From Anxiety and Avoidance to Brave Behaviour
How Parents Can Make a Powerful Difference

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.

  • Grounding.

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.

6 Comments

Traci P

Who are you?!? I had the roughest morning with my 11 year old son. He refused to go to school. This is so hard! I have 4 other children that I drop off and don’t know what to do. I literally dressed him, dragged him down the hall, brushed his hair, packed his lunch, handed him breakfast… manipulated his every move to get him out the door on time with the other kids. I know there is something deeper going on. These rough days have popped up periodically for years! I love him dearly and want to help but have no idea how or even what is causing the problem.
I just got home from dropping off the kids and am drowning in my thoughts of being a horrible mother. I somehow stumbled on your article about kids and school anxiety. This was written just for me! I feel like you threw me a life preserver and now have hope that I can get my head above the water. The ideas are so good and I want to learn more. I will look closer on the website but this article is wonderful and frankly, a life changer. Thank you for giving me hope!

Reply
Dawn E

This post was so helpful. Our daughter has struggled for so long and we thought we were helping by smoothing her way. Only in the past year did we realize we were enabling her. We have been encouraging BRAVE now for a year but only because we stumbled into it…nothing else was working. So much time in therapy, which has many benefits but it is slow moving. We tried CBT early on but it was too early..she fought every minute of it. After reading this post I may suggest it again, she is 19 years old and feeling much better but exercises her right to make her own decisions and may think she will not get anything from CBT at this point. I hope she sees it differently. THANK YOU!!

Reply
Chris

This is so helpful. I’ve been trying to get my teen to just “sit with” her anxiety (or any other uncomfortable emotion), not to let it control her. I know I’ve been part of the problem by protecting/over-protecting her from some of the things that trigger her anxiety. I appreciate the reminder that she is brave enough and strong enough to deal with challenging situations!
Keep up the great work!

Reply
lorraine p

such a straightforward article not blaming or judging just explaining in simple terms.

Reply
Beth S

I really enjoyed and appreciated your article about ANXIETY.

I have always struggled with anxiety and I have always recognized it in my son who reacts to anxiety with flight and avoidance which have affected his self-esteem.

Over the years, I’ve attempted to coax him, assure him, reassure him, set examples … but to no avail. Now as a young adult, he seems to be strangling in anxiety and even refuses professional help.

Your article is quite interesting and helpful on numerous levels. Thank you for your help and insight! A++++

Reply
Anastasia

This post is so comprehensive and revealing. I am not a parent, but I do have an anxiety disorder and this post spoke to me more than my therapist’s instructions. You’re doing a fantastic job, you should be proud!

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

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.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This