Anxiety: What we decide, they will follow – but first, the decision.

When anxiety hits, our children will look to us for signs of safety. They’ll be needing to know, ‘Do you think I’m safe?’ ‘Do you think I can do this?’ ‘Do you think I’m brave enough, strong enough, capable enough?’

What we decide, they will follow. They might be achingly unwilling for a while, but eventually, they will follow. If only making the decision wasn’t so entangled, so often, with our own anxiety, their distress, and the smudgy, uncertain line that often comes before brave.

One of the hardest things as a parent can be deciding when to protect our kids and when to support them into brave. For them, brave, hard, new things (scary-safe) will often feel like dangerous things (scary-dangerous). Their anxiety around this will drive anxiety in us. It’s why their brave things will often feel scary for us too.

There’s a good reason for this. As their important adults, we’re designed to feel distress at their distress. This is how we keep them safe. It’s normal, necessary, and the thing that makes us loving, beautiful, available parents. But – it’s also why their anxiety will often drive anxiety in us, and a powerful drive to protect them from whatever is causing their distress.

Their distress will drive distress in us … exactly as it’s meant to.

When our children are truly in danger, their distress (fight or flight) will drive distress (fight or flight) in us to give us the strength, the will, the everything to keep them safe. Fight or flight in them will raise fight or flight in us – to give us the physiological resources to fight for them or flee with them if we need to.

We’re meant to feel distress at their distress – but those distress signals can also run interference on brave behaviour. Anxiety can make safe, brave, important things feel like dangerous things – for them and for us. This is normal and healthy. What matters is our response.

Sometimes making the decision, ‘Do I step back into safety or forward into brave?’ is too much for our kids and teens, so we have to make the decision for them. What we decide, they will follow. 

You will see evidence of this everywhere in your home: Do I need to brush my teeth? Is it okay if I hit? Do I need to be kind? Do I matter? Is my voice important? And the big one to strengthen them against anxiety … Can I feel anxious and do brave? The decision on most of these is an easy ‘yes’. We decide. They follow (eventually).

With anxiety, the line can be blurry. Sometimes your concerns might be valid, in which case their fight or flight (anxiety) will be doing its job. Sometimes though, our enormous drive to protect them isn’t so much about needing to protect them from the situation, but about wanting to protect them from the distress of their anxiety. This is so normal! It’s what makes us loving, responsive parents. It’s also why we have an incredible capacity to respond to their anxiety in ways that can widen the space for brave behaviour to happen.

They will follow our concern, or they will follow our confidence – eventually. It doesn’t matter how long the move towards brave takes. What matters is opening them up to the possibilities for brave behaviour that are already in them, and have been all along. They can feel anxious, and do brave. So can we.

This is why we have to ask the question, ‘Do they feel like this because they’re in danger, or because they’re about to do something brave/ hard/ important?’Am I reacting to the situation, or to their distress?

And what if I feel uncertain?

If you do feel uncertain, what do you need to feel safer?  More information? More conversation? Smaller steps towards brave? If you don’t believe they’re safe – at school, swimming lessons, with the person taking care of them in your absence – they won’t either. Do you need more information or conversation to feel more certain that they are safe?

What information do you need to be able to position yourself to respond the way your young person needs you to – either by protecting them, or by giving plenty of signals of safety so they can feel bigger and safer as they move forward into brave. Until we make the decision, they won’t either.

So I’ve made the decision. This is a time for brave. What now?

If you’ve decided that this is a time for brave behaviour, now they will need you to love and lead. It’s not about one or the other, but both. See their anxiety and make space for it, and also see their brave and make space for that too.

This might sound like, ‘Yeah, this is big isn’t it. It’s okay to be worried. Of course you feel like this! You’re about to do something brave. I know you can do this. If you can’t do (the whole brave thing), what will you do – and don’t say ‘nothing’, because ‘nothing’ isn’t an option.’

The posture to take here is, ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ I believe you that this is big for you, and I believe you that you feel worried or scared or threadbare – and I know you can do this. I know it with everything in me.

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Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

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