Do they want solutions or support? How to know, and what to do when we get it wrong.

When your child or teen has big feelings, the drive to ‘fix’ them can feel like it’s swallowing us whole – but we don’t need to fix them. They aren’t broken. In that moment, our job isn’t to stop their feelings but to let those feelings do their job, which is bring us alongside them in a way that supports them with the emotional load. 

Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, especially if those big feelings come bundled with spicy words or big behaviour, but they are a call to bring us closer. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in an ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way – no judgement, no need for you to be different – I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through.

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. No – that doesn’t work for us, and it doesn’t work for them. What they need is what we all need – a safe place to find their out-breath, and to let the energy connected to that feeling move through them and out of them so they can rest. But how?

What do they need from us?

First, don’t take big feelings personally. Their big feelings aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. The time to process that wisdom will come, but first, the energy that’s connected to those big emotions (e-motion, as in ‘energy in motion’) needs to move through them. 

Sometimes they’ll want help. Sometimes they’ll want a hug. If you’re not sure if this is a hug situation or a help situation, it’s always okay to ask. This might sound something like, ‘You’re done with today, aren’t you. Would you like me to sit with you or give you space?’ Or, ‘Would you like to talk about it, or would you like to be distracted from it for a while? I can do either.’ Or, ‘It looks like something is going on for you. You don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to, but if you want to, I’m here. There’s nothing you can tell me that I can’t handle.’

And if you get it wrong.

Sometimes, of course, you might make the wrong call. (I’ve done this more times than I care to count!) You might jump into problem-solving, thinking you’re helping, only to see big feelings get bigger. If this happens, acknowledge what’s happened, ‘I think I made a mistake just then. I tried to solve the problem, but I can see you didn’t need me to do that. I’m wondering if what you actually needed was for me to listen. I’m sorry I didn’t do that, but I can do it now. Can we try again?’

Are you responding to what’s happening now? Or way back when?

We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point. Some common ones are:

  • ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’;
  • ‘kids should always behave’;
  • ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad’;
  • ‘big feelings are bad feelings’;
  • ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’

All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.

And finally …

Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. When our children have big feelings, our role as their important adults isn’t to change them or their feelings but to guide them gently and lovingly back home to calm. From there, they will be more open to learning, but only if they can rest in our love and leadership.

Of course, we have to be radically kind to ourselves too. Not only are we growing our children, but we’re also growing ourselves – and growing is hard. Some days we’ll be able to give them what they need, and some days we won’t. Both are the responses of loving, committed, wonderful parents. Collisions will happen. What’s important is that after any collision, the repair is deliberate, loving, and honest about our part. When we do this, we model humility, compassion, empathy, and the beautiful imperfection of being human – all of these learnings are also essential for growth – theirs and ours.


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We have to change the way we talk about anxiety. If we talk about it as a disorder, this is how it feels.

Yes anxiety can be so crushing, and yes it can intrude into every part of their everyday. But the more we talk about anxiety as a disorder, the more we drive ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. Even for big anxiety, there is nothing to be served in talking about it as a disorder. 

There is another option. We change the face of it - from an intruder or deficiency, to an ally. We change the story - from ‘There’s something wrong with me’ to, ‘I’m doing something hard.’ I’ve seen the difference this makes, over and over.

This doesn’t mean we ignore anxiety. Actually we do the opposite. We acknowledge it. We explain it for what it is: the healthy, powerful response of a magnificent brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do - protect us. This is why I wrote Hey Warrior.

What we focus on is what becomes powerful. If we focus on the anxiety, it will big itself up to unbearable.

What we need to do is focus on both sides - the anxiety and the brave. Anxiety, courage, strength - they all exist together. 

Anxiety isn’t the absence of brave, it’s the calling of brave. It’s there because you’re about to do something hard, brave, meaningful - not because there’s something wrong with you.

First, acknowledge the anxiety. Without this validation, anxiety will continue to do its job and prepare the body for fight or flight, and drive big feelings to recruit the safety of another human.

Then, we speak to the brave. We know it’s there, so we usher it into the light:

‘Yes I know this is big. It’s hard [being away from the people you love] isn’t it. And I know you can do this. We can do hard things can’t we.

You are one of the bravest, strongest people I know. Being brave feels scary and hard sometimes doesn’t it. It feels like brave isn’t there, but it’s always there. Always. And you know what else I know? It gets easier every time. I’ve know this because I’ve seen you do hard things, and because I’ve felt like this too, so many times. I know that you and me, even when we feel anxious, we can do brave. It’s always in you. I know that for certain.’♥️
Our job as parents isn’t to remove their distress around boundaries, but to give them the experiences to recognise they can handle boundaries - holding theirs and respecting the boundaries others. 

Every time we hold a boundary, we are giving our kids the precious opportunity to learn how to hold their own.

If we don’t have boundaries, the risk is that our children won’t either. We can talk all we want about the importance of boundaries, but if we don’t show them, how can they learn? Inadvertently, by avoiding boundary collisions with them, we are teaching them to avoid conflict at all costs. 

In practice, this might look like learning to put themselves, their needs, and their feelings away for the sake of peace. Alternatively, they might feel the need to control other people and situations even more. If they haven’t had the experience of surviving a collision of needs or wants, and feeling loved and accepted through that, conflicting needs will feel scary and intolerable.

Similarly, if we hold our boundaries too harshly and meet their boundary collisions with shame, yelling, punishment or harsh consequences, this is how we’re teaching them to respond to disagreement, or diverse needs and wants. We’re teaching them to yell, fight dirty, punish, or overbear those who disagree. 

They might also go the other way. If boundaries are associated with feeling shamed, lonely, ‘bad’, they might instead surrender boundaries and again put themselves away to preserve the relationship and the comfort of others. This is because any boundary they hold might feel too much, too cruel, or too rejecting, so ‘no boundary’ will be the safest option. 

If we want our children to hold their boundaries respectfully and kindly, and with strength, we will have to go first.

It’s easy to think there are only two options. Either:
- We focus on the boundary at the expense of the relationship and staying connected to them.
- We focus on the connection at the expense of the boundary. 

But there is a third option, and that is to do both - at the same time. We hold the boundary, while at the same time we attend to the relationship. We hold the boundary, but with warmth.♥️
Sometimes finding the right words is hard. When their words are angry and out of control, it’s because that’s how they feel. 

Eventually we want to grow them into people who can feel all their feelings and lasso them into words that won’t break people, but this will take time.

In the meantime, they’ll need us to model the words and hold the boundaries firmly and lovingly. This might sound like:

‘It’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay not to like my decision. It’s not okay to speak to me like that. I know you know that. My answer is still no.’

Then, when they’re back to calm, have the conversation: 

‘I wonder if sometimes when you say you don’t like me, what you really mean is that you don’t like what I’ve done. It’s okay to be angry at me. It’s okay to tell me you’re angry at me. It’s not okay to be disrespectful.

What’s important is that you don’t let what someone has done turn you into someone you’re not. You’re such a great kid. You’re fun, funny, kind, honest, respectful. I know you know that yelling mean things isn’t okay. What might be a better way to tell me that you’re angry, or annoyed at what I’ve said?’♥️
We humans feel safest when we know where the edges are. Without boundaries it can feel like walking along the edge of a mountain without guard rails.

Boundaries must come with two things - love and leadership. They shouldn’t feel hollow, and they don’t need to feel like brick walls. They can be held firmly and lovingly.

Boundaries without the ‘loving’ will feel shaming, lonely, harsh. Understandably children will want to shield from this. This ‘shielding’ looks like keeping their messes from us. We drive them into the secretive and the forbidden because we squander precious opportunities to guide them.

Harsh consequences don’t teach them to avoid bad decisions. They teach them to avoid us.

They need both: boundaries, held lovingly.

First, decide on the boundary. Boundaries aren’t about what we want them to do. We can’t control that. Boundaries are about what we’ll do when the rules are broken.

If the rule is, ‘Be respectful’ - they’re in charge of what they do, you’re in charge of the boundary.

Attend to boundaries AND relationship. ‘It’s okay to be angry at me. (Rel’ship) No, I won’t let you speak to me like that. (Boundary). I want to hear what you have to say. (R). I won’t listen while you’re speaking like that. (B). I’m  going to wait until you can speak in a way I can hear. I’m right here. (R).

If the ‘leadership’ part is hard, think about what boundaries meant for you when you were young. If they felt cruel or shaming, it’s understandable that that’s how boundaries feel for you now. You don’t have to do boundaries the way your parents did. Don’t get rid of the boundary. Add in a loving way to hold them.

If the ‘loving’ part is hard, and if their behaviour enrages you, what was it like for you when you had big feelings as a child? If nobody supported you through feelings or behaviour, it’s understandable that their big feelings and behaviour will drive anger in you.

Anger exists as a shield for other more vulnerable feelings. What might your anger be shielding - loneliness? Anxiety? Feeling unseen? See through the behaviour to the need or feeling behind it: This is a great kid who is struggling right now. Reject the behaviour, support the child.♥️

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