Parenting Lessons Only Your Anxious Kids Can Teach You (by Natasha Daniels)

Parenting Lessons Only Your Anxious Kids can Teach You

I decided I wanted to be a child therapist long before I ever had children. I finished graduate school before I even began motherhood. I knew all the signs and symptoms of every childhood mental health disorder before my first child entered the world. You would think I was well prepared. You would think if anyone could handle anxious kids – it would be me. Apparently the universe shared the same sentiment – as it dutifully delivered me child after child with some form of anxiety in their DNA.

At first I was in denial. I quickly rebuked my education and my profession and thought, “Come on! These things seem normal to me. My kids do all of those things. What’s the big deal?”

Eventually the reality started to sink in. No, not every kid does that. No, not every parent has to worry about going on the highway – because their three year old goes into a panic. No, not every parent has to talk to their five year old about what will happen when they die.

After twelve years and three children later – I have embraced anxiety as much as I embrace my children. My children have taught me more about life than any textbook ever did. I have realized that anxious kids have much to teach us.

The lessons anxious kids teach us…

  1. That we need to believe in them – not in their fear.

    Early on I found myself accommodating my child’s fear. She doesn’t like highways – I should find an alternative route. She doesn’t like elevators – let’s find the stairs. Over time – she would surprise me with her tenacity and her ability to dig deep and face her fears.

    I realized that she was more of a fighter than I was allowing her to be. That she was tired of her worries and she wanted them to go away. Instead of turning away from her fears – I began to hold her hand and we faced them together. One small step at a time.

  2. That our fears aren’t always their fears.



    Time and time again my children have awed and inspired me. I have inadvertently put them and their worries into tiny, predictable boxes. I play out scenarios in my head and anticipate how situations will unfold. Luckily I have often been wrong.

    I have realized – I can’t underestimate my children.

    I think I was more nervous about kindergarten than my son. I walked him to the gate on the first day – waiting for the meltdown. Waiting for the battle to start. Wondering if the school counselor was in on the first day. He turned to me and said, “You can go. I’m good.” And – he didn’t look back. Not once.

  3. That our words can tear them down and lift them up.

    Anxious children tend to be much more sensitive in general. My kids are no exception. They love hard and hurt hard. Sensitive children often have the biggest hearts. My three year old is the first to notice when I am having a bad day. She is also the first one to sulk in a corner for hours when I correct her behavior. She is the one who frequently asks, “Are you proud of me?” five zillion times a day.

    I realize that my words have weight.

    They are actively shaping the way she views herself. I have learned to be cautious with my words – as they can tear my little girl down in a heart beat or they can lift her up. I am in the process of helping her develop her own inner dialogue. That could be good or that could be bad – it was up to me.

  4. That they are watching.

    They are watching our reaction. They are watching our emotions. They are watching our choices. Anxious children are observant. My kids notice my subtle tone change. They hear the high pitch of my nerves.

    Emotions are contagious. Especially when your children look for you to be their anchor.

    When I am nervous – they are nervous. Sometimes unfortunately when they wouldn’t have been otherwise. I have had to develop a good poker face. Sometimes I can do this – and sometimes I fail. But, I always try my best.

I have learned to stop worrying about their worries – as much. I take one day at a time. One fear, phobia, struggle – at a time.

I remember when my oldest daughter couldn’t sleep unless she was holding my hand. I thought she’d sleep next to me forever. She is now twelve and would deny that ever happened. Oh, it happened.

I remember not too long ago when I thought my youngest would never go poop in the potty. Her fear was palpable – as she walked around holding her bottom saying, “I no poop. I no poop!” That too has passed.

We are on to the next challenges life inevitably brings – but with a new belief. A belief in my children. In anxious children. A belief in their strength. In our strength. A knowledge that we can get through whatever life wants to throw at us – one day at a time.


About the Author: Natasha DanielsNatasha Daniels

Natasha is a Child Therapist and a mother to three vibrant, challenging and insightful children who keep her on her toes! She created her website, Anxious Toddlers, to offer support, guidance and laughs to parents of toddlers. She has spent the last fifteen years working with toddlers in her practice and helping families with parenting issues at Hill Child Counseling – ‘Sometimes toddlers can feel like a different species and I hope to help unlock the mystery of how to keep your little one smiling, laughing and enjoying the moment one day at a time.’

Natasha is a Clinical Social Worker and she received her post-graduate training in infant and toddler mental health at The Harris Institute. She is one of only a handful of child therapists who offer a specialty in toddler mental health and who has a practice that offers counseling to families on toddler parenting issues.

She spends half her week in her practice and the other half of her week soaking up the innocence of her children and enjoying the simpler things in life.

 

Her book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler is available at all major book stores or it can be purchased directly from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

She can be reached at .

You can find Natasha at her website, Anxious Toddlers, on FacebookPinterest, Twitter, Instagram, or making parenting videos for Curious.com. 

3 Comments

Heather G

Any advice on how to parent an anxious 9 year old when the anxiety is starting to limit what she does in life, and really affecting the rest of the family? How do we keep caring on when every day feels like a battle?

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
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.♥️

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