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.