Part of our role as parents is providing our children with the experiences that will help them discover their everyday magic – their courage, resilience, resourcefulness and other qualities that will move them towards growth.
Sometimes though, anxiety will get in their way. Sometimes this will be fierce. Sometimes it will drive them to avoid the challenges, adventures and everyday experiences that will nourish them. This can be tough. We know they are strong enough and brave enough, but moving them forward through anxiety can push against every one of our parenting instincts. Something that can make it easier to move them towards brave behaviour instead of away from it can be understanding how something so right can feel so wrong.
But first, the research that speaks to the power of parents.
Recently, researchers at Yale did a groundbreaking study that found that parents had enormous power to reduce their child’s anxiety, even if the child didn’t do anything different.
The study involved 124 parents and their children, aged 7 to 14, who had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Half the children received 12 weekly sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy. The other half received no therapy at all – but their parents received 12 weekly sessions to guide them on how to respond to anxiety in their children.
Parent therapy focussed on helping parents reduce their accommodation behaviours, which are the behaviours that make anxiety more possible. These behaviours included parents supporting avoidance, over-reassuring, changing the environment to avoid anything that might fuel anxiety, accommodating obsessive-compulsive behaviours (either by joining in or making way for them). For example, if a parent received loads of text messages a day from an anxious child, that parent gradually reduced the number of text messages he or she sent back to two or three. Parents of children who were refusing or avoiding school because of anxiety-driven tummy aches were taught to respond with something like, ‘I know you are feeling upset right now, and I know you will be okay,’ before sending the child to school.
The results were remarkable. Children in both groups showed the same reduction in anxiety, regardless of whether they or their parents received counselling. On top of this, the relationship between the parent and child was better in the group where only the parents received therapy. If you have stood with a child during anxiety, you would probably be way too aware of the sense of helplessness that can swamp them. When anxiety lays a heavy hand, it can understandably be tough for our children to open up to doing something different. What this research is telling us is that we don’t need them to. Even without involving their children, parents have enormous power to reduce anxiety in their children by changing the way they (the parents) respond to anxiety.
Now, before we move on, let’s get something out of the way. This study in no way suggests that parents cause anxiety. Loving parents do not cause anxiety. What this study suggests is that parents are a powerful part of the solution.
The researchers caution that some children with extremely high anxiety might need more support, but for the most part, when parents change what they do, children will also change what they do (eventually). But first, there might be a battle – within the parent and with the child. Let’s look at that.
Their distress will trigger our distress. We’ve been designed that way for a reason.
When human babies are born, they are not equipped to protect themselves from danger. Other animals are born ready to out-run or out-fight danger, but not our human babies. Instead, they are born wired to attach to a stronger, more powerful human who can protect them from threat. That stronger, more powerful human is wired to attach just as deeply to that little person and protect him or her from threat.
This is the attachment system. It’s one of the reasons we humans have survived as a collective for as long as we have: When our children feel unsafe, their distress will alert us (a bigger, stronger adult) to a possible threat and a need for protection. The human response to threat is the fight or flight response – anxiety. Anxiety in our children will trigger anxiety in us. This is the way the parent-child attachment is meant to work. As loving, committed parents, when our children are distressed, our own powerful, instinctive fight or flight response (anxiety) will motivate us to take action to keep them safe. It’s primitive and it’s powerful, and we’ve been doing it this way since the beginning of us.
As our children grow, so will their capacity for brave behaviour – but they won’t always know it.
As our little people grow, they will gradually become more independent and more capable of brave behaviour. The role of protecting themselves will start to gently move from our hands and into theirs. They will look more to their own resourcefulness and resilience, and less to us to shield them from the things that feel unfamiliar or bigger than them. They will start to trust that they have what it takes to do things that might feel scary (but safe), or hard (but good for them). Sometimes though, it just doesn’t happen this way.
It’s a very human thing to keep holding on to behaviours, people, or circumstances long after we can let go. It’s part of our human-ness, and our very real tendency to underestimate our capacity to be capable of more than yesterday. Most of us have probably had the experience of staying with jobs we’ve outgrown, people who break our hearts more than people should, or ways of being in the world that just don’t work – because we don’t realise we’ll be okay if we let go. Sometimes, we stay blind to the growth that has opened our way forward. Our children are the same.
When anxiety gets in the way, it can make it tough for our children to realise – or trust – that as they grow, they are less vulnerable and more capable. They keep turning to us to protect them because it’s what they’ve always done. It’s completely understandable that as loving parents, we would respond by ‘protecting’ them because that’s what we’ve always done.
But what are we protecting them from?
The answer most often is fear. When the situation is actually safe, we are not protecting them from harm, but from the fear of harm. Unnecessary protection – as in protecting them when they don’t need protection – is over-protection. This is usually done with the most loving intent, but it can also shrink their world.
Here’s the problem – it’s just on the other side of fear that our children learn what they are capable of. It’s how they stretch their edges and start to discover their potential. When they move through fear, they learn that the things that feel scary most often aren’t, that they can be anxious and brave at the same time, and that they can do hard things. When our children respond to anxiety with avoidance, rather than moving through, they lose the opportunity to learn these important lessons. They will stay safe, but they won’t realise they are capable of bigger, braver things. They won’t have the evidence they need to trust their own capacity to move through anxiety. The option – and it’s powerful – is for us to trust it enough for them.
Anxiety can be a heroic protector one minute and a dirty liar the next.
Anxiety in a child will trigger anxiety in the bigger stronger adult who is there to protect them. This is the whole point of anxiety – to mobilise us so we can get ourselves or others to safety. When the threat is real, this is anxiety doing its glorious self proud and working exactly as it should. But the ‘threats’ that trigger anxiety in our children, and subsequently anxiety in us, aren’t always real.
Anxiety is from a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. The amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for keeping us safe) will fire up at the first sign of possible threat. Separation from a loved one, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, unfamiliarity, exclusion, missing out on something important – all count as a ‘possible threat’ to a protective brain.
As loving, committed parents, there is nothing that feels right about moving our children towards distress. It makes sense that the overwhelming tendency is to lift them out of the way of the things that fuel their anxiety. Their anxiety activates our anxiety, which mobilises us to protect them – even when they don’t need protecting. This is the essence of anxiety. It causes problems for our children when it shows up to protect them (by mobilising them for fight or flight), even when they don’t need protecting. It also causes problems for our children when it shows up in us and drives us to protect them, even when they don’t need protecting.
Am I supporting them, or their anxiety?
Sometimes, the things we do that feel like we’re supporting our kids, are actually supporting their anxiety by making anxiety more possible. This does NOT mean that parents cause anxiety. Loving parents do not cause anxiety. Anxiety comes from a combination of things that exist before our response to it.
The things we do in response to anxiety might keep it plumped up and well-fed, but they don’t cause it. These might include supporting our children’s avoidance of things that feel scary (but aren’t), rearranging the environment to calm their anxiety, writing a note to get them out of camp or something that feels bigger than them (but which would be good for them), over-reassuring them, protecting them from safe risks … I’ve done way too many of myself, way too many times. We probably all have – because we’re human. Loving parents do not cause anxiety, but they are a powerful part of the solution.
Okay. So what now?
The only way through anxiety is straight through the middle, but it won’t be easy and it probably won’t be quick – and it doesn’t have to happen all at once.
When anxiety has been driving a response for a while (such as avoidance), that neural pathway will be so strong. The brain wires according to experience. The more we do something, the stronger the pathway. The stronger the pathway, the easier and more automatic the behaviour will be.
The more our children avoid, the more they will be driven to avoid, and the more this will feel like the only way to stay safe. Avoidance will always lead to calm. This teaches the amygdala that the only way to feel calm and safe is to avoid whatever is causing the anxiety. When your child responds to anxiety by avoiding the situation, he or she will eventually feel calm. The next time your child is in that situation, the amygdala will remember that the way it felt calm last time was through avoidance, so it will push even harder for avoidance – by increasing anxiety.
Here’s the problem. The amygdala only learns from experience. Avoidance takes away the opportunity for the amygdala to learn that there is another way to feel calm, and that is to stay with the situation for long enough for anxiety to ease on its own. When we lift our children out of the way of anxiety by supporting their avoidance, we take away the opportunity for them to learn that anxiety is temporary, and will always ease on its own eventually. We stop them from having the experiences that will teach them that anxiety is a warning, not a stop sign, and that they can feel anxious and do brave.
The amygdala needs the solid evidence that comes only with experience. This will mean slowly taking avoidance away as an option but this doesn’t have to happen all at once. It’s okay if this happens in little steps, as long as the steps are forward.
But first, we armour them.
Before we take away avoidance as an option, we can strengthen them with strategies they can use during anxiety. It doesn’t mean they’ll do them straight away, and it doesn’t mean they’ll be okay with ‘not avoiding’. The move through anxiety takes time. What’s important isn’t so much the passage of time but what we do during that time. Strategies like strong, steady breathing, making a plan, understanding where anxiety comes from, grounding, and mindfulness will all calm anxiety, but they do this by giving our kids and teens the armour they need to move through anxiety, rather than avoid it. They make way for them to have the experiences that will teach them that they can feel anxious and do brave, and that anxiety is always temporary. Here are a couple of power tools that can make brave behaviour easier.
Strong steady breathing.
Strong steady breathing calms the amygdala, neutralises the neurochemical surge that comes with the fight or flight response, and eases the physiological symptoms of anxiety (such as a racey heart, sick tummy, wobbly muscles, clammy skin). Breathe in for three, hold for one, out for three.
Something to try: Imagine holding a cup of hot cocoa. Sniff the warm, chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, blow it cool for three.
Anxiety is a brain that’s been hauled into the future. The ‘what-ifs’ that come with anxiety are part of this. Brains feel safest in the present because right now, there is no danger and there is no threat. Grounding is a way to do this.
Something to try: Name five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can feel outside of yourself, two you can smell, one you can taste. Or – name five things that start with ‘p’, four things that start with ‘r’, three things that start with ‘e’, two things that start with ‘s’, one thing that starts with ‘t’. It doesn’t matter what letters you use (you can also use colours) – the point is bringing them back to the moment.
When it comes to being brave, we’ll need to go first – and we won’t need them to agree.
It’s not only our children who will have strong pathways around avoidance (or their usual response during anxiety). We will too. If we tend to respond to their anxiety by supporting avoidance, the drive to keep doing that will be fierce.
When we try something new, we’re building a new pathway. New pathways will feel clumsy, awkward, and sometimes scary. When things feel unfamiliar, the drive to go back to what we know can be overwhelming. New pathways take time and lots of experiences. In the meantime, we’re choosing the rubbly road under construction (moving our children towards brave behaviour) over the well-established four-lane highway (supporting avoidance). There will probably be so much about this that will feel wrong, but remember why you’re doing it.
No doubt about it, while the new pathway is under construction you’ll be tempted to steer back into the four-lane highway. It’s okay if you do this sometimes – building new pathways is exhausting and frustrating and sometimes it might bring us to our knees. It will be tough for a while but think of it like this. Every time we support avoidance in our children, we’re aligning ourselves with that part of them that is telling them they can’t do hard things. We’re aligning ourselves with that part of them that is telling them they aren’t brave enough or powerful enough. And we know this is just isn’t true. We know they are brave enough and strong enough and capable enough. We know it. Until they know it too, we’ll need to believe it enough for them and do the very thing we are asking them to do – be brave, and do the thing that feels awkward and scary and messy, over the thing that feels easier and safer.
Things might get worse – a lot worse – before they get better.
When we take avoidance off the table, things might get worse before they get better. Actually, most likely, they will get wildly messy. When something that has always worked stops working, we humans will do that thing more before we try something different. We all do it. If avoidance has worked as a way to bring calm, the amygdala will be rock solid in the belief that this is the only way to stay safe. When the recruited support (you) gets in the way of that, the amygdala will feel even more vulnerable and will drive the fight or flight response harder. This will then drive our anxiety harder.
When we stop supporting avoidance, the amygdala will often recruit other emotions such as anger or bigger distress to make us (the recruited support) bring back avoidance as an option. Your child might respond with bigger distress, tears or anger. This is not bad behaviour or manipulative behaviour. It’s absolutely not that. It’s the brain doing the only thing it knows that will bring feelings of safety – moving you enough that you will make avoidance possible.
But the move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle.
If avoidance has been the response to anxiety, we don’t have to remove it as an option all at once. The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle – lots of tiny, brave steps, each one braver than before. What’s important is not the size of the step, but the direction.
Every time anxiety shows itself, it will also come with an opportunity to be brave. Our children might not see it, but we have to believe it for them. When anxiety gets in their way, ask, ‘What can you do that is braver than last time.’
It can be helpful to work out a plan when they are calm. During anxiety, the part of the brain that is in charge of planning – the pre-frontal cortex, is offline. This doesn’t mean they will stick to the plan when they are knee-deep in anxiety, so you might have to stick to it for them. If you start to feel wobbly when they are in the thick of anxiety, and you are so tempted to support their avoidance, the question to ask yourself is, ‘Will my response build their world or shrink it?’
And finally …
The attachment system works like any system. When you change one part of it, eventually, the rest will change. It’s just how it is. When we, as parents change what we do, such as taking avoidance off the table as an option, our children can’t help but change. This might take time, and that’s okay. Every time you align yourself with that part of them that knows they can do hard things, you’re making it easier for them to align with it too. That part might be buried deep, and it might take time to uncover, but it’s there. You know it is, and eventually, because of you, so will they.