How to Nurture Empathy in Children

How to Nurture Empathy in Children

We spend a lot of our time living in the space between ourselves and another. If we were to ask our favourite people what they loved about us the most, they would most likely say qualities that describe who we are in relation to others. Our kindness, generosity, open-heartedness, compassion, capacity to be vulnerable are qualities that would be very likely to feature up there at the top of the list. Empathy is the life-giving fuel that umbrellas all of these. 

Children are hard-wired for empathy, but like any of our very human qualities, it needs to be gently brought to life. As the important adults in their lives, and their very loving support crew, we are in a prime position to nurture and develop empathy and emotional wisdom in our children. 

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to read what other people might be feeling. It involves understanding what somebody might need or how they might be affected by their experience and responding in a way that is supportive. This doesn’t mean necessarily agreeing with someone, but being able to understand their experience from their perspective. 

What’s all the fuss about?

Empathy is the lifeblood of emotional intelligence, which is now widely accepted to be more important to life success and happiness than academic intelligence. Research has found that a child’s ability to empathise will affect their future health, wealth, life-satisfaction, and resilience. It drives brave choices in the face of moral risk, defeats bullying, and raises extraordinary leaders. Kids who are more empathic are less likey to bully, and more likely to display positive social behaviours, such as kindess and sharing. They are also less likely to be antisocial or aggressive. Empathy gives children what they need to establish and maintain strong, healthy relationships throughout the course of their lives.

My child is adorable – a heart-stealer actually – but sometimes a little bit selfish. Have we missed the empathy boat?

For any of us, having empathy doesn’t mean we make use of it all the time. We can all be selfish, self-centred, surly, irritable, or disengaged (ugh those days – we’ve all had them!). With very young children, expecting them to have empathy is like expecting them to grow feathers. It’s just not going to happen. There might be signs of it (empathy, not feathers), and they’ll sometimes do things that make your heart gush and glow with pride, but their brains are still working on developing their empathy software. Although very young children will show the beginning signs of empathy, it really isn’t until about age four that children start to become capable of considering things from another person’s point of view, interpreting emotion, and offering what’s needed. There’s a good reason for this, and it’s to do with the work they’re doing at their particular stage of development.

Up until about the age of four, children have the very important job of learning who they are, and how to be in the world. Their job is to focus on themselves so they can develop the skills they need to start functioning as independent, healthy little humans. For a while, they’ll have a very limited capacity to meet their own needs, and a vast dependence on their team of loving adults to give them what they need when they need it. 

Over time, they will start to learn that they exist separately to (but still dependent on) their parents, and that other people might not always feel or think the way they do. This is a process that will continue throughout their lives (hopefully they’ll never stop learning) but in their earliest years, it will be all about them. It’s just how it has to be for a while. 

In the second and third years of their lives, they will start to be more aware of others. This will typically happen during their interactions with others, which is why relationships during those early years are so critical. There will continue to be many moments of frustration and fury when they are caught between knowing what they need, and not being able to influence their environment enough to get it. They’re growing and discovering, and they’re learning how to be big people. It’s no easy gig but they’re designed beautifully for the job. It just means they’ll have to be a little self-focussed for a while – but it will be worth it.

Around the time they become 4-year-olds, their brains start to do something remarkable. These little people who have been focusing on themselves, become aware that other people can have different thoughts and feelings to theirs. They start to develop the ability to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’. They begin to understand that even though they might think something (‘oh it’s a birthday cake to share – with icing – I’ll just have a teeny lick of all the colours because I love icing and colours so much’), other children might think differently (‘I don’t want my cake to have licks in the icing’). Signs of this will start to emerge during play, as children start becoming aware of the need to take turns, share, or that newbies to a game might not necessarily understand the rules. 

What happens in the brain when children develop empathy?

Empathy involves a number of processes that happen in different areas of the brain. These include becoming moved by and aware of emotion in others, understanding what that emotion might be, and being able to show enough self-control to be emotionally present with another person.

Children with greater empathy have been found to have more activity in the anterior insula cortex (the area of the brain critical for emotional awareness – it picks up our physiological sensations and represents them to us as emotions or needs), the amygdala (the area of the brain involved in emotional responses), and the mirror neuron system. (The mirror neuron system helps us to recognise or anticipate someone else’s experience, not just because we think it, but because we feel it. It is because of our mirror neurons that we might feel a heaviness in our chest when we witness someone else’s sadness, why we screw up our face when we see someone eating a lemon, or why we might wince in pain when somebody takes a bad fall or pricks themselves with a needle.)

The research has also found a reliable and significant link between increased activity in these parts of the brain and greater interpersonal skills. 

How to nurture empathy in children.

Children have the hardwiring for compassion and empathy, but as with all tiny seeds, the capacity for empathy will need nurturing and gentle guidance to develop. Here are some ways to do that. There are a quite a few things you can call on to build empathy, but some will likely work better for you and your particular child. Experiment, explore and see what works.

  1. Encourage their imagination.

    Cognitive empathy – the ability to accurately understand and interpret what someone else might be thinking – draws from our imagination and emotional intelligence. When you read stories, watch movies together, or observe people in real life, encourage their curiosity. Ask your kiddos to imagine what someone might be thinking or feeling, or what they might need. What clues come from the person’s voice tone, facial expressions or gestures? This will nurture their ability to take on perspectives that are different to their own and to see things through another’s eyes and recognise emotion in others. Reading emotions can be tricky, and they (we) won’t always get it right. What’s important is that they care enough to notice. 

  2. Acknowledge the emotion in others.

    Reading emotions is the first step, then comes the acknowledgement. If our own joy or sadness was met with a stony expression by someone close to us, it would probably leave us feeling a bit empty. Eventually, it would probably do damage. Model acknowledgement with words (‘you look sad’, ‘I feel so excited when you tell me about that’) or actual mimicry (scrunching your face in disgust, hands to face in shock, furrowing of the brow in sadness, smiling in joy).

  3. Do what I do and guess how I feel.

    Play a game where you copy each other’s physical expression (gestures, facial expressions) and then name the emotion. Mimicry is a powerful way we humans come to understand what someone is feeling, and communicate that understanding. Think about how you smile at someone else’s joy, gasp at someone’s shocking experience, frown when someone shares their anger or confusion. 

  4. Let’s pretend.

    Any time children play pretend games, they are practicing at life. Through play, children learn what it’s like to ‘be in someone else’s shoes’. When a child pretends to be a mum or a dad, for example, they have the opportunity to feel what it’s like to be appreciated, adored, ignored, or frustrated. The best part is that they can experiment with emotions as they would with a costume – they can try them on for size, see what works and what doesn’t, then slip out of them when playtime is over.

  5. Face to face. It’s how the best talk happens.

    Being able to read faces and expressions is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. We humans have been beautifully built to connect face to face. It’s why we were designed with faces that smile, wince, nod, and communicate affection, approval, disagreement, anger, fear – all the feels. We have words to do that too, but most of the information we send and receive is done through non-verbals such as tone, gestures, and facial expressions. Our children are growing up in a digital world where technology has become an important part of the way they create and maintain their friendships. This can be a great thing, but it’s important that they continue to have face to face conversation so they can learn how to read what people are feeling, and what they might need. 

  6. Stay with the feeling – it has a good reason for being there.

    Some feelings come with spikes. Anger, sadness, jealousy, or frustration can be difficult to be with, but empathy involves feeling what someone is feeling in the moment and it’s impossible to do this while you’re wishing a feeling would go away. Emotions contain so much wisdom. They clue us in to what we need more of or less of, what we’re scared of, hurt by, what feels fragile, what’s making us feel vulnerable. Rather than wishing the feeling away, be curious and find the wisdom contained in it. This involves acknowledging what you see (‘I can see how sad you are’), being a strong, steady, presence (‘it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling’) and making it be safe for the words to come. This will model how to respond to difficult emotions, without being swept up by them, ‘catching them’, or shutting them down.

  7. Discover the story behind the person.

    Encourage your children to be curious about the differences in others. When we understand enough of someone’s story, their feelings and behaviour start to make sense. It doesn’t always mean the behaviour is acceptable, but the more we understand, the more we will be to empathise. Understanding someone’s story opens us up to the differences between each other in a way that is open-hearted and nurtures acceptance. This isn’t about tolerating differences, but embracing them and appreciating them. 

  8. Tune into your own feelings. It’s probably what they’re feeling too.

    Nothing will teach them empathy more than watching it in you. Sit with your child and let his or her feeling connect with you. If you become angry, sad or frustrated, let that be okay – it’s likely that your child is feeling something similar. From here, you can say with an open heart, and in a way that your child will believe and be soothed by, ‘I can see how angry you are right now. You hate it when you have to pack up your toys don’t you. I understand. I don’t like having to stop when I’m doing something fun either. It’s hard isn’t it.’ 

  9. And if it doesn’t make sense.

    Sometimes it can be impossible to understand why someone is feeling a particular way, but we can still have empathy. Particularly as our kids get older, there will be things that are so important to them that just don’t make any sense to us – the party they need to go to in the middle of exam block, their need to wake up during the night to check texts, their desperation not to come on the family holiday to stay with Aunty Lou and Uncle Kev and their six little mini-Kevs on the peanut farm. The point is, we can still show empathy even when we don’t really understand exactly what’s driving the emotion. Try, ‘I can see this is important for you. Can you help me understand?’.

  10. But you don’t always need words.

    Empathy isn’t just about noticing, it’s also about responding in a way that helps somebody feel noticed, understood or acknowledged. Sitting quietly with your children and listening as they talk about something that has happened, or how they are feeling, will model an empathic response. By being there, you are communicating that their feelings are important, that they are important, and that you want to understand more about what’s happening for them. The more they see it in you, the more familiar and accessible the response will become for them.

  11. ‘If it was a movie …’

    It can be hard for any of us to understand another person’s point of view when we’ve been hurt or disappointed. High emotion can smother empathy but research has found that a powerful way to re-engage it is with a technique called ‘stepping out’. If your child has been upset by an argument or an incident with someone, encourage him or her to describe that situation as though he or she was watching a movie and it was happening to someone else. ‘What do you think she might be feeling?’ ‘How would he describe what has happened?’ What do you think she might need to feel better?’ ‘How is it different to what you feel?’. (Read more about ‘stepping out’ here.)

  12. Don’t worry about the lapses – it’s where the learning happens.

    Kids will be selfish sometimes – it’s just how it is and we would have been too, but when they leave you baffled or shaking your head with their lack of empathy, these are precious opportunities for them to learn. Look through the mess for the lessons that can grow them. And whatever you do, don’t take their empathy shortages personally. They’re small humans learning to be grown up ones. There’s a lot to learn but that’s okay, because they have plenty of time to learn it.

  13. Hold off from problem-solving – for a moment.

    We don’t always need to know how to fix the problem to make a difference – that’s where the power of empathy lies. Imagine if you had just had an awful argument with a colleague and you came home looking for love and a shoulder from your partner, but his or her very quick response was, ‘well you should just call and put it right.’ Perhaps this is brilliant advice, but it also has enormous potential to communicate how easily the problem can be fixed, and that your reaction is an ‘over-reaction’. Instead of an instant fix-it, listen as your child talks about what has happened, how they have interpreted it, what it means for them and how they are feeling. Acknowledge and validate this and if you need to, help them to label their emotions. With the connection strong, and your child trusting that you now understand enough of what’s going on, he or she is more likely to be open to your advice. They are likely to feel more empowered and supported and with this, more able to deal with the situation on their own or more open to your advice. 

  14. Talk to them as though it’s who they are. 

    It’s a subtle difference, but research has found that talking about pro-social qualities as a part of who they are (‘you‘re a great helper’), rather than something they do (‘you‘re really helpful’), will help to foster those qualities. Children want to do good things, but even more than that, they want to be good people. Sometimes, rather than talking about their kind or thoughtful behaviour (‘what you did was really kind/ thoughtful’), try putting the focus on them as kind or thoughtful people, (‘I love that you are kind/ thoughtful’). Help them to develop their identity as kind, compassionate, empathic humans by talking to them as though they already have these qualities. 

  15. How are you the same?

    Feelings of connection and understanding are increased when we expand the shared space between us. It’s often easy to see the differences, but encourage them to look through this to the similarities. This might not always be easy, particularly with people they feel no connection or similarity with, but we’re all human and we share human feelings, human strengths, and human flaws. The similarities will be there. 

  16. Expand their emotional literacy.

    We experience the world and other people through language. The greater their capacity to put word to their feelings, the greater their capacity to notice those feelings in others. Help your child to find the right words to describe what they’re feeling. If they are feeling sad, they might also be feeling scared, jealous, rejected, overlooked, frightened. If they are feeling angry they might be feeling frustrated, annoyed, exhausted, anxious. If they are feeling happy they might be feeling playful, joyful, or excited. Each time you help them name an emotion, they’ll have a new word for when they see something similar in other people.

  17. When have you felt that way?

    Encourage them to think about times they might have had a similar experience, or felt a similar way to somebody on the tv, in a movie, in a story or in real life. Anything that sparks conversation about emotion, whether it’s theirs or others, will nurture the empathic spark inside them.

  18. Or in fantasy …

    Children learn through play, and as the important person in their lives, you’re one of their favourite people to play with. Expand their emotional vocabulary by taking turns to think of an emotion and a time each of you felt it. Try for some of the emotions that can be tricky to feel and own, but which are as much a part of being human as owning a pulse – jealousy, fear, anger, spite, confusion, anxiety.

  19. A teeny tweak in conversation.

    Harvard’s, ‘Making Caring Common’ report found that four out of five teens believe their parents care more about achievement than caring. Even though kindness is at the top of the list for most parents, children don’t seem to be getting that message. This is an easy one to turn around. Rather than, ‘It’s really important to me that you get good grades,’ or ‘I just want you to be happy,’, try, ‘It’s really important to me that you work hard, are kind, and that you are happy,’ or, ‘I just want you to be happy and kind.’

  20. Encourage self-control.

    Our capacity to read what other people might be feeling, and respond appropriately can easily be overwhelmed by anger, shame, jealousy or fear. All of those feelings are completely okay to be there, but they can cause havoc and hurt when they get out of control. Make way for the emotion to be there, but at the same time, encourage self-control. ‘I can see your angry right now, and I want to understand what’s happening for you, but it’s hard for me to listen to you when you’re yelling at me. Can you sit beside me, breathe, and talk to me. I want to understand.’ (See here for more ways to nurture self-control in children.)

And finally … 

Empathy gives kids what they need to be changemakers – in relationships, families, the schoolyard, and the world. It nurtures the human connections and the space between ourselves and others in which we live, grow and learn.  Empathy isn’t the touchy-feely add-on to their success and growth and well-being, it’s central to it. 

Children want to do the right thing and they want to learn. Their minds are beautifully open, even when they might not be open to exactly what we’re saying at exactly the time we’re saying it. Kindness, empathy, and compassion are something that grow, little by little – and all the ‘littles count – the little moments, the little chats, the little gestures. Who we raise our children to be, rather than what they do will ready them for success, happiness, and courage to be the people the world wants to know, love, employ and seek out.


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.

Click here to find out more.

 

 

7 Comments

Judith Richardson

Thanks Karen, I was so excited by your article I shared it around – I figured the buttons at the side meant you were OK with that – I notice it was well received and shared on – keep those great articles coming…

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Donna Maciorowski, LPC, NCC

THANK YOU for making this printable!!! I often see articles I want to read but don’t have time to read right then. Then I forget to get back to it, so thank you for adding the printing icon on the bottom of your page.

Excellent reading, please keep it coming!!

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Donna

Such an amazing article! Thanks. I work with children with autism. All pertinent to what I teach. Helpful for parents!!

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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