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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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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