. It's more useful. If the child knows, okay, I'm practicing right now. I'm working on retraining my brain to be okay with me going to parts of my house alone.
[00:25:55] Dr. Dawn: This is a practice session that's gonna be much more beneficial.
[00:25:59] Christa: Hmm. That sounds like a good. Teaching point for kids also is just using the words. I'm just trying to retrain my brain. So it looks like this is safe. Yes, now. Yes, because that's what it is. And we all need to be working on brain retraining all the time.
[00:26:13] Christa: Cuz I see this in adults constantly. And I mean, if I examine myself, I'd find all kinds of versions of it in myself. We all have stuff that we can retrain. In our brain. Right? And you brought up a couple of weeks, and I think that that's a good minimum or like a good turnaround time that I've seen in adults too, that we, it's like, man, you do some retraining every day consistently for a few weeks, and you start to feel different, right?
[00:26:36] Dr. Dawn: And this is the case for both fears and for. Things where kids have sensory sensitivities, you know, kids that are super picky eaters or kids that only have two outfits that they're willing to wear, right. You still do an exposure based approach where you're having a child kind of dip into that thing that makes them feel uncomfortable and tolerate it for increasingly long periods of time because they're helping their brain to get used to it.
[00:27:04] Dr. Dawn: Mm-hmm. , it's, it's the same approach.
[00:27:06] Christa: That was actually one of my next questions was could we use this? We're talking about exposure, but could we use this for anything? And, and to give it some context, once upon a time, this really stuck in my head. Someone said, there's really only two emotions, happiness and fear.
[00:27:22] Christa: Like it boils down to this, like our anger is some kind of, so, I actually do this in my brain all the time. Like, how is this frustration with me and my daughter and of not wanting to do X, Y, Z thing I need her to do to like get out the door for school? A type of fear or like all of the things, right? And so that's, I think the question is, yeah, where else can we use this?
[00:27:43] Christa: You brought up sensory sensitivities, which is really helpful, but just like trying to frame up the conversation cuz we were talking about the cognitive behavioral, right? Did we call it the triangle? Or therapy? Or does it matter?
[00:27:55] Dr. Dawn: Okay. Yeah. So another place that this is really handy is around apprehension that has to do with new experiences.
[00:28:02] Dr. Dawn: Mm-hmm. . And we see that a lot with kids and adults often have it too, right? Mm-hmm. . So for evolutionary reasons, our brains are really good at noticing when something is different, as you know, new or different. And our brain initially computes that as dangerous, like different and dangerous cuz it might.
[00:28:22] Dr. Dawn: Dangerous, right? Mm-hmm. . And, but there's actually a difference between something being dangerous and something just being new, right? Mm-hmm. . And so we can use exposure kinds of theories or exposure practices to get used to something that's new, which helps us to feel less apprehensive about that thing.
[00:28:40] Dr. Dawn: Right? So that's another application for this, I guess. Yeah.
[00:28:44] Christa: For. Well, I think we covered a lot. We talked about the importance of learning about our brain, amygdala versus prefrontal cortex. Using the fire alarm example, using the swimming pool example, even using the words retraining the brain. And this is, I think if we work on this with our kids, it's also we'll get so much out of it for ourselves as
[00:29:04] Dr. Dawn: well.
[00:29:05] Dr. Dawn: Absolutely. Yeah. In part because anxious children often have anxious parents, and even if a parent is not necessarily anxious themselves, it's distressing to see your child distressed or stuck. Mm-hmm. . And so, you know, anxiety in a child is often triggering to a parent and mm-hmm. and that can be hard. So yeah, I think parents benefit a lot from learning about how to help their anxious children and starting to implement all of this.
[00:29:30] Dr. Dawn: One of the ways that I've changed my thinking over the course of my career in terms of anxiety is I used to think about anxiety as something that people needed to learn how to fight, right? Mm-hmm. anxiety is sort of a bully that you have to learn to, like, push it away or yell at it, or make it go away.
[00:29:45] Dr. Dawn: I, I don't think about it that way anymore. I think about it more like we have to change our relationship with anxiety and that rather than immediately obeying it, believing it, capitulating to it, we have to learn how to question what anxiety is telling us. We need to learn how to say essentially no.
[00:30:04] Dr. Dawn: Thank you to anxiety, like, no, thank you. I've got this. Or, that's not helpful to me. Right. But it's not really that we're fighting it, cuz the more we fight it, the more we're staying engaged with it, the more we're empowering it. So it's more like we need to learn how to ride it out and kind of shift the way that we're responding to it.
[00:30:26] Dr. Dawn: Mm-hmm. ,
[00:30:27] Christa: if you were talking to someone who's going through a significant anxiety experience in that moment, and so we know. , you can't practice or practice doesn't work as well when you're in the middle of it, but maybe that's where you take the practice. So if someone's dealing with anxiety in this moment, what are some tools and strategies in that moment where whether you're talking to the anxiety, et cetera, cause you just said write it out and shift how we're kind of responding, right?
[00:30:53] Christa: So will you give us some examples of what that looks like when someone's feeling a little bit?
[00:30:58] Dr. Dawn: Yeah, so it's sort of the classic breathing and mindfulness kinds of things, but I think it's important for people to recognize that that's not the end point, right? So the goal with breathing or mindfulness is to quiet the amygdala enough to get the thinking brain back online, and then be able to move towards whatever it is.
[00:31:21] Dr. Dawn: Set off that reaction to begin with, right? Mm-hmm. . But with children there, there are all kinds of breathing and mindfulness activities that we can teach. They work the best if we practice ahead of time. Anyone who has an anxious child has undoubtedly had the experience of your child panicking about something and you as parents say, take a breath and the child snaps at you.
[00:31:42] Dr. Dawn: That doesn't help I everything. Great. So, you know, it's not something that you can just do in the moment, and you've never done it or talked about it before and expect it to be helpful. That's not gonna work, right? Mm-hmm. , but it's not, you know, anxiety is not like a faucet that there's something that you can say or do and just kind of turn it off, right?
[00:32:00] Dr. Dawn: It's more like you're gonna breathe your way through it. Or do some, a mindfulness activity to reground yourself so that your brain recognizes that actually there's no immediate danger right here, right now. I'm okay. Right. And there are all kinds of breathing and mindfulness exercises that are geared towards children.
[00:32:20] Dr. Dawn: You know, we're gonna be appealing to children, you know, learn and practice those and do them in the moment. But again, it's, the goal is to kind of quiet the immediate brain alarm. Quiet enough to help kids then move into an exposure or move into managing the actual situation differently.
[00:32:38] Christa: Yeah, totally.
[00:32:39] Christa: Okay, so we covered those analogies. We covered the cognitive behavioral triangle a little bit. I don't know if we need to talk about it. any more? Because we talked about it being bidirectional. I dunno if you wanna give any other examples of how that serves, doesn't serve, or give an example where you run it through the cognitive behavioral triangle
[00:32:59] Dr. Dawn: so we can think about our thoughts.
[00:33:01] Dr. Dawn: Right. So this is tricky to teach to kids that are younger than about age nine because it's around that age that kids develop the ability to think about their own thinking. Prior to that, it's hard for kids to step outside of their thinking, like they just sort of live in their thought. But for kids that are just a little bit, you can talk to them about, our thoughts are just our thoughts, right?
[00:33:24] Dr. Dawn: And just because we're thinking something, it doesn't necessarily mean that that thing is true or that thing is useful to us. There's actually a lot that we might think in any given situation and we can. Change our thoughts, right? We can tell ourselves things and so we're essentially teaching self-talk.
[00:33:43] Dr. Dawn: You can teach self-talk to a younger child, you know, a four-year-old, five-year-old, six-year-old. It's just that they're not gonna be able to understand the reason for self-talk as much as an older child would. Um, but we wanna teach kids to say to themselves, I can be brave. Or that's my amygdala. It might be a false alarm.
[00:34:03] Dr. Dawn: Or you know, we can teach kids to like say things to themselves that will help them be able to better access some of the things that we want them to practice. Then some of the skills that we want them to have so that, you know, kind of helping kids to manage what they're thinking is one of the things we can do.
[00:34:22] Dr. Dawn: It's impossible to just. Think something, right? Yeah. And so people will sometimes say, or parents will sometimes say, you know, just don't worry about it, or don't think that that doesn't really work, but we can work on changing what we're thinking instead. Mm-hmm.
[00:34:35] Christa: and, and give, give awareness to the thoughts and that they don't have to be true or not true.
[00:34:40] Christa: So you have, you know, It all started with one book, right? Yes. And now there's new books. Tell us about the new books that are coming out and I mean, yeah. Will, will we be talking about anxiety and fears? I'm curious what Like I feel like there's a lot of emotions we could address. Why don't you just keep going
[00:34:57] Dr. Dawn: here?
[00:34:57] Dr. Dawn: Yeah, so I have some earlier books that address other feelings, anger and negativity and sleep problems and things of that sort. My newest work is all about anxiety because I love it and because I feel like. There's so much that parents and children can do that is just utterly transformative, right? So anxiety doesn't have to kind of hijack or hold hostage children and families the way it does if you don't understand it.
[00:35:26] Dr. Dawn: So my newest series is called Dr. Dawn's mini books about Mighty Fears, and it's a whole set of books that are specific to really common childhood fears. Animals getting sick, bad guys making mistakes. There are four books out and there are three more that are on the way. So those are the books that I'm most excited about right now.
[00:35:46] Dr. Dawn: Cool.
[00:35:47] Christa: Well, I think we did a good job covering lots of things and if you, if it behooves the listener, I definitely recommend going to hear her Ted talk because it's also like just, I chuckled many times. It was very, it was, thanks for using your story to make us laugh and also let us see ourselves in your story.
[00:36:04] Christa: Where can people find you
[00:36:05] Dr. Dawn: online? Yeah, so the best place is probably my website, don hener phd.com. If you put my name into a search engine, it's the first thing that'll come up and there are free kind of tips for parents on that. There are links to various podcasts and the TED Talk. There are descriptions of all of my books, so that's a, a good starting
[00:36:25] Christa: point.
[00:36:25] Christa: Perfect. Well thank you so much for coming on today.
[00:36:28] Dr. Dawn: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
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[00:36:46] Christa: That's review this podcast.com. Less stressed life, and you'll be taken directly to a page where you can insert your review and hit post.
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