Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn It Around

Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn it Around

Anxiety is like a ride on a static bike – your adrenalin surges, your heart rate races, your body sweats, your face goes red … but it doesn’t get you very far.

If only dealing with it was as simple as jumping off. Though anxiety and punching out a session on a static bike differ vastly in that respect, they both have something in common.

Both initiate an automatic physical response designed to provide, with the greatest precision, all that the body needs to deal with the task at hand – or, in the case of anxiety, the task it thinks is at hand.

The most important step to controlling anxiety is understanding where it comes from and why it’s there.

Anxiety is the overprotective parent that fights with gladiatorial heart to keep us safe. The problem is that sometimes, its vigilance switches into hyperdrive.

When something is a threat, the human body is instantly and automatically readied to run for its life or fight for it. This response is the ‘fight or flight’ response and it has been hardwired into the human brain. ‘Fight or flight’ is a primitive response – all action and not a lot of thought. Reason and rationality are quite useless against it.

The human brain has perfected the response over thousands of years. Back in the days of cavemen, cavewomen and cave wild animals, humans needed a quick physical response to avoid being dinner. Fast forward to a time of doors, locks and no sabre tooth tigers, and the need for a physical response is significantly less.

Despite this, the part of the human brain that has been mastering the flight or fight response for thousands of years is still just as active and on guard as ever. It’s blind to the specifics of the threat, opting to act first and ask questions later, if at all.

It continues to respond as though every signal or tension from the environment is a risk to our self-preservation.

Dealing With Anxiety – Taking the Power Back

In the face of a real threat, the fight or flight response would be a masterful, magnificent ally, organising our body with astounding speed and precision to maximise the chances of survival. If it was created  by a human hand, we’d be swooning over the genius of the design – until the time came that we realised the ‘on’ switch was difficult to control, firing up arbitrarily and mostly without reason.

The fight or flight response comes from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and it’s triggered as soon as danger is perceived. Sometimes the danger is real but most often it’s not. As soon as it’s triggered, the hypothalamus instantly sets off a series of nerve cell firings and chemical releases to prepare our body to run for our lives or fight for it.

Recognising the physical signs that you are in a fight or flight response, and understanding where those physical symptoms come from is critical and extremely powerful in turning anxiety around.

If you can think of anxiety as the fight or flight response trying to do its job, the symptoms will soon pass. But if you take them as evidence that there is something to be feared (such as the presence of a real threat, the beginning of a heart attack, a sign that you are about to make a fool of yourself) then you will give your anxiety fuel and the symptoms will persevere.

Understanding the physical symptoms is the first and most critical step in getting control of anxiety. So here we go …

  • When there’s a perceived danger a signal travels from the environment to the amygdala, a primitive structure in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain), that automatically and instantly triggers a fight or flight response.
  • The body is surged with stress hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline – to provide the body with the physical resources to fight or flee.
  • Breathing changes from slow breaths deep in the belly to rapid breathing high in the chest to supply the body with oxygen to fuel the fight or flight response.
       »  You might feel a shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, or flushing. 
  • If the oxygen isn’t expended through fighting or fleeing, the oxygen guilds up.
       »  You might experience dizziness, confusion, hot flashes and a sense of unreality.
  • Heartbeat and heart rate increase to efficiently deliver oxygen around the body.
       »  This can feel like you’re about to have a heart attack. 
  • Blood pressure increases to get the blood to the large muscles of the arm (preparation to fight) and the legs (preparation to fight);
       »  Muscles might feel tense.
  • Perspiration increases to prevent the body overheating.
       »  You might feel clammy or sweaty.
  • Pupils dilate to allow in more light and improve visual awareness long distance to find the escape route.
       »  Your vision might blur, particularly close up.
  • Veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups.
       »  This leaves less blood in the skin for warmth and can bring on the ‘chill’ that is sometimes associated with fear.
  • Blood flow is diverted from fingers and toes to where it is more needed, and to decrease the chances of bleeding to death should the response be ‘fight’.
       »  This can cause paleness, tingling and ‘cold feet’.
  • The digestive system shuts down so that nutrients and oxygen are diverted to the limbs and muscles that will be activated in the event of fight or flight.
        »  Your mouth might feel dry, you might get the feeling of butterflies in your belly and you might experience nausea and/or constipation.
  • The brain gets busy focusing on the big picture – to find the threat and plan a way out.
        »  This may lead to difficulty focusing on small details.

The symptoms of anxiety all have a physiological basis. They have been called to action by the fight or flight response and each has a very specific and very important part to play in ensuring our survival.

The problem however, is that for the most part there is no threat to our survival. Nothing to fight. Nothing to flee.

The fight or flight response is primitive: always automatic but not always accurate. Most of the time when it’s triggered there is actually no threat.

The amygdala, the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a non-real threat. A threat is a threat, whether real or imagined, and all are responded to as though they are a real and immediate danger to our physical safety.

That’s where you come in.

If there is no obvious need for fight or flight, your fight or flight response has been triggered unnecessarily.

The first thing to do is remind yourself of this. You’re not in danger. You’re not dying.

You’re body is just responding to a brain that has over-reacted a little. It happens to all of us from time to time. Everything you’re feeling is tied to the fight or flight response. In this context, the physical symptoms are perfectly normal, even if the need for fight or flight is unnecessary.

Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Part of the fight or flight response is rapid, shallow breathing. This causes an oversupply of oxygen and an increased heart rate and contributes to many of the physical symptoms.

When your breathing is under control, these physical symptoms will reverse.

Breathe deeply and slowly. Take a short pause between breathing out and breathing in. Do this 5 to 10 times. Take the breaths deep into your belly. Practice even on the good days so it’s there when you need it.

Slow deep breathing is a handbrake for anxiety. Remember though, your fight or flight response has been doing its thing for a while so it may take some practice.

If your anxiety could talk, it would say that it’s there to protect you – to get you ready for fight or flight. Problem is, sometimes it shows up when you don’t need protecting.

Knowing what anxiety is and the truth about where the symptoms are coming from is the first step in taking back charge. It may take some time – your anxiety might take some convincing that it’s over-reacting with the fight or flight thing, but with persistence, practice and patience you will find yourself back in control.

[irp posts=”1100″ name=”The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me”]

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29 Comments

Ash

I have struggled with anxiety for my entire life (especially social anxiety) and it has become worse since the birth of my second child three years ago. To be honest, I never really knew what “it” was called until I started doing research after he was born because I just felt “off.” I’ve never talked to a professional about it because I don’t health have insurance and can’t afford the fees to see someone. It feels like my insides are in knots and I’m on the verge of a panic attack every day. I am taking Ashagawanda to help me feel more balanced/calm and at first I noticed a difference, but not really anymore. Breathing exercise don’t seem to help. My husband is not understanding at all…he just tells me to take vitamin B, says I’m a bad mom, a bad wife, says I’m crazy, I need mental help, I’m retarded, my life would be fine if I just went out and made friends, if I took meds I would become addicted and only weak people take psychiatric drugs…the list goes on. Clearly, he’s not helping the situation. Wondering if you have any advice.

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Karen Young

My first advice is to ignore everything your husband is telling you that causes you to feel any shame about what you are feeling. What you are feeling is completely understandable and very common. You are NOT crazy or anything else he is telling you. By the sounds of it, you are anxious and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Anxiety feels awful and can be very intrusive but it is manageable. Getting eight hours of sleep each night is important. I know how difficult that can be, but research has found anxiety and depression are more common in people who get less than 8 hours. Exercise and mindfulness are also important because they change the structure and function of the brain in ways that protect it against anxiety. You will find more articles on this link that will hopefully give you the information you need to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. You are strong – anxiety doesn’t change that at all, and you have inside you the resources you need to manage this and feel better. Be patient and kind with yourself.

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Just a Man

As a man I know that instead of saying “I’m sad” we say “I hate you” and rather than say “I’m afraid” we say “I’m pissed” and rather than admit fear, shame, helplessness, we cover it with Anger.

It’s a horrible quality and I’m not excusing it, just explaining it. Likely your husband is frustrated because he feels powerless to help you. He may want to but he doesn’t know the first thing to do so he’s lashing out to cover his insecurity and helplessness.

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Karen Young

Anxiety makes people worry more, but it doesn’t make them any less capable, or great to be with in relationships. Here is an article that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/. All of us are effected by things psychologically, whether it’s by anxiety, history, the people around us, stress, life events. All of us experience anxiety on some level – it’s necessary for our survival, but it exists on a spectrum. We don’t all experience anxiety to the same degree or in the same way.

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raisabebita

Please help me what should I do to overcome my anxiety because I experience this everyday. I felt chest pain and my blood pressure increase.
Thank you so much for your concern.

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Karen Young

You will find articles on this link that will hopefully bring you some comfort and give you some strategies to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Exercise https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/, mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/, and a healthy diet are all important https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/. I understand how confusing anxiety can be, but it is very manageable. Take your time to go through the articles, and experiment with the strategy (or combination of strategies) that work best for you. I wish you all the best as you move forward.

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Alice

I ordered you book “Hey Warrior” for my 9 year old granddaughter and she LOVES it. I really was hesitant to order sight unseen but it was worth every penny. Her 10 year old brother who doesn’t struggle with anxiety like she does, but does with anger, loved it too. It made such good sense to two intelligent children to whom I have been trying to teach mindfulness and breathing. Thank you for writing this sweet, smart book!

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Karen Young

Alice thank you so much for letting me know. I’m so pleased your grandchildren are enjoying ‘Hey Warrior’. I hope they keep getting comfort and wisdom from reading it.

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Jake

I haven’t been struggling with Anxiety for long but I really need some good advice. My mind is constantly racing about the smallest things, I always feel as if there’s something in my throat (even though I know there isnt) I worry about the smallest things. I feel like I’m seeing things weirdly and hearing things weirdly too. I do also feel trapped to my house because I had a panic attack whilst taking my dog a walk and now I’m afraid to go outside. I’m afraid to be on my own a lot of the time. I do suffer from panic attacks, especially when I eat because I have a fear of choking and I always feel as though there’s something wrong with me. Please help.

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Lea

I have been struggling with anxiety for the past 7 years. I feel claustrophic and have the feeling of something heavy weighing on my chest (almost as if my lungs are cut in half) all day and everyday. I’m seeng a Psychiatrist and taking anti-depressants for the anxiety. I am still claustrophic and get panic attacks. Mindfulness, CBT and positive thinking are just not enough to control the physiological effects of my anxiety!

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Hey Sigmund

Lea, I can hear the distress that this is causing you. Sometimes anxiety can be really stubborn. Keep working with your psychiatrist. If you have been with the same psychiatrist and on the same medication for a while and it’s not working, discuss trying something different with your doctor. Different things work for different people and the same thing won’t necessarily work for everyone. Keep fighting though. I wish you love and healing.

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Clay

This is a great article. I look forward to the weekly emails.

Interestingly, I’ve known that Anxiety is a signal similar to pain as a signal. However, it had slipped from my a priori frontline mental state.

Thank you for bringing my most recent significant high anxieties of life situations into a new perspective.

The basic premise is this:
if you are highly anxious, use these mindfulness (I used biofeedback to acquire better mindful awareness) techniques to calm yourself,

then try to write down the best first cause of your anxiety.

the write down a few simple steps to begin changing that situation to a better one.

take one of these actions each time you feel the anxiety.

this should give you a sense of control — which our brains and minds Love!

And, acknowledge that it is one step at a time and that you can do it with simple awareness and simple actions.

What do you think, Hey Sigmund?

This is what I told myself after reading your article and putting myself into the mindset of Anxiety is a Signal to change.

Action will override anxiety.

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Leanna

Hello,
I love your articles! They are the most on-point descriptions of anxiety and panic attacks I’ve read; and that creates a massive comfort to know that somebody out there understands. I’ve had a few bouts of anxiety over the last 15 years and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but knowledge is power and understanding your body’s reaction to stress is very helpful. I’m also a big believer in hypnotherapy. It’s helped me massively and quite similar to mindfulness. I will definitely be practicing mindfulness too from now on, as it’s very easy to let your anxious thoughts run away with you!!
Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the articles. Anxiety can be awful can’t it, but it sounds as though you have found some ways to manage it that work well for you. Mindfulness is great, and I’m pleased you’re going to practice it. I hope it it brings you even more comfort.

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Louise

I have suffered from anxiety all my life due to constantly living in the ‘fight & flight’ modes brought on by an abusive father, then husband, then finding myself homeless & unemployed after separation. I was not aware of mindfulness at the time, but I sought professional help and I also started to focus my attention more on nature. I took up bushwalking and photography. I have come a long way since then and I have taught myself how to manage my anxiety through calmness. Thank you Sigmund for now teaching me about mindfulness. I will now start doing this too, to add to my bag of tricks in a hope that I can be mentally healthy.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Louise. Mindfulness is amazing. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re going to give it a go. I hope it brings you some relief.

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Caroline

I am responding to Jo, who is 53 years old…. If you are reading something on a computer it means you are not in a truly desperate situation. It means you have things in your life you need to be grateful for. Once you are sincerely grateful, you can not keep happiness away! Imagine passing on from life and all that you can take with you is what you gave thanks for the day before. Namaste.

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Hey Sigmund

Caroline, to suggest that anxiety can be fixed with a good dose of gratitude is judgemental, unhelpful and ignorant. Anxiety is very real and gratitude does not change the physiology of this. We can be grateful and in pain at the same time and it is not for anyone else to judge another person’s struggle. One of the antidotes to pain is connection, not judgement. Perhaps it might be helpful to turn your some of your gratitude into compassion for your fellow humans.

Reply
Jo

Contd …… I am 53 and have tried everything.Please help with any suggestions. All my pleasure has gone. Thank you

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Alice

I am a great believer in mindfulness, therapy, exercise, healthy eating but I totally believe depression and/or anxiety can be a chemical imbalance helped by medication. I researched for a young, well trained psychiatrist at a teaching university hospital and she helped me immensely with 3 kinds of medicine. She listened to my story/background for an hour, did some therapy and then prescribed medication. After two trips back to her she found the best combination of medication.

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Jo

Hello. I have had episodes of anxiety for the past 15 years. The latest has beeen the longest, 18 months of severe daily anxiety

Reply
heysigmund

I’m so sorry to hear that you are struggling like this. I know how awful anxiety can be when it takes hold. Have you seen a counsellor? Anxiety is generally very responsive to treatment. If you have tried counselling and it didn’t work, it may have been the fit between you and the counsellor. It’s like any relationship – what works for one won’t work for another so it might be worth trying someone else. I can really hear how much this is intruding into your life so I would really encourage you to try that. At home, try the measured outlined in the article. They can all make a difference but they aren’t a quick fix. Your anxiety has been doing what it’s doing for a while now and it will take a bit of muscle to turn it down – but you can do that, without a doubt. Try to incorporate mindfulness, exercise and breathing exercises daily and consider seeing a counsellor. I understand that at the moment it feels as though nothing will make a difference – I get that, but you can turn this around. I really hope you are able to find some comfort and I wish you all the very best.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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