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 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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