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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Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

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