Anxiety isn’t the problem, but the response to anxiety can be. Here’s how to turn it around.

When the response to anxiety becomes the problem.

Anxiety is a normal human response designed to warn us of danger. If there is true danger, the drive to avoid means anxiety is doing its job. When this happens, our job is to help them move to safety.

Most often though, anxiety means we are about to do something safe and brave, important, hard. When this happens, our job is to help them to learn that they can feel anxious and do brave.

This can happen one little step at a time, but it starts with changing how we think of anxiety.

The more we treat anxiety as a problem or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it.

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave.

We have to stop pathologising anxiety.

Every time we pathologise a child with anxiety, we lose an opportunity to strengthen them against it.

Yes they might have extreme anxiety, and yes anxiety makes things feel hard, and yes they are capable of doing hard things.

It doesn’t matter how quickly they move towards brave or how small the steps are. What’s important is not avoiding new, hard, brave things completely.

Being brave isn’t about ‘no anxiety’. In fact, whenever there is a need for brave behaviour, there will always be anxiety. It’s the existence of anxiety that makes it brave. The key to strengthening children isn’t about ‘never experiencing anxiety’, but about knowing they can handle anxiety. This will only come from experience.

As long as what they are doing is safe, we don’t have to ‘fix’ their anxiety. Their anxiety isn’t a sign of breakage. It’s a sign that they’re dealing with something hard, brave, new, or important.

When we pathologise a child with anxiety (‘You can’t do this because you are anxious,’), we inadvertently do two things:

– we confirm the deficiency story that tends to come with anxiety, ‘I’m not strong enough/ brave enough/ good enough to do hard things.’

– we send the message that anxiety is something that should be avoided. The problem with this is that we also send the message that the things that drive anxiety should be avoided. This will include all brave, hard, new, important things, which always come with anxiety.

When they avoid anxiety, they avoid the experiences they need to learn they can handle anxiety – and this wisdom will only come from experience. It doesn’t matter how long this takes or how small the steps are. It also doesn’t matter if they handle this terribly. What matters is the experience and that they don’t feel alone in the experience.

This can happen in tiny steps, each one braver than the last. Each of these steps, however awful they feel, show them they can feel anxious and do brave.

If we want them to know they can feel anxious and do brave, we have to make anxiety ‘be-withable’.

Living bravely with anxiety is about sharing the space with it, not being pushed out by it.

Rather than,‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘We need to fix you,’ we have to normalise it: ‘Of course you have anxiety! You’re doing some big things at the moment. How can I help?’

Even when anxiety is extreme and suffocating, we have to normalise the anxiety part of it. Why? Because the more we pathologise anxiety, the more we fuel anxiety about the anxiety.

The experience of anxiety is normal. The intensity might be extreme and unbearable, but the anxiety is normal.

As long as they are truly safe, the intensity of anxiety will be fuelled by anxiety about the anxiety and the story (the reason) they put to their anxiety.

To change the response to anxiety, we have to change the story we put to anxiety.

We humans instinctively put a story to our feelings to make sense of them. When anxiety hits, we automatically ask, ‘Why do I feel like this?’ The brain will often answer with a story of disaster, ‘Because something bad is about to happen,’ or a story of deficiency, ‘Because there’s something wrong with me.’

But there’s another reason: ‘Because I’m moving outside of what feels comfortable and normal for me.’

Stories of disaster or deficiency drive the brain into bigger distress, which intensifies the physiology of anxiety, which amplifies the need to avoid.

Often, this avoidance isn’t about needing to avoid the actual thing (even though it will feel that way). It’s about avoiding the anxiety.

The ‘can’t’ is about the anxiety, not the thing they need to do. This is why we need to make anxiety more be-withable, and change the story they (and we) put to anxiety.

Believe them, that their anxiety feels big AND believe in them, that they can handle the ‘big’.

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big.

Believe them AND believe in them.

‘Yes this is hard. I know how much you don’t want to do this. It feels big, doesn’t it. And I know you can do big things, even when it feels like you can’t. How can I help?’

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does – you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’

Name their wish to avoid AND their capacity to approach. One doesn’t cancel out the other.  

‘I know it feels like you can’t, and I know you can. This is happening and we’re going to handle it together. What would make it easier?’

You might not be able to respond in these ways every time, and that’s okay. What matters is:

  • being intentional,
  • making sure they don’t feel alone and unseen in the experience (which is why validation – believing them – is important), and
  • knowing that every time they experience handling the discomfort of anxiety to move towards something important (even if they don’t handle it well) they are learning that the presence of anxiety doesn’t change how brave or capable they are.

They won’t believe in themselves until we show them what they are capable of. For this, we’ll have to believe in their ‘can’ more than they believe in their ‘can’t’.

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The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️
Such a beautiful 60 second wrap of my night with parents and carers in Hastings, New Zealand talking about building courage and resilience in young people. Because that’s how courage happens - it builds, little bit by little bit, and never feeling like ‘brave’ but as anxiety. Thank you @healhealthandwellbeing for bringing us together happen.♥️


Original post by @healhealthandwellbeing:
🌟 Thank You for Your Support! 🌟

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us for the "Building Courage and Resilience" talk with the amazing  Karen Young - Hey Sigmund. Your support for Heal, our new charity focused on community health and wellbeing, means the world to us!

It was incredible to see so many of you come together while at the same time being able to support this cause and help us build a stronger, more resilient community.

A special shoutout to Anna Catley from Anna Cudby Videography for creating some fantastic footage Your work has captured the essence of this event perfectly ! To the team Toitoi - Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre thank you for always making things so easy ❤️ 

Follow @healhealthandwellbeing for updates and news of events. Much more to come!

#Heal #CommunityHealth #CourageAndResilience #KarenYoung #ThankYou

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