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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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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