I was always shy as a child, avoiding conversation and always feeling a little worried. I put these feelings down to my age, and thought that once I’d grown up a bit, the awkward feelings would be a thing of the past. As I transitioned from primary school and into secondary school, the feelings seemed to follow me.
Negative thoughts are pushy little mojo-stealing pirates. They are persuasive, intrusive, and powerful. Our thoughts will influence how we feel, which will influence what we do and how we see ourselves. For our children and teens, negative or anxious thoughts can shrink their world and dilute their capacity to own their very important place in it. Negative thoughts will do that with all of us.
An anxious mind is also a beautifully creative, imaginative mind. This is a great thing, except for when that imagination and creativity is being used to imagine outcomes that feel unbearable, however unlikely they may be. These thoughts of what ‘could’ happen, drive self-talk, which in turn directs behaviour towards doing whatever is necessary to avoid a bad outcome. Hello perfectionism.
Intrusive thoughts occur across the entire spectrum of anxiety disorders. In fact, considering the wide variety of conditions contained therein, intrusive thoughts are arguably the most common symptom, ranging from the innocuous to the blasphemous, the annoying to the disturbing.
It’s a condition of entry into the human race that we’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes they will be epic. When mistakes or failure happen, there are two ways to deal with it. We can let our imperfections drive into our core like rusty nails, or we can allow ourselves to feel ‘enough’ despite them – good enough, brave enough, wise enough, strong enough – even when we stumble. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, but the problem with perfectionism in children is that for them, enough is never enough. It’s exhausting and when perfectionism takes over, the whip-cracking chase for ‘good enough’ can feel endless – but we can change that.
Imagine this. You’re travelling along the freeway when your brakes feel as though they might fail. They’re working, but something feels off. This has never happened before. You drive the car to the closest mechanic. After a thorough inspection of the car, you’re told everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about.
It took me a long time to realize why the present moment was a helpful place to hang out. I can even recall as an anxious kid how my mind worked “I’m going to fail this test, then fail out of school, never get into college, probably die homeless and alone under a bridge, and no one will come to my funeral” was a not so rare thought for me. But when I learned about mindfulness and staying in the moment, I realized that I could still prepare for the future, like just studying for the darn test, without getting caught up in story of how badly it could go.
Anxiety can be a shady character and can often appear in ways that don’t look like anxiety. Because of this, it can be difficult to know when your child is anxious. Anxiety has been doing its thing since the beginning of humans, and it’s brilliant at it. What it’s not so great at is announcing its presence in gentle, clear ways that preserve the capacity for any of us to meet it with a strong, steady, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and an even more powerful, ‘It’s okay, I’m safe – you don’t need to be here right now’.
Your teenager has confided in you this week. She told you that she can’t stop thinking that she’ll fail her next set of exams. The thoughts won’t leave her and the longer they go on, the more convincing they become. ‘This isn’t the first time this has happened’, she says.
It’s completely understandable that the first plan of attack when anxiety hits is to turn and run in the other direction, or at the very least, to stop moving towards it. What sort of madness would it be to keep walking straight into trouble, right? Avoidance makes sense, but it can also make trouble.
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There is absolutely nothing that feels okay about moving our children towards something that fuels their anxiety and distress. The drive to scoop them up and lift them over that ‘something’ can feel monumental, because as parents we are wired to protect our children from distress. This is related to attachment, and it’s is one of the strongest instincts known to us humans. .
But sometimes we will need to be brave enough for them, and remove avoidance as an option. This might feel awful but it’s important. The brain learns from experience so the more they avoid the more they will be driven to avoid, but the more they are brave the more they will be brave. It’s okay if this happens in little steps, as long as the steps are forward. .
When we take avoidance off the table, things might get worse before they get better. When something that has always worked stops working, we’ll do that thing more before we try something different. We all do this. If avoidance has worked as a way to bring calm, the amygdala (the part of the brain in charge of anxiety) will be rock solid in the belief that this is the only way to feel safe. .
When we stop supporting avoidance, the amygdala will often recruit other emotions (anger, distress) to make us (the recruited support) bring back avoidance as an option. This is not bad behaviour or manipulative behaviour. It is absolutely 100% NOT that. It’s the brain making way for the only way it knows to feels safe and calm - avoidance. .
There is no doubt you love your kiddos and would do anything to support them. But anxiety has a way of messing with this. When anxiety drives avoidance, it can feel as though we’re supporting our kids but we’re actually supporting anxiety. .
When we lift them over the things that make them anxious, but which are safe (and often life-giving), we are inadvertently aligning ourselves with anxiety and its message that they aren’t brave enough, or that the only way to be safe is to avoid the things that make them anxious. But we know this isn’t true. We know they are capable of greatness, and that greatness is often made of tiny brave steps.♥️