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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Honestly isn’t this the way it is for all of us though?♥️

#childanxiety #parenting #separationanxiety
Big feelings can be so beautiful. And so tricky. 

We want our kids to know that all feelings are okay, and we also want to support them to handle those feelings in positive ways. This is going to take time. We were all born with feelings, but none of us were born able to regulate those feelings. That will come with time and lots (lots!) of experience. 

In the meantime, the way we respond to their big feelings and the not-so-adorable behaviour it can drive, can be key in nurturing their social and emotional growth. So let’s talk about how.

Proactive Parents is a community event hosted by @mindfullaus . I’ll be providing parents, caregivers and educators with the skills and tools to better understand big feelings and the behaviour it fuels.

Understanding how to respond when young people are overwhelmed can drive calm and connection over conflict. Ultimately, our responses have enormous potential to build important neural pathways that will strengthen them for life.

This presentation will explore the powerful ways parents and carers can, quite literally, influence the strengthening of the brain in ways that will build self-control, emotional regulation, and resilience in their children for life.♥️

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We have to change the way we think about school. When we prioritise academics, it's like building the walls - because that's what we see - before fortifying the foundations.

So many teachers know this, but with the increased focus on reporting and academics, they aren't being given the time and opportunity to build the relationships that will ensure those foundations are strong and steady.

This is why too many kids are falling down at school - not because they aren't capable, but because the necessary foundations for them to do well haven't been laid.

Schools are spending the resources anyway, but reactively on behaviour management, disengagement, reduced capacity to learn.

If we can steer those resources towards building relational safety, so kids feel more seen, valued, cared for, rather than less capable or clever, we'll see a decrease increased academic success, greater engagement, less social struggles, and less behaviour issues. It's just how it is.

First though, we need to value relationships and the way kids feel at school, even more than how they do at school. All kids are capable of their own versions of greatness, but unless they feel safe and cared for at school, we just won't see what they are capable of, and neither will they.❤️
We also need to make sure our teachers feel seen, safe, cared for, valued. Our kids can’t be the best they can be without them.♥️
Separation can be tough! Not just for our kiddos but also for the adults who love them. 

As brutal as separation anxiety can feel, it also comes with transformative opportunities to strengthen your child and build their brave in ways that will serve them now and for the rest of their lives. 

Of course we’d rather our young ones (or ourselves) never feel the tailwhip of separation anxiety, but so many young people are going to experience anxiety at separation from a loved one. It’s part of being human, but it doesn’t have to hurt. 

As their important adult, you have a profound capacity to support them through separation anxiety and help them feel braver, stronger, and closer to you, even when you’re not beside them. Let’s talk about how.

This is information I wish every parent could have.

We want our children to feel loved and supported, but we also want to build their brave so anxiety doesn’t stand in the way of the important, growthful things they need to do.

In this 1.5 hour webinar, I’ll be presenting practical, powerful ways to build bravery when separation feels tough - at school, at bedtime, at drop-off - any time being away from you feels tough.

A recording of the webinar will be available to all registered participants for 30 days following the ‘live’ online event.

To register or find out more, google ‘hey sigmund webinar separation anxiety’ or see here https://www.heysigmund.com/upcoming-live-webinars/ ♥️

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