The Caffeinated Brain and Anxiety

The Caffeinated Brain and Anxiety

By Brittany Williamson, MS, LMHC

Wired. 

Buzzed. 

Pumped. 

Jolted. 

These are all words used to describe a caffeinated brain. Overwhelming words for a parent especially when trying to restore order, get homework done or tuck the kiddos in bed for the night. And yet, a 2016 study published in the journal Pediatrics reports that 73% of children consume caffeine on a given day. The leading culprits? Soda, energy drinks, chocolate, and even gum. 

Caffeine is a psychoactive drug used to stimulate the central nervous system. It can improve concentration, reaction time, mood, and performance. All seemingly positive side effects, no? Unfortunately, those benefits are temporary and only seen when the caffeine intake is low- approximately 80-100mg, which is the equivalent of a regular cup of coffee. However, the average school-age child easily consumes 150-300mg, but typically not from a simple cup of Joe. More often than not, our kids find it in what can be described as “the perfect storm.” I’m speaking of course about the sweet deliciousness of sugary sodas and processed candies. All of which lead to increased impulsivity, irritability, hyperactivity, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and ironically, sleepiness. This is particularly true in the afternoon when our kids are coming down from school. I think we can agree that these side effects are not conducive to happy, well-behaved kids. 

Furthermore, caffeine fuels anxiety. The pressures that come along with being a kid these days are not trivial. Based on data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012. Many factors play into this including (but not limited to) school shootings, higher academic standards, and the overload of social media. A strong argument could be made that unrestricted access to social media and the peer pressure associated are currently two of the biggest drivers in childhood anxiety, but that’s another blog entirely. Ok, where was I? Back on topic, I promise- Caffeine’s jittery effects on the body mimic those of a frightening event. That’s because caffeine stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” panic response, and studies show that this can actually make anxiety worse. An anxious brain is less able to cope with the day-to-day rigors of chores, tests, studying, homework, gymnastics, football practice, SAT prep, therapy appointments, and (most importantly) how many likes an Instagram post got. As parents and mentors, we need to find ways to calm the minds of our youth so they can cope in healthy ways, not stimulate them to the point of chaos. 

Caffeine Free Tips for Re-Wiring Your Children

• Get them moving: Twice a day encourage your kids to stand up and stretch, walk around the room, dance it out in the morning or as a break from homework. Familiar with yoga? Ragdoll is a great way to get the blood flowing to the body and awaken the brain. 

• Encourage alternative brain fuel: Pack berries and nuts as snacks for school. Maybe switch their soda or juice to sparkling water. Most kids just want the reward of something sweet and don’t realize there are caffeine and sugar-free options such as La Croix.

• Mindfulness breaks: Welcome the kids back from school with a 5-minute mindfulness exercise to create awareness and open the brain to their afternoon/evening routine. There are wonderful free apps such as “Smiling Mind” that you can use as resources. 

• Educate: Lead a discussion with your family on the effects of caffeine. 

It would be unrealistic to take caffeine fully out of the daily mix. Additionally, we are not equipped to completely undo the bombardment of clever advertisements expertly designed to get our kids to drink and eat those “perfect storm” items. And frankly, asking parents to start their day without a jolt of their own would be almost cruel (I write as I sip my Folgers with a bit of sweet cream, while daydreaming about the sugar-free Red Bull I’m saving in my fridge.) But, here’s the key to success…Moderation! You can be a model for your children and help guide them by sticking to the safe and beneficial levels below.

 

Safe daily levels of caffeine:

  • 100 mg (about three cans of Coke) 
  • Kids aged 10 to 12 years old: 85 mg (about two cans of Coke) 
  • Kids aged 7 to 9 years old: 62.5 mg (one and half cans of Coke) 
  • Kids aged 4 to 6 years old: 45 mg (one can of Coke)

 

For more reading on caffeine and sleep, check out The Battle for the ZZZs. Need help with disruptive bedtime behaviors? Contact us to schedule an assessment.

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