Be the Calm You Want to See in Your Child

Be the Calm You Want to See in Your Child

The worry begins as a trickle in his mind. It develops momentum and drops into his body causing his palms to sweat, heart to race, and tummy to ache. Finally, your child’s worry erupts:

“Mommy, what if I have a new teacher in school?”

“Daddy, what if I can’t find someone to play with?”

The words hit you. You, too, begin to worry both vicariously for him and about your ability to quell the worry. No matter what your past experience, you give it your best shot.

You try reassurance: “Honey, everything is going to be OK, I promise.”

You invoke logic: “It wasn’t so bad last time, remember? That means this time it will be even easier.”

You lend strength: “You’re strong and brave. You have it in you to do this. I believe in you.”

You teach coping skills: “Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing will really help.”

The result? Your child still worries.

And you? You begin to feel exasperated, exhausted, helpless, and perhaps even hopeless.

If this is how you feel as the parent or caretaker of an anxious child, you are not alone. Do not give up hope, do not give up trying–you can and will find a way to reach your child.

Instead of focusing on the end goal of reducing the anxiety, begin with a powerful baby step. Build an empathetic connection with your child.

Note: If you’re feeling tired or even angry as a result of your recent experiences trying to help an anxious child, please do this before using any of the techniques below. Take out a sheet of paper and write down three of your child’s greatest strengths. Think of three examples where your child recently used his or her strengths. Keep this paper with you.

Next time your child comes to you feeling anxious, adopt one of these strategies:


  1. Use the Fast-Food Rule

    This simple rule was developed by author Harvey Karp. Karp reminds us that when we go to a fast food restaurant and order something through the drive through (e.g., “Can I have a burger and fries please?”) they always repeat back the order (e.g., “So you’d like a burger and fries, correct?”). Repeating back to someone what they are saying makes them feel heard and respected. What’s more is it builds an immediate connection.

    Before you kick into problem-solving mode with an anxious child, repeat back to them with complete sincerity what they are expressing to you. Master this technique to validate their feelings and help them feel understood.

  2. Tell a story about yourself

    When your child comes to you with a worry (however irrational it may seem), close your eyes and draw out a past experience or feeling of your own that resembles what they are going through. When you open your eyes, say these three words: “I get it.” Then tell them your story and why you understand what they are feeling.

  3. Be the calm you want to see in your child

    Make a decision that you are going to respond to your child instead of reacting to them. A powerful way to respond is by listening intently and silently. After they are done explaining their worry (even if the explanation comes in the form of screaming), maintain your silence.

    When the time is right, you can say, “I hear you and I’m here for you.” You can then invite them into your silence by holding hands, hugging, or leaning in. Children are very intuitive and can mimic the energy you exude. Do not underestimate the ripple effect these micro-moments of calm can have on your child’s well-being. In silence, you can deliberately cultivate a contagion of peace.

  4. Remix a coping skill

    When you feel your child is receptive to learning a coping skill, remix the ordinary into something fun. Instead of deep breathing, for example, maybe your child wants to try breathing like Darth Vader. If your child is young, perhaps they want to take in a deep breath and blow out birthday candles.


About the Author: Renee Jain

Renee JainRenee Jain is an award-winning tech entrepreneur turned speaker and certified life coach. She also holds a masters in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Renee specializes in cultivating skills of resilience in both adults and children. Her passion is taking research-based concepts and transforming them into fun and digestible learning modules. For children, she has created one-of-a-kind anxiety relief programs at GoZen! delivered via engaging animated shorts.

5 Comments

Oliver R

Thanks for sharing this article. It takes a neural stance on a difficult subject and caringly provides real life examples for parents or single adults like myself trying to grasp at empathy and compassion.

Reply
Mary Carver

This is so good! Thank you! You nailed it, describing all the steps I go through (unsuccessfully) when my daughter is anxious or scared. These are great tips that I am going to start using today.

In addition to having an anxious child myself, I also work for ForEveryMom.com, a parenting site – and I’d love to share this post with our readers with your permission. Would you let us republish this on our site, giving you full credit as author, linking back to the original post here, and including your bio and head shot? Let me know if you have questions! Thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mary so pleased you love the article. You’ll have to get in touch with the author, Renee, for permission to reprint. It’s her article so she owns the copyright. Her details are in the bio.

Reply
Meg Ferrante

LOVE this line: In silence, you can deliberately cultivate a contagion of peace.

Great piece, concrete tips, I’m on it… TONIGHT!

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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