Anxiety can feel brutal for so many young people. Sometimes the adults who care about them also get caught in the tailwhip of anxiety. We wonder if we should protect our young ones from the distress of anxiety while we wish they could see how magnificent and powerful they are.
Anxiety has a way of hiding their magic under stories of disaster, (‘What if something bad happens?’) and stories of deficiency, (‘I’m not brave enough/ strong enough for this.’). These stories are powerful. They drive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.
Any story we tell, or they tell, or society tells about anxiety being about breakage will continue to drive anxiety about the anxiety. This is where we, as their important adults, can support young people to feel bigger than the things that block their way.
Let’s change the story.
If we want children to recognise that they can feel anxious and do brave, we have to put a different story to the feeling of anxiety. As long as they are safe, let’s help them tell a story of strength.
Anxiety might tell them they aren’t enough – but we know they are enough. They are always enough. It will be difficult for them to believe this until they actually experience it.
Providing those experiences can feel brutal for any loving adult. When our children feel the distress of anxiety, the need to move them out of the way of that can feel seismic – but we don’t need to. Our job as their important adults isn’t to remove discomfort that comes from their anxiety but to give the experiences (when it’s safe) to recognise that they can handle that discomfort. Because they can. They can feel anxious and do brave. All brave, important growthful things will come with anxiety. That’s what makes them brave.
First, we introduce the language: ‘Is it scary-safe or scary dangerous?‘
Anxiety can mean danger (scary-dangerous), but most often, it will mean there is something brave or important they need to do (scary-safe). The problem is that anxiety will feel the same for both – for brave, growthful, important things (scary-safe) and dangerous things (scary-dangerous).
Anxiety can’t tell the difference between scary-safe and scary-dangerous. It’s like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from burnt toast and smoke from a fire. Just because a smoke alarm squeals at burnt toast, this doesn’t make it faulty. It’s doing exactly what we need it to do. The problem isn’t the alarm (or the anxiety) but the response.
Sometimes getting safe is exactly the right response, and sometimes moving forward with anxiety is. Their growth comes in knowing which response when.
When anxiety hits, ask them, ‘Is this scary-safe, or is this scary-dangerous?’. If they are safe, help them recognise that their anxiety is there because they are about to do something brave, or important, or something that matters. The existence of anxiety is exactly what makes it brave. Then ask, ‘What’s one little step you can take towards that brave, important thing?’
They need to know: Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not.
Anxiety is not a sign of breakage. It’s a sign of a strong, powerful, beautiful brain doing exactly what brains are meant to do: warn us of possible danger. ‘Danger’ isn’t about what is safe or not safe, but about what the brain perceives. ‘Danger’ can be physical or relational (anything that comes with any chance at all of humiliation, judgement, shame, exclusion, separation). Brave, new, hard things are full of relational threats – but they are safe. Scary, but safe.
If they are in danger, of course, we need to protect them from that. But as long as they are safe, our job isn’t to remove the discomfort of anxiety but to give them the experiences they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. Courage is not about the outcome, but about handling that discomfort. If they’ve handled that discomfort this week for longer than they did last week, then they’ve been brave enough. These are the profound, important, necessary foundations for recognising that they can feel anxious and do brave.
Anxiety is 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!
Anxiety doesn’t mean you don’t have brave in you. It never means that. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. It means you’re about to do something brave. The anxiety is what makes it brave.
Anxiety is a sign that you have a brain that is strong, healthy, and hardworking. Your brain is magnificent and doing a brilliant job of exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. You don’t feel like this because something is wrong with you or because something terrible is going to happen. You feel like this because you’re about to do something brave, something that matters.
Your brain is fabulous – the best – 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?’ Another way to ask this is, ‘Is this scary-dangerous, or scary-safe?’
- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be), or is this a time for me to be brave?’
The vital, growthful discovery for them is that they can feel anxious and do brave. ‘Yes, you are anxious, and yes, you are brave.’ ‘Yes, you are anxious, and yes, you are powerful.’
And the mantra for them: ‘I can feel anxious, and do brave.’
Take your time. There’s no hurry.
It doesn’t matter how small their brave steps are or how long it takes. Remember, our job isn’t to convince them they are brave, strong, amazing, but to provide the experiences that will show them. This will take time, and that’s okay. However hard anxiety hits, they will always have ‘brave’ in them, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.