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About Karen Young

Karen has worked as a psychologist in private practice and in educational and organisational settings. She has lectured and has extensive experience in the facilitation of personal growth. Her honours degree in Psychology and Masters in Gestalt Therapy have come in handy at times.

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Building brave and moving through anxiety are like lifting weights. The growth happens little by little. Sometimes this will be slow and clumsy. Sometimes it will feel big bold, certain, and beautiful. Sometimes undone, unhappened, frustrating. It all matters. 

There will be so many days where they will see the brave thing in front of them, and everything in them will want to move towards it but they’ll feel stuck - between wanting to and scared to.

This is the point of impasse. The desire and the resistance come face to face, locked in battle. On the outside this might look like frustration, big tears, big anger, the need to avoid or retreat (or in us, a need to retreat them), but inside the work to strengthen against anxiety is happening.

This isn’t the undoing of brave. It’s the building of it. In this precious space between the wanting and the fear, they’re doing battle. They’re doing the hard, imposing work of moving through anxiety. They’re experiencing the distress of anxiety, and the handling of it, all at once. They might not be handling it well, but as long as they’re in it, they’re handling it.

These moments matter so much. If this is all they do, then they’ve been brave today. They’ve had a necessary, important experience which has shown them that the discomfort of anxiety won’t hurt them. It will feel awful, but as long as they aren’t alone in it, it won’t break them. 

Next day, next week, next month they might handle that discomfort for a minute longer than last time. Next time, even longer. This isn’t the avoidance of brave. It’s the building of it. These are the weight lifting experiences that slowly and surely strengthen their resiliency muscles. These are the experiences that show them that the discomfort of anxiety is no reflection at all of how capable they are and how brave they can be. It’s discomfort. It’s not breakage.

These little steps are the necessary building blocks for the big ones. So, if they have handled the discomfort of anxiety today (it truly doesn’t matter how well), and if that discomfort happened as they were face to face with something important and meaningful and hard, let them know that they’ve built brave today.♥️
Anxiety is a valid, important, necessary way the brain recruits support in times of trouble. In actual times of danger, the support we give is vital. This might look like supporting avoidance, fighting for them, fleeing with them. BUT - when there is no danger, this ‘support’ can hold them back from brave, important, growthful things. It can get in the way of building resilience, self-belief, and the capacity for brave. All loving parents will do this sometimes. This isn’t the cause of anxiety. It’s the response to it. 

We love them so much, and as loving parents we all will, at some time or another,  find ourselves moving to protect them from dangers that aren’t there. These ‘dangers’ are the scary but safe things that trigger anxiety and the call for support, but which are safe. Often they are also growthful, brave, important. These include anything that’s safe but hard, unfamiliar, growthful, brave.

This is when the move towards brave might be in our hands. This might look like holding them lovingly in the discomfort of anxiety for a minute longer than last time, rather than supporting avoidance. It might look like trusting their capacity to cope with the discomfort of anxiety (and approaching hard, brave, growthful things) rather than protecting them from that discomfort. Knowing what to do when can be confusing and feel impossibly hard sometimes. When it does, ask:

‘Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?’
‘Am I aligning with their fear or their courage?’
‘What am I protecting them from - a real danger, or something brave and important?’

They don’t have to do the whole brave thing all at once. We can move them towards brave behaviour in tiny steps - by holding them in the discomfort of anxiety for a teeny bit longer each time. This will provide the the experience they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety.

This might bring big feelings or big behaviour, but you don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Big feelings don’t hurt children. It’s being alone in big feelings that hurts. Let them feel you with them with statements of validation and confidence, ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle this.’♥️
We all do or say things we shouldn’t sometimes. This isn’t about breakage, it’s about being human. It’s about a brain that has registered ‘threat’, and a body that is getting ready to respond. 

‘Threat’ counts as anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their other important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, unfairness or loss. It can also count as physical (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).

The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a brain that needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, validate (with or without words - if the words are annoying for them just feel what they feel so they can feel you with them). 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets nervous systems on fire. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Stand behind the boundary, flag the behaviour (‘It’s not ok to … I know you know that’) and then shift the focus to relationship - (‘I’m right here’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’)♥️
What we don’t give them, they will find somewhere else. All of us need a sense of freedom. The brain struggles with too much emotional and physical restraint. For our children, this means feeling free to speak to who they are, what they feel, what’s important to them. 

To make space for this, ask for their opinions, respect their views, even if they are counter to yours. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. 

The richest conversations will sometimes come from this. Sometimes they will open us up to a new way of thinking, sometimes we will do this for them. Sometimes we will all stand our ground firmly. That’s okay. When you need to stand your ground, let them know you also see their side.

Let their be no limits on thoughts and feelings. The limits are on behaviour. Let these be guided by your values - respect, honesty, courage - or whatever ones are important to your family: ‘I can see how angry you are. It’s ok to be angry and to let me know. The way you’re doing this isn’t okay. When you’re ready to speak to me in a way I can hear, I will listen. I want that. Take your time. I’m here when you’re ready.’

They also need a felt sense of freedom around the things they do, the people they see. We all need that. Again sometimes there will need to be limits around that which cause a collision. We don’t need them to agree with every boundary. When you can, and when it is safe and falls within your family values, honour their need for freedom by making space for the things, decisions, or activities that feel important to them. To make space for this:

- hear what they need, or the need behind what they want: ‘I want to understand why this feels important to you. Can you talk to me about that?’

- make space for collaboration: ‘I know that […] is important to you. What’s important to me is that you are safe. How can we each get what we need here?’

Then there will be the times where a hard ‘no’ is important. They need to feel our love and leadership, but this won’t always be smooth. Healthy living comes by living flexibly. Sometimes our decisions need to lead, sometimes we will make space for theirs to - but always under our love and leadership.♥️
Parents don’t cause anxiety. But as parents and the important adults who love them so much, we will certainly catch their anxiety. This is one of the ways we keep them safe: their distress raises ours, to give our bodies what they need to fight for them or flee with them. The is the phenomenal and beautiful power of attachment.

Here’s the rub though. Our capacity to catch their anxiety is vital in times of threat. But when their anxiety is not in response to danger, but in response to things that are safe but challenging, growthful, their anxiety will raise ours in the same way it would if they were in actual danger. The drive to protect them will be every bit as powerful, but unnecessary (because they are safe).

If they are safe, we have to be clear about what we are protecting them from. Protection is there to hold them back from danger, but if on the other side of their anxiety is something safe, growthful, important, this is what the drive to protect will potentially hold them back from. These are also the experiences that will show them they can handle the distress of anxiety, and do the things that are safe, but which feel bigger than them.

Their anxiety will call up ours, as it is meant to. What happens next is up to us. We will send back anxiety, or we can short circuit their anxiety by sending back calm. We will lead by co-regulation or follow in co-dysregulation.

If we calm our own nervous system, it will eventually calm theirs. This doesn’t mean we cause anxiety. We don’t. It means we feel the anxiety that is in them first, as we are meant to. They will catch our anxiety back, or they will catch our calm.

As a parent myself, I know finding calm when our young loves are feeling distress is one of the hardest things we do. It’s also one of the bravest.

Calm breathing will calm our nervous systems enough to bring felt safety to theirs. It softens our faces, our necks (think tilted gently to the side), and our voices. Then, we have everything we need to meet them with love AND leadership: ‘Yes I know this is big. And I know you can handle this. You have more courage in you than you know. I’m going to help you see that for yourself.’♥️

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