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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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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