Anxiety in Children and Teens: The two questions to set their ‘brave’ in motion.

Anxiety in children and teens can shrink their world more than anything should. Sometimes anxiety will do what it was designed to do, and show up in response to a real threat. Most often though, anxiety will show up, not in response to danger, but to something meaningful or important. This is when anxiety can really get in the way for our young ones. Instead of holding them back from something life-threatening, it just holds them back.

Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. When it senses a threat, it organises our bodies to be more powerful, stronger, faster, more able to fight for our lives or run for it. When anxiety shows up in reaction to a real threat (one with a real need for fight or flight), this response is brilliant. Too often though, anxiety shows up as a reaction to something important – an exam, a performance, trying something new, meeting new people, doing something brave. The ‘threat’ that is registered in the brain is related to messing up or missing out on that important thing. This might include shame, failure, humiliation, making a mistake, exclusion, judgement, criticism – the kinds of things that count as a terrible kind of terrible for us humans. 

Anxiety doesn’t weigh up the pros and cons of anything – just the cons. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. When it comes to anxiety, dangerous things, important things, or meaningful things can all feel the same.

First the feeling, then the ‘why’. The power lies in the ‘why’.

Part of being beautifully human is that sometimes we will feel big feelings that don’t make any sense at all. Being the meaning-makers we are, we will be motivated to make sense of those feelings. Feelings that don’t make sense can feel boundless and overwhelming – even the good ones. One of the ways we contain them is to look for the meaning. ‘I feel like this because …’ We put a story to our feelings to give them a context, so they feel more predictable and less wild. The story doesn’t have to be accurate. In fact, it often won’t be.

The story that follows anxiety is generally along the lines of, ‘I feel as though something bad is going to happen, so something bad must be going to happen.’ From here, anxiety will fuel our ‘what if’ thinking (‘what if [something bad] happens’), which will then fuel anxiety, which will then fuel our what ifs … you get the idea. We can interrupt this cycle by helping our young ones find a different way to make sense of their anxiety, and it’s this: Anxiety isn’t only a reaction to a real threat. Most often, it is a reaction to something meaningful or important.

And now to align them with their brave. The two questions that matter.

Anxiety will get in the way when it is read as a reaction to threat, but when it is actually a reaction to something meaningful (an exam, a performance, sports). We can help them with this by expanding the space between anxiety and what comes next and encouraging them to ask themselves,  

Is my anxiety because of something dangerous?
Or because there is something meaningful or important for me to do?

What comes next is where the magic happens, because what comes next is the decision that will move them away from or closer to that meaningful thing. Sometimes getting safe is exactly the right thing to do, but sometimes, when anxiety swells and calls them to action, it is actually a time to make a brave move forward. So, the next question for them to ask is:

Is this a time to be safe? Or is this a time to be brave?

‘You don’t have to wait for your anxiety to pass, because wherever there is anxiety, there is brave.’

Anxiety always exists with courage. It’s important for our children to know this because anxiety can run a convincing argument that as long as it is there, brave behaviour isn’t possible. But here is the shimmering, powerful truth of it all – even with anxiety, they can do amazing things. They can feel anxious AND do brave. They can feel anxious AND move towards that important thing. They can feel anxious AND get the job done.  

Helping our children understand this is one of the most important parts of building a scaffold that will support their move towards brave. When they are focussed on the risks and the fear, they might need our help to shift their focus to the gains and what makes this meaningful for them: ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ 

It doesn’t have to happen all at once.

The move towards brave doesn’t have to happen in a leap. It can happen as a shuffle – little step, by little step. The speed doesn’t matter – it’s the direction that’s important. When they are able to recognise that their anxiety is a reaction to something meaningful, the next question to ask is what can they do to move closer – even just a little – to that important, meaningful thing?

‘What can you do that is braver than last time?’

If anxiety is in their way, they might not see a way forward so they might need our help to find a step that feels brave enough. First, though, it’s important that we let them know that we feel what they feel and see what they see, ‘I know this feels scary. I really do.’ This will help register safety in the brain – ‘Someone gets it. Support is here.’ Then, we open their path towards brave. We align ourselves with their brave and let them feel the strength of us and our belief in them. ‘I know you can do this.’ When anxiety has them locked on to their fear, we steer them towards their brave:

‘What can you do that would feel brave right now?’ 

What does the shuffle towards brave look like?

The shuffle towards brave will depend on what their anxiety is holding them back from. Perhaps it is around being separated from you. Helping them feel safe enough might look like leaving them (with someone safe) for 10 minutes, then when that feels okay enough, 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, then 1 hour, then half a day, then a sleepover.

To open the shuffle towards brave, it’s also important to emphasise the process – getting the job done – more than the outcome. If they are anxious about an exam, for example, this might involve giving them permission to make a miserable mess of things. Permission to fail means permission to have a go. We can make their move towards brave a little lighter, by letting them know that they don’t have to carry our expectations along the way.

Part of building resilience is encouraging them to be okay with things not going to plan. But we need to pick this up too. When we tell them that they’ll be okay even if things don’t go to plan, we need to let them know that we’ll be okay too and that we can cope with whatever happens. ‘I know this feels scary. Exams are awful. I also know that you can do this. The outcome doesn’t matter. I know it matters to you, but I want you to know that what matters most to me is that you give this a go.’ 

The more you can involve them in the plan, the better, but sometimes the move towards brave might have to happen without them fully on board

And finally …

It’s not easy moving through anxiety – for the children and teens or the adults who care about them. There are few things more difficult than watching a child in distress and encouraging that child towards the thing that is fuelling their distress, but that’s exactly what the move through anxiety demands of us.

When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave and an even bigger part of them that wants to. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this part of them to rise by aligning ourselves with their courage, over their fear. This is when they will need us to step in behind them and help ‘big them up’ – by believing in them, by feeling the strength of our resolve to move them forward, and by gently shifting their focus from anxiety (what they can’t do), to brave (what they will do).

It won’t be easy – anxiety might fight back hard, but know with everything in you that eventually, it will rest, and when it does our children will discover exactly what they are capable of. They will discover that they can feel anxious AND do hard things. That they are strong, powerful, and brave – and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.

2 Comments

Daniela A

Wow just wow, I was looking for anxiety related articles to help my nine year old with times test anxiety and I stumbled accross this and I just want to say THANK YOU!!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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