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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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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