We have to change the way we talk about anxiety. Here’s why. And how.

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.

The conversation.

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.

One Comment

Kris K

Fantastic article that embraces the idea that what is good about a person is overactive and they can assess their own emotions to determine if the fear is safe or dangerous. So much treatment for anxiety relates to treating the symptoms rather than the problem / what I am telling myself.


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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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