‘I just want them to be okay.’ Why rescuing our kids can get in their way.

My son has never been a maverick. Let me be clear. He is cautious and ponders his choices deeply; this allows him a kind of wisdom that is hard to come by at the ripe old age of ten.

I have noticed in the past an instinct to circumvent, to avoid, to sidestep risk. But as he has matured his relationship with avoidance has mutated, taking on a very different look and feel. Lately, his relationship with avoidance has begun to also feel like a habit; one that he relies on with greater frequency.

On this particular Sunday I just had a feeling, those restless moments of static where you can tell something is about to crescendo. I told my husband before we left the house for our son’s soccer match, “he will either get sick to his stomach or pretend he is injured in order to avoid playing today.”

Maybe it was a mother’s intuition.

My son loves playing soccer. This is one of his primary identifications at this tender age where the drive for tribalism reigns supreme. Right around ten our children evolve into what we call the “Latency Age” of development. This is the time when peer groups become a central drive in your child’s life. This is why your latency age child begins to deepen his or her emotional investment in their friends. Fitting in becomes salient to their sense of social survival.  Every time you see a gaggle of boys or girls roaming the school campus or the mall that is an example of the primary drive for tribalism. To that end, this group of boys has become a pack and the dynamics are just about as near to perfect as you could possibly wish for as a parent in a team sport environment.

But latency age is also a boarder town, a sprawling three-year emotional tundra where the mind, brain and body are neither small child nor adolescent. Latency age children crave freedom and yet also fear the loss of parental anchoring. In latency things start to feel more “serious” and expectations increase exponentially. This is often the period of time where you will start to see more blatant psychological processes emerge, such as anxiety.

This is also when sports emerge from the cocoon of early childhood, where effort and attitude trump merit and skill; to the brutal but honest reality that competition is fierce. Children must fight for their time on the field. It’s in the realm of this emotional boarder town where risk and courage converge to shape and sculpt how my son will respond to life challenges, to new levels of intensity, and to the pressure of uncertainty. All the qualities that are directly correlated with resiliency, grit, and adaptability are being formed and shuffled out in this critical period of development.

We were about half way to the soccer complex when I heard my son start to move uncomfortably in the back seat.

“I think I am getting car sick, my stomach hurts.”

My husband and I had already agreed that we would have to let him navigate this directly with his coaches. We would not rescue him from his feelings. We would neither insist that he get on the field or give him assistance in telling the coach if he wasn’t going to play.

But let me be clear, every cell in my body wanted to rescue my son, to tell him he can just skip the game, avoid the feelings, and circumvent the challenges that face him internally. I wanted to bend the outside world to align with his needs. But I’ve been at the game of self-reflection for long enough now, and so I also understand that doing so (rescuing him) would be a short-term solution. When we rescue our kids from their emotions we embroil them in the intricate and sabotaging dance that psychologists refer to as enabling. “Fixing” this for my kid doesn’t help him become stronger and more psychologically resilient. It will cripple him; emotionally handicaps him in ways that will negatively influence his development. We had to let our son fail or succeed on his own merit, by his own compass. We had to give him the space to fail or he will fail to grow.

Upon reflection, I now see that there were likely other episodes of avoidance that rivaled this one, but at the time I was naïve and thought, “maybe he is car sick.” Denial is a convincing mistress; it seduces us into the illusions of our wishes and fantasies. I hold no advanced degree on being human, just because I make a career of observing the process of human beings.

So let’s really unpack why the consistent use of avoidance is such a debilitating form of self-protection for our kids to snuggle into during latency age?

Well, lets start with the far end of the spectrum: Avoidance is a pre-requisite in the development of phobias. It’s way too simple to just assume phobias are something you catch from your genes. The vast majority of research on the role of genetics in the onset of psychiatric disorders suggests that while psychological trends do run in families, the onset is tied to a complex and nuanced interplay between nature and nurture.

To that end, phobias are something you develop through your consistent reliance on avoidance. You court phobias by using avoidance as your primary mode of controlling your feelings. Phobias are about control and narrowing the aperture on your emotional lens by avoiding and cutting out any stimuli that make you feel uncomfortable. Today it’s the soccer game, and some might argue, big deal let him skip the game if the pressure is too much. But tomorrow and all the days still tucked beyond the horizon it will be something else that rattles his nerves, makes him flinch. And here’s the kicker, with regular use of avoidance, your capacity for emotional tolerance atrophies. In other words, as you rely more and more on avoidance to manage your emotions, you end up be coming less capable of handling even the smallest of provocations.

But long before phobias will surface, the use of avoidance debilitates and causes emotional paralysis in the wake of strong internal feelings of doubt and fear. Avoidance shackles you to fear and develops into phobias once your emotional aperture cannot be narrowed any further. It’s a fatal attraction where self-sabotage is baked into the courtship. You hold the hand that holds you down.  

I have reassured my son that the feelings he is experiencing are typical and normal. Everyone feels anxious at times in his or her life. Everyone grapples with self-doubt. But it is how he chooses to respond to these feelings that ultimately shapes and influences his future.

These emotional challenges are what Latency age of development teaches us as we pass through to the even more complex phase that follows, adolescence. If we rescue our kids from these lessons, they will be ill equipped for the next stage of development. Each stage builds on the last one. This is another reason avoidance is so tricky. You end up missing a lot of the valuable lessons that were baked into the previous stage.  I have to let my son feel these feelings, be exposed to the discomfort and navigate his own way through it.

If I fix this for him he will retreat further and further into these patterns. But if I don’t, he at least has the opportunity find his way towards greater and greater sources of courage, strength, and fortitude. These are the ingredients that make up grit and resilience. Grit and resilience are hard earned characteristics. No one becomes gritty and resilient through relying on avoidance as their go to defense mechanism. Avoidance atrophies our strengths, it allows life to push you around, steer your mast, and ultimately shape your life.

As his mother I have to continue to expose him to environments and experiences that he would refuse on his own. And then be there, metaphorically and figuratively, but not try and choreograph the outcome. With most things in life, but especially fear and our relationship with avoidance, exposure is key. And so while I still have a modicum of control over my son’s schedule, I’m committing to exposing him to as many uncomfortable scenarios as I can.

With this focus in mind, I immediately enrolled my child in jujitsu. This is another activity he has sworn he does not like and has, up to this point, refused all invitations to “try it.” Often times with latency age kids fear and anxiety are masked as certainty. My son will insist, “I don’t like jujitsu!” And I gently remind him that he has never done jujitsu so he cannot make an informed, let alone impassioned decision about whether or not he likes it.

With emphasis and consistency I tell my son, “You should be suspicious of your certainty. Often that means we are operating from fear.” I want my son to grow more and more confident in the face of uncertainty, knowing that he can emotionally and psychologically handle anything that comes his way. To need certainty in order to take risk dooms us to a life on the sidelines. But all the good stuff comes from climbing out on the wire, wobbly and unsure but full of promise.

I can see him navigating that border town between self-doubt and self-assuredness. Something in the way he carries his body tells me he’s going to find his way. But I can also see his fears and doubt. It’s nestled in behind the watery blue of his eyes.

My instinct is to make him comfortable. But ultimately I have to let him wrestle with those beasts. Or they will own him for the rest of his life; his own monsters and demons will enslave him. All I can do is be with him while he navigates what he feels.

Exposure to risk, fear of failure, and self-doubt are the teachers who rule the kingdom of latency age development. We must allow our children to be exposed to the edges and corners of development for those are the wounds and scars that shape our future self. Without pain and the emotional infrastructure it serves to shape inside of us we will be doomed to the confines of certainty and safety.

Let me be perfectly clear, if you notice these tendencies in your own child(ren) and you do nothing else, exposure is plenty. Keep on widening the circle that your child has to navigate. Let them figure it out. Resist the urge to rescue your kids from their feelings and the events that trigger these difficult feelings. The first and most important step is for us to let our kids fail. Put them in as many environments and situations where they will be stretched, challenged, and forced to face their feelings using new and creative solutions.

That being said, here’s additional strategies I am implementing:

  1. I am being more mindful of the pockets of development where I can stand back now and allow my son to figure it out on his own. I am trying to identify where I am accidentally reinforcing this style of behavior by engaging in rescuing behaviors. I’m discussing avoidance in this essay, but you will find your own pockets of “rescuing behavior” with your children. Observe those intersections and make shifts accordingly.
  2. We are doubling down on our nightly mindfulness practice with our son. Ten minutes. Please don’t shape your child’s mindfulness practice around the premise of thinking positively or forced gratitude. Just begin to guide them in the process of being present in what ever it is they feel. Resist the urge to shape your child’s emotional reality, to herd them towards some mental space you want them to embody. Let them start to learn how to tolerate exactly where they are. 
  3. I bought several children’s books on worry and anxiety. All the books focus on the fact that his feelings are perfectly healthy but how we respond to our feelings is where we can get into some trouble. We will read these together at night and practice the tools and techniques suggested in the books.
  4. I’ve added a nightly magnesium supplement to his routine.
  5. I’m making sure he gets adequate hours of sleep per night.
  6. I’m making sure that he has adequate time to move his body in nature each day (team sports, hiking, swimming, playing in neighborhood, etc.). At least 30 minutes a day after school where he can discharge energy.
  7. I bought a journal for him to write and express some of his feelings. And no, I won’t go and secretly read it.

About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

2 Comments

Linda

It all sounded great until I saw how organized and timely she lead his life. Sometimes through our own need to be controlling and dominating we make our kids feel insecure.
Some kids are just more into attacking life more than others. We don’t need to pressure our kids… it’s efforts can result in lack in confidence. No one wants that.

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Sarah

This article was interesting for me on several levels. First, as an Occupational Therapist working with young children, I see how parenting styles influence a child’s willingness to try solving novel problems as early as age 2. Second, thinking about the pre-teen experiences of important adults in my life, I now see clear connections between their early experiences and later anxiety/ phobias (in one case) and resilience/grit (in the other).

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The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.

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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #neuronurtured #anxiety #anxietyinchildren
You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
- What can I do to help an adult who has anxiety?
- How can I start the conversation about anxiety with my parents?

Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #heyawesome #mentalhealth #heysigmund #motherhoodcommunity #parentingtips #anxiety #anxietysupport #anxietyrelief #parentingadvice #anxietyinchildren #heywarrior #childanxiety #anxietyawareness #mentalwellness
Rather than talking to them about what they can’t do (and they’ll probably want to talk about this a lot - that’s what anxiety does), ask them what they can do. It doesn’t matter how small the step is, as long as it’s forward.
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The idea is to gradually and gently expose them to the things that feel frightening. This is the only way to re-teach the amygdala that it’s safe. Let them know you understand it feels scary - they need to know you feel what they feel and that you get it. This will make your belief in them and your refusal to support avoidance more meaningful. Then move them towards brave.
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This can be tough. To move our children towards the things that are causing them distress pushes fiercely against our instincts as a parent - but - supporting avoidance, overprotecting, over-reassuring, the things we do that unintentionally accommodate anxiety over brave behaviour will only feed anxiety and make it more resistant to change. (And as a parent I’ve done all of these things at some time - we’re parents, not perfect, and parental love has a way of drawing us all in to unhelpful behaviours in the name of protecting our kiddos). .
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The point is, moving our children towards brave behaviour can feel awful, but it’s so important. When they focus on the fear and what they can’t do, try, ‘Okay, I know this feels scary. I really do. I also know you can do this. I understand this step feels too big, so what little step can you take towards it? What can you do that is braver than last time?’

 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #heyawesome #mentalhealth #heysigmund #motherhoodcommunity #parentingtips #anxiety #anxietysupport #anxietyrelief #parentingadvice #anxietyinchildren #heywarrior #childanxiety #anxietyawareness #mentalwellness
We can’t decide the lessons our children learn and we can’t decide when they learn them, but we can create the space that invites the discovery. We can do this by making it safe for them to speak, and to wander around their own experiences so the lessons and wisdom can emerge.
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