Navigating the Anxiety of Growing Up

Navigating the Anxiety of Growing Up
By Sarah Sacks

 Long after the children had gone to bed, I came home last night to learn that our youngest had asked the question “Dad…is the Tooth Fairy real?” 

Three kids on, between us we’ve been asked this question many times and dodged it, in so many ways.  But this time, my husband confessed he couldn’t turn away from her direct and insistent gaze.

In his recounting of the story, I learn there were tears from her around the relief in finally knowing the truth, especially as she was being teased at school for still “believing”.  Combined with tears of confusion as it dawned another enormous step toward leaving her childhood behind.

Our youngest is 10 very soon.  We live in a first world country, where everyone is busy.  I was busy that night.  For the children and the parents alike, there are places to be, classes to attend, meetings to be had.  But at what cost? 

Taking the time to slow things down and acknowledge for both ourselves and our children that transition is occurring is critical to everyone’s wellbeing. 

For everyone change is hard.  It is a time of moving from the known to the unknown.  And with that comes fear.  Fear of will I be enough to cope?  Who will I become?  Will be alone in this new world?  Will someone be there to help me when I struggle in this new place?  These fears, often exhibited as anxiety, are as true for a child as they are for an adult.

When change is occurring for a child and you recognize how scary and unfamiliar it is for them, how it is hard it is to say goodbye to what they have known, that there will be times that they will wish they could go back to the past, and that through all of it, you will be there for them – is one of the best gifts we can give our children. 

The key here is time.  It takes time to offer someone who is fearful or in pain the space to slow down, feel safe and experience.

Sometimes as parents our child’s pain is more than we can bear, at others we may feel some guidance may be necessary.  In these instances, professionals experienced in working with children can help.

Finally take a moment and think about how you navigate change and what you do to address your fears and anxieties during transitions.  As parents it is these moments of modeling, combined with the times of being with our children as they try to navigate their own struggles, that will largely define our children’s capacity to tolerate change.  For you and your children, slow down and take time to be with both your and their experiences.  You are giving your child a gift.

I wasn’t there yesterday when the big question was asked and the truth revealed, but today I met our daughter at the school bus, so that we could spend the afternoon together.  On our walk home, she tells me about her chapped lips and that the best lip balm is “the one Santa gave me…I mean you gave me”.  We talk about how it makes her cry to think of Santa and the Tooth Fairy not being real.  And I am quietly thinking how it makes me cry, seeing our littlest growing up.  It is a transition for all of us, that we all have to navigate.  Holding each other along the way.


About the Author: Sarah Sacks

Sarah is a qualified and experienced counsellor, meditation teacher and group facilitator.  

Sarah’s years of body based based practices, in meditation and yoga, have led Sarah to believe in the inherent wisdom of the body.  In line with this belief, Sarah has trained and qualified as a Whole Body Focusing Orientated Therapist, Transpersonal Counsellor, Holistic Counsellor, Meditation Teacher and is currently continuing her training in Group Psychotherapy Facilitation.  

Over the last 5 years Sarah has worked in the not-for-profit sector, the community health sector and privately, as a generalist counsellor and group facilitator.  Sarah has experience working with children, families and adults around issues of; isolation, anxiety, depression, grief, loss, trauma, anger, separation, addiction and general mental health.  

Sarah’s warm and intuitive counselling style, along with her extensive life experience, enables Sarah to gently support her clients towards their own path of change.

Qualifications – Bachelor of Holistic Counselling, Diploma of Transpersonal Counselling, Bachelor of Business (International Marketing & Trade), Diploma of Arts (Japanese), ACA (level 2), qualifying member for CAPAV

You can find Sarah at The Grove Counselling and Therapy and on Facebook.

See the The Grove’s ‘Training and Events’ page for more information about training and events offered by the Grove, including Wholebody Focusing Training. This program is open to anyone interested in conscious living and connecting directly to their own body wisdom, and will be of particular interest to therapists and body/movement focused practitioners.

2 Comments

margaret

I love your article on anxiety in children I have had my grandson in my care for two years he has special needs I am concerned that I FEEL PRESSURED to put him on anxiety medication he was on ritulin and epilem last year and have managed to get him of both of these I now use homeopathic kids calm he is great at home and has a meltdown maybe once every ten days at school I am concerned that professionals see the need for anxiety medication as an answer to his problems he is only 11 yrs old margaret

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Hey Sigmund

It’s great that you are such a strong advocate for your grandson and his capacity to manage without medication. Unfortunately, there are a lot of professionals who consider medication as the first response to anxiety, but there are also many who would only consider it as a last resort. If you could find a professional who has the same philosophy as you, who considers medication as a last resort, that might be a source of great support for you.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
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

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