‘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

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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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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