How Parents Can be the ‘Facilitators of Brave’. Anxiety in children and teens: Why their courage starts with ours.

Our children see us at our best and at our most vulnerable. It’s easy to think that they don’t come together. It’s easy to think that for them, our ‘best’ are the things that feel good for them – our depth of love for them, the way their name sounds when it’s floating on our voice, our laugh when its threading through theirs, the way we hold them close, the way the world feels better when we sit cross-legged on the floor beside them. The truth though, is that our most vulnerable times can also be our best for them – not despite them, but because of them.

Our children will see us when we are exhausted, frightened, sad, angry, and when the seams of our world start to heave a little. They will know that sometimes we have to do hard things and that sometimes we feel the strain of it all. They might not know the details of these times, but they will see them. As difficult as these times can be, they can also be the most exquisite, growthful times for our children – because when they see us move through the things that feel bigger than us, it opens the way for them to do the same. But there’s something else. It’s not just the way we deal with our anxiety that opens their world, it’s the way we deal with theirs, and our capacity to be with them when they are anxious without needing them, or it, to be different for a while. 

It’s tough to do. When our children are hurting we will feel it big. The depth of that feeling can move us with warrior force to protect them from the things that are fuelling their distress. Sometimes though, this ‘protection’ is the very thing that will keep their anxiety plumped up and well-fed. 

Anxiety is one of two things.

Anxiety is a reaction one of two things. Sometimes, it is a reaction to a real threat, such as a situation or person that is genuinely unsafe. This is anxiety doing its job. Most often though, anxiety is not a reaction to a real threat, but a reaction to something important and meaningful. The risk of messing up, or missing out on, that important meaningful thing can be enough to register in the brain as a threat, and trigger anxiety in our children – but anxiety doesn’t stop there. Their anxiety or distress will trigger ours. We’re wired for this and it’s been this way since the beginning of humans. It’s the attachment system, and it’s how we keep our young ones safe.

When our children are distressed or anxious, our own fight or flight response mobilises us to keep them safe. When their anxiety is a reaction to a real threat, keeping them safe will be exactly the right thing to do. Then there are the other times. When their anxiety is a reaction to something meaningful or important, our own anxiety can inadvertently move us to ‘protect’ them from the things that will be good for them.

There are plenty of ways this might happen. It might look like supporting avoidance (such as avoidance of school or trying new things), overly supporting them or speaking for them, or rearranging situations or experiences to ease their anxiety. This is when anxiety can lead to us moving them out of the way, not of threat, but of the important, meaningful things that can grow them. 

The same response that can lead us to overprotect can also be their way to brave.

When the attachment system is triggered, it can inadvertently stifle brave behaviour. But there is something else the attachment system does. It grants us the most lavish power to help our children move through anxiety to brave behaviour – but their courage will have to start with ours.

Here’s how it works. Our own capacity for courage, calm, and resilience forms a baseline for ourselves and for our children. It is difficult to elevate our children beyond our own levels. Some children will grow to be braver and more resilient than their parents, but the climb from that baseline will be tougher than it needs to be because they will be doing it on their own. The power of our belief in them is transformational. It won’t always feel that way, and it won’t always feel as though they believe it, but it is. 

You’ve believed in them through their self-doubt and distress many times before, and they’ve grown because of this. Think about when they were learning to walk. They would have bumped and bruised over and over. But you know they could do it, so you made sure they kept trying. They might not have always wanted this. There might have been plenty of times when they asked to be carried, but there would also have been plenty of times you refused – not every time, but enough times – because you knew they had it in then to walk. You didn’t protect them from walking. You didn’t carry them everywhere to protect them from the sting of another fall. Because of this, and because of the strengthening that came with every fall, they learned to walk. Their ‘brave’ looks different now, but they still need you to believe with everything in you that they can do it – just like you did then, and just like you have plenty of times since.

First, they will be asking, ‘Do you see me?’

When anxiety is a reaction to something important and meaningful, 100% of those times will come with an offer to be brave. Whether our children choose brave or whether they choose to retreat into safety will often be guided by our response.

They will look to you first because as their attachment person, they have granted you the authority to guide them and lead them. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, and it doesn’t mean they will always willingly take your lead, but they will look to you.

This isn’t about ignoring their anxiety. Anxiety has been doing its thing for a long time. It’s there to protect them and it won’t release its hold until it knows it’s been seen. Anxiety is more likely to rest when it believes that we can see the situation with clarity and in full awareness. ‘I know this feels scary.’ ‘I know you’re so worried about what might happen if it doesn’t work out.’

When they are in the midst of anxiety, first they will be asking, ‘Do you see me?’ By this, they mean – do you understand how big this feels, or how scary this feels for me right now? Let them know you do. ‘I can see how big this feels for you.’ This validation has to feel real. For a moment, they will need you to see what they see and feel what they feel. For just a moment try to meet them at the heart of that feeling that is overwhelming them. 

Then, they will be asking, ‘Am I safe?’

At its heart, ‘Am I safe?’ is asking, ‘Do you think I can/should do this?’ Our children are constantly looking to us for signs of safety. Those signs of safety are their launchpad into brave behaviour. When we trust that they will be safe enough to be brave enough, or that they will be okay enough if things don’t go to plan, we elevate that launchpad and set it closer to those important, meaningful things. Our courage, resilience, and power, becomes fuel for theirs. Sometimes, it will bridge the distance between their anxious feelings and brave behaviour just enough to make those important, meaningful things possible. Sometimes, it will be the difference between them being able to move towards those things, and not. 

Then, when we are asking them to be brave, we go first. In the face of their anxiety, and ours, when focus on their capacity for brave, we start to shift their focus there too. ‘I know it’s scary and I know it feels bigger than you, and …

  • ‘I know you can do this. What can you do that was braver than last time.’
  • ‘I know you can get the job done. What is one small thing you can take towards that important thing.’
  • ‘I know that whatever happens, you’re going to be okay. I just love that you’re giving it a go.’
  • ‘I know it feels scary right now, so what you can do that would feel brave?’

Think of it like this …

Imagine you and a friend have been lunching at the same table under the same big, beautiful tree for years. One day, the tree is chopped back and your table is now in the blazing sun. On too many days, the heat feels brutal. Your shady breaks have now become sweaty ones, so you ask your friend to find a different table for you both. Your friend says nope. A different table might be noisy, crowded – ugh, so many things. ‘So,’ says your friend, ‘let’s just stay at this table’.

But you know this table isn’t right for either of you, so you keep asking your friend to come to a different table. Your friend doesn’t budge. You keep asking, your friend keeps refusing, so you stay at the same table every day – until the day comes that you get up from the table. You know there is a better table for you both and you find it, but getting up from the table feels awful. Your friend is really upset about the change and you hate seeing her like this, but something else has happened. By getting up from the table, you’ve made it impossible for things to stay the same. Eventually, your friend joins you at the new table because shifting tables was better – not easy, but slightly better – than staying the same.

When it comes to supporting brave behaviour in our children, sometimes we need to get up from the table first. We are asking them to be brave, but we need to be brave first. This means easing our own anxiety enough so we can move them through theirs. To do this, we need to look at what we might be doing that feels as though we are supporting our children, but which are actually letting anxiety have its way. These will be the things we do to stop their anxiety or distress, without the move towards brave. These things always come from a place of deep love, and honestly, I’ve done all of them myself – but they aren’t helpful and they can keep anxiety well-fed and plumped up. As parents, we have a choice – we can align ourselves with the fear and ‘give in’ to anxiety, or we can align ourselves with the brave. One will turn our children towards those important, meaningful things, and one will turn them away. 

Here’s how it works.

With everything we do, there is a force for change and a force for same. We – all of us – will only change when the force for change gets bigger than the force for same. With anxiety, the force for same is around wanting to retreat into safe. The force for change is wanting to move towards brave. By doing things that accommodate anxiety, we feed the force for same and give it more leverage than the force for change. We make it easier for our children to retreat back into safety rather than make the move towards brave.

Anxiety is fierce. It feels awful, and when it comes at our children with full force, it’s completely understandable that they won’t feel safe enough to move through it. There will also be nothing in us that feels okay about moving them through it – but it’s exactly what we have to do. When we go first – when we calm our anxiety enough to get up from the table, we can give the force for change (the wish to be brave) a little more of what it needs to rise. It doesn’t mean that change will feel okay, but it will make it more likely. Most often, this might look like removing avoidance as an option, and planning the small steps towards brave. 

But it won’t be easy. Important, meaningful things rarely are.

When our children are in the midst of anxiety, we will often feel as though our hearts are beating outside of ourselves. We will feel their vulnerability and their distress as though it is our own – and part of it will be. It’s why moving young people through anxiety feels so awful. There is nothing that feels okay about watching a child or teen in distress. The temptation to scoop them up and lift them over the heartache of it all will feel monumental, but what they need most of all in that moment is for us to believe in them. When they are focussed on the threat – which is what anxiety will do – they will need us to focus them on that important, meaningful thing and believe in their capacity for brave. 

There might be a big part of you that won’t truly believe they can move forward or cope if things don’t go to plan. This is okay – it makes sense – but it’s more likely to be a reflection of how they are feeling, not what they are actually capable of. Often this is their anxiety, recruiting your anxiety, and focusing you on what they believe. This is when they will need you to shift their focus towards what you believe. Beneath any fear, frustration or the longing for them to feel safe, you know they are strong. You’ve seen it. So when everything in you is telling you to move them back into safety, let your calm and courage lead theirs. 

2 Comments

Evelyn

This is a lovely article with fabulous examples- hopefully I can use this with parents I work with
Thank you 🙏💕

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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