Teaching Kids How To Set & Protect Their Boundaries Against Toxic Behaviour

Teaching Kids How to Set Boundaries and Keep Toxic People Out

Part of helping our kids to be the best they can be, sometimes means pointing out things they can do differently. They might not always be happy to receive the information – they’re no different to the rest of us like that. There’s a difference though – a big difference – between feedback that’s given with generous intent and that which fractures the child’s self-concept or self-esteem. Anything that causes shame, humiliation or the ‘shrinking’ of a child is toxic.

We’re here to grow our kids, to help them find flight, and to help them navigate around anything that might lead them to believe those wings of theirs are broken. Their wings are never broken, but the people who touch their lives sometimes are.

It’s not always easy to withdraw a child from a toxic adult, particularly if that adult is a teacher or a parent, but there are things we can do to strengthen the shield around them and teach them the skills that will protect them for life – because let’s be honest, toxic people will come and go throughout the healthiest of lives and it’s not unusual for them to latch on to people who are kind, generous or open.

Strength of character seems to be no barrier to their poison. Sometimes we won’t see them coming and the first we’ll know is that day we wake up and the world feels a little blacker. 

Strength and courage come in at the point of closing down to the influence of somebody who’s toxic. It’s in all of us to do this, and it’s up to us to give our kids a lamplight to find theirs, permission to use it, and modelling to show them how. 

First things first – is it really toxic?

Rule out other explanations for how your child is feeling. Is your child struggling with work and misreading the teacher’s response? Is your child sensitive to an adult’s tone or volume or abrasive manner? If the adult is like this with everyone, the behaviour is not necessarily toxic. It might not be friendly, but it’s not toxic. 

Also rule out that your child is not doing anything that keeps them under the spotlight. Is is a true case of being targeted by an adult, or is your child consistently talking or interrupting the class, the lesson, the training. How does the adult respond? The response should never be shaming or humiliating. Check this out by chatting with your child and the adult. Then keep an eye on things. Remember that one of the tools of the trade for toxic people is to blame other people for their own messed up behaviour.

[irp posts=”1062″ name=”Toxic People Affect Kids Too: Know the Signs and How to Explore a Little Deeper”]

Does the person involved have all the information?

Does the adult have all the information he or she needs to best look after your child? For example, are there things happening at home that might be affecting your child’s behaviour? Is your child a little bit anxious and prone to being sensitive to behaviour which would be inoffensive to most? Give the adult the benefit of the information. Most people will be pleased to receive the information as the last thing a non-toxic person would want to do is to unknowingly cause distress.

If the behaviour is toxic …

If you’ve established that it’s not an oversensitivity or anything the child is doing, here’s how to protect the little humans in your life (and you) from the people who might shrink them now, and against the toxic ones who might come later.

  1. First, withdraw support for the adult.

    We’re constantly told as parents to support the teacher, the other parent, the coach, and this is true but as with everything else, there’s a limit. When supporting the adult becomes supporting his or her toxic behaviour (the contamination of the child’s self-esteem, confidence or self-concept), it’s time to withdraw support. Let your child know that you don’t agree with the adult – whether it’s a teacher, coach or whoever, and that whatever was said or done should not have happened. 

  2. How to help them set strong boundaries between themselves and the ones who cause breakage.

    We hear the word ‘boundary’ a lot but what is it actually? A boundary is the line between what is me and what is not me; between what they think and what I think. With a strong boundary, there’s an acceptance that just because they think it/ feel it/ say it/ do it/ doesn’t mean I have to as well. Here are a few ideas for the words:

    ‘We all have a thing around us called a boundary, which is a line between ourselves and other people. You can’t see it but it’s there. It’s kind of like an invisible forcefield and it’s there to protect each of us from the people who feel bad to be around – not the ones who feel good to be around most of the time but sometimes get cranky or cross, but the ones who say mean things or do mean things that you just don’t deserve.

    You are completely in charge of that forcefield around you. You can decide when it goes up and when it comes down. You can decide what’s allowed in and what has to stay out. You’re the boss and you’ll always be the boss.

    Now, it’s still important to listen and learn from people when they remind you about things you need to do differently – it’s the secret of being awesome. Sometimes though, there might be people who do or say mean things so often that you never feel good when you’re around them. That’s when it’s okay to put your forcefield up. In fact, it’s one of the bravest things you can do. It’s important to respect other people, but it’s even more important to respect yourself first – and putting up your forcefield is one of the ways you can do this.

    We can’t control other people but we can control whether we let the mean things they say or do come close enough to hurt us. Being a kid is hard work – and you’re awesome at it.

    Everyone is responsible for how they treat other people, including grownups and you, but the person you have to treat the very best is yourself. Sometimes that means not listening to what other people might say about you.

    Sometimes you have to be your own hero and protect yourself from being hurt by people who don’t know the rules about being kind and respectful. This is important because you’re awesome – you’re clever, kind, funny brave and strong – and the world needs every bit of you.’

  3. ‘Did you know …?

    Toxic behaviour is often automatic. People do it without thinking about it or considering that there’s a better way to be. That’s not an excuse – not an all – but it can be an important way for your child to further take on the truth that the way someone is treating them actually has nothing to do with them at all.

    Kids will often tend to assume that adults know what they’re doing. Let them know that nobody is perfect – and that when it comes to how to ‘be’ with people, some adults don’t know what they’re doing at all.

    Here’s how to start the chat:

    ‘Did you know that a lot of the things we do are automatic? A lot of time, people just do things because it’s what they’ve always done. They don’t even think about it.
    What this means is that when people are mean and do things that feel bad for you, they haven’t stopped to think that there might be a better way to do it. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t had any adults in their lives to teach them when they were kids, so they grow up doing things that aren’t that great. The habit part of their brain does things before the kind part of their brain can say, ‘Hang on a second. You’ll hurt someone if you do that to them.’

    Our behaviour depends on many different parts of our brain working together and sometimes, they don’t work together that well. It’s important to know that people’s brains can change. Just because someone is mean to you now, doesn’t mean that person will always be mean to you – but you don’t have to wait for that to put your forcefield up. Nope. Not at all.’

  4. ‘No!’ It’s the best word in the universe when you use it the right way.

    ‘For such a little word, saying ‘no’ can feel really hard sometimes but the thing is, it can be the bravest, most powerful word in the universe. It can take strength and courage to say but you have plenty of that. If somebody is asking you to do something that feels bad, wrong, or embarrassing, it’s always okay to say, ‘No’. It can be a hard word to say because you might worry about what people will think of you if you say it, but if they’re asking you to do something that feels bad, then what they think of you already doesn’t matter. Listen to that little voice inside you. If it’s telling you something doesn’t feel right, then listen. I’ll always back you up on that because I trust that little voice of yours, and you need to trust it too.’

  5. Don’t let them change you.

    Help your kids to see the importance of preserving their own character and the great things about them in the face of the things that might change them.

    ‘There’s a bully and a hero in all of us and it’s important not to become a bully when you’re dealing with bullies. This isn’t always easy. You might feel sad or angry or scared and want to hurt the person who has hurt you – but you’re better than that. Respecting yourself doesn’t mean disrespecting other people. Be kind. Be caring. Be strong. But that doesn’t mean you have to like them.

    It’s completely okay to forgive people who are mean. In fact, it’s a very strong thing to do, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept these people back if you don’t think they deserve you. Just understand that there are so many reasons that people do mean things, and none of them are because of the person you are. You’re awesome. We already know that. Mean people weren’t born mean. Something happened to change them that way. Probably something pretty awful. Just don’t let that happen to you.’

  6. Your happiness doesn’t depend on what someone else thinks of you.

    ‘The truth is, nobody will ever know everything about you. If it’s someone who says mean things and who feels bad to be around, that sort of person will really never know the best of you and actually, they don’t deserve to. They’ll never know how funny you are, how kind you are, the amazing way you think about things, how brave, smart and strong you are and how crazy good you are to be around when you trust the people you’re with.’

  7. Stay calm.

    Your child needs to know that you’ve got this. The worst thing you can do is anything that will cause them to regret telling you. You’ll probably feel angry and upset – that’s completely understandable! – but just don’t get angry and upset in front of them. It’s so important not to do anything that might cause them to feel as though they need to look after you.

  8. Be their voice.

    Sometimes we have to be the voice for our children, particularly in relationships where theirs is the quieter, softer and less powerful. When it’s time to talk to the adult involved, start by being curious and open: ‘Is there something my child is doing that he or she needs to improve on?’ Then, keep emotion out of it and stick to specific data, ‘I’d like to talk to you about something you might not be aware of …’ 

    You’ll have more chance of being effective if you can limit the likelihood of a defensive reaction. That means not going on the attack. You’ll want to, but don’t. Stick to the facts. Share the information you have about how the behaviour is affecting your child or their capacity to work, train, be: ‘When you do [ … ], [ … ] happens. I understand that you might not mean anything by it and you might not even realising it’s happening, but it’s just not getting the best result.’

    Ask how the person plans to address things for the future. If they aren’t prepared to do anything, go to someone higher up than them or, if you can, take your child out of their hands – they don’t deserve the influence. No adult has to like your child but if they don’t, they need to keep that to themselves and not let the child know. And that’s a big ‘Don’t argue’ to the adult. No child should have to manage the feelings of an adult.

  9. And when it’s peer friendships.

    Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us or who are ready to move in a different direction. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can have our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older. 

‘Sometimes people just aren’t able to be the way you would like them to be. It’s okay – really okay – to leave friendships that feel bad more than they feel good. In fact, it’s important. There are people out there who will love you so much and love being with you just the way you are, and letting go of the people who feel bad to be around will make room for the ones who feel good to be with. 

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that how awesome you are depends on the number of friends you have. It doesn’t. Not at all. Sometimes people with less friends are the most amazing people you could ever meet – it’s just that they’re waiting for the right people to find them. And that’s completely okay. Being on your own doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you – it certainly doesn’t mean that! It means that you know what’s right for you and you know you deserve someone who makes the effort to find out the wonderful things about you – and that is totally awesome.

There are plenty of people who will love your socks off when they get to know you and who will want to be around you. They just have to find you, and you them, which you will. But the most important things is not to stay with people who are mean because you’re scared of being on your own. Being on your own can feel lonely, but being around the wrong sort of people feels even lonelier, and completely awful.

And finally …

Kids are clever. They know what’s going on and they’re intuitive. When they say something is off, it usually is. Ask them for information. Ask them for their opinion. Ask them what they think you should do and let them know that you understand. Kids just want to be our heroes too, but more importantly, they all have it in them to be their own.

[irp posts=”160″ name=”How to Help Your Children Build Healthier Friendships (and Deal with the Tetchy Ones)”]




Hi Karen,
Having read this article I am wanting to know How ‘I’ can stop being the toxic adult in my child’s life?
I would like to be a positive influence, react instinctively in a positive way and assist my child with peer issues and self confidence.
Currently I react in an overbearing way or with negative commentary which I would like to change with immediate results. Where do I start change and how for immediate and long term results?

Karen Young

I love that you are looking for a new way to be with your children – none of us were born knowing how to parent and there are always ways to grow as a parent. Perhaps the most important thing to try is validating your children’s behaviour. It’s so important for kids (for all of us really) to feel heard. Kids don’t do the wrong thing to be annoying or bad – they always have a good reason, even if they have a dreadful way of going about it. Here is an article that will hopefully explain a way to deal with this https://www.heysigmund.com/most-important-skill-to-teach-your-child/. Here is another article about how to enforce strong boundaries, without shaming https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-avoid-shaming/. I hope these help. Be patient and kind with yourself. The changes don’t have to happen straight away, and they don’t have to happen all at once.

Laura D

I was really happy to find this article. I was looking for something that talked about helping kids create and hold boundaries of their own but all I could find were articles about putting boundaries on kids.
My niece has recently had several incidents with friends at school where they have been violating her boundaries. They then get mad at her or the situation gets blown up and she always ends up feeling like she is the problem and has expressed the opinion that everything would be better without her around. In the most recent case one of her friends kissed her after being told she didn’t like her like that and didn’t want to be kissed. Her friend then told her that a voice in her head made her do it. She send my niece a nasty message telling her that she wanted nothing to do with her and to not expect her to hang out with her. My niece was ok with this until she heard that one of their mutual friends was having a hard time. She tried to tell the first friend so that both of them could be supportive but she just got a nasty look and a “bugger off”. She was upset about that and told another friend after telling him that she just wanted him to be a friendly shoulder and not to do anything. He ignored her request and ran off and told other people so people ended up angry at each other. My niece ended up in the principal’s office because she was so upset. No one seems to be teaching kids to respect each other’s boundaries or how to handle them themselves.


Thank you for this article. I have two children, 16 and 13 and they have been close to my parents their whole life, especially my father. My mother had a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father who was also physically and emotionally abusive. She has always been what I would call a “tough” nanna. Certainly warm and loving and always very firm with the discipline of my children when they were in her care. My kids always look forward to spending time at their holiday house during school holidays but in recent times (the last 3-4 years) she has become increasingly angry and frustrated by their behaviour at times. Yes they fight and bicker with each other from time to time but this seems to really aggravate her and she calls them horrible names and uses verbal put-downs to make them feel useless and stupid.

The most recent was yesterday when she went completely ballistic at them and basically threatened physical abuse. I was shocked and completely saddened when they arrived home this morning and told me this. She acts like nothing is wrong when she drops them home and I know my father is walking on egg shells around her as it seems the littlest thing will set her off these days. I have gotten to the point where I just don’t feel like I can leave them alone with her as she seems to take out any frustration on them. I must add though that this is not a regular occurrence and maybe happens every 6-12 months in a big way. Other times she belittles them or makes snide comments but isn’t usually so verbally abusive. I have tolerated her behaviour for so long as despite it all my kids love their grandparents and especially my Dad and I just feel awful not letting them see them. I keep hoping she will mellow with age but if anything she is getting worse.

Beth J

I so appreciate this article. I’m a grandmother to 2 little boys . My daughter in law tries to divide the older child against me . She says only she loves him, threw away a toy dinosaur I gave him, tells him he can’t get a hug from me ( he’s 4 years old). She’s told him she doesn’t like me.
My son believes none of this .
I’m polite to the mother and if we’re all together I remain in the background as the little boy is afraid to interact with me in her presence .
It’s excruciating for me .
When I have the child alone I spend time reading and playing as he gets his scared and angry feelings out using toys. He’s afraid to color because mommy says he doesn’t do it right . He’s afraid because she tells him there’s ghosts and zombies who will hurt him.
He clings to her anxiously but when he and I are alone he’s active and talkative and expressive . I tell him that Mommy can believe what she likes ( ghosts) but I do not .
I need so much support. He’s a very little boy and I’m doing as much as I can to be a safe presence for him.
We can’t really talk a lot about what’s going on because he’s so young -although we do communicate through play.
If you have any great ideas for a now 5 year old child please please share.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Beth it sounds as though you are a wonderfully strong and supportive presence in the lives of your two grandsons. Keep doing what you’re doing – loving him, being available for him and doing what you can to show him how important he is to you. It is difficult to do anything to change anyone else’s behaviour, but don’t underestimate the influence you will be having by being a close, loving adult. Your wisdom and presence, and your kind, inclusive, attentive way of being will be so important to both of these little men, modelling to them the values that will be important to them as they grow into young men.


Hi. Finding this article has been a godsend! My teenage daughter had a recent experience at a school sporting event. Immediately after my daughter had a conversation with her coach about her disappointment in her performance and asking for advice to improve, another child’s parent who had heard the conversation had a go at my teenage daughter in front of her friends, telling her that she needed to realise that the world didn’t revolve around her, and that she needed to stop focusing on herself and should be celebrating others successes. This is the mother of her best friend!?!

Obviously my daughter was devastated, crying and confidence shattered. I tried to console her by saying things like she probably didn’t mean it, maybe she is having a bad day, don’t take it personally etc, whilst inside I was just as shocked and devastated as she was.

Afterwards the parent came up to me and asked if my daughter was okay, I was honest and said she was quite upset by what had been said, to which the parent replied, ‘we’ve had enough, she’s been having a go at my daughter all week.’ Again I was shocked. I tried to respond but the parent stated she was not having this conversation now and has not spoken to me since.

The background to this is that my daughter and her daughter have been best friends for years and train and compete for the same sports team. The girl’s relationship has had ups and downs and I have noticed the daughter to have become very argumentative this year. The parent and I have always helped each other out with transport. Until recently, my daughter has always been more successful, but after a recent growth spurt, her daughter has become more successful this year. Swings and roundabouts. Interestingly, in reflection I realise that when my daughter was the more successful one, there was little if any acknowledgement from the other parent – which I had put down to competitiveness and not really worried about. I now also realise that perhaps I should have listened when my daughter would come home from being with this parent and tell me about little snide remarks the parent would make directed towards her that I used to brush off and tell her she was being oversensitive.

Since then my daughter has been around this parent due to prearranged transport prior to the incident, and according to my daughter the parent has continued to be demonstrate what I would describe as passive-aggressive behaviour towards my daughter. Such as ignoring her whilst being overenthusiastic towards others. Turning off the internet while my daughter is using it. My daughter has been calling me and asking for moral support. It is now at the point where my daughter does not want to go in the car or in the house of this parent.

I have tried really hard to not join this parent on her low road. I have tried to say things to my daughter such as we don’t know what is going on in their personal lives, maybe they have had bad news or having some stressful life events. I have been advising don’t take it personally. My daughter has noticed that this parent no longer speaks to me or sits with me.

I’m really stuck with how to proceed here. Obviously I am furious that another person, let alone an adult, could treat my daughter like this but I do not want to stoop to her level. Do I try to talk with her? I can’t see this being productive given her ongoing toxic behaviour. Do I just hope time and space will be the healer? Anyone had any similar situations? How did you deal with it? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Many thanks in advance.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though you are dealing with this very difficult and confusing situation really well. The most important thing is to let your daughter know that you are 100% behind her. Of course it’s important to chat with her about whether or not there is anything she needs to do differently, but whether or not there are any lessons for her to learn about her own behaviour, it’s never okay for another adult to make any child feel less than. Let your daughter know that it is understandable that she is upset/ angry etc. I really believe that sometimes we need to be a voice for our children. Name the behaviours the other person is doing that you find unacceptable. It doesn’t mean it will change anything, but it might. Sometimes when behaviours are named, people find it more difficult to let themselves get away with continuing them. If your daughter doesn’t want to be with the other parent, it’s important to honour that for her. She knows she doesn’t feel safe and secure with this other adult. We want our kids to trust their judgement on the people who feel good or otherwise to be with, and to nurture that, they need to see us listening to that and validating their concerns. It’s a tricky situation, but it’s also an opportunity for your daughter to learn that she can choose the people she has around her, and how to deal with this. The lesson for her is that she doesn’t have to be with people who feel bad to be around, but she does need to be respectful. It’s not about what they deserve, but about the type of person she is – respectful, kind, brave and strong, with solid judgement and intuition.


Your article is informative, full of positivity and yet manages to be moving all at the same time. Gave me so much to think about on my way to work while reading this. Thank u for this precious words.


Loved reading this and I can’t wait to talk about these things with my children. I am divorced from a toxic person and have been looking for ways to help my children discern the behavior they see in their dad and how to handle it. This also will help them understand why I left their dad and why I’ve limit the visitation. I’ve been telling them mom and dad disagree more than they agree, but it’s so vague. Setting boundaries out of self respect and self love teaches them a much more powerful idea. Thank you so much ?


My husband is a recently diagnosed bipolar who has been been verbally abusive to me and our daughters. He is working on his behavior, but the damage has been done.

My oldest daughter is 17 and has been attending dance classes since she was 4. It is a small studio and her ballet teacher is both the owner and the primary teacher. I have long suspected that the teacher was mentally ill and it was recently confirmed that she is bipolar. The students are used to moodiness and “sick” days. The teacher has decided to focus all her wrath and frustration on the top level class which my daughter and her friends are in.

The first 3 days of class were long lectures about their failings and much of it was focused on how they are “too quiet”, don’t give her anything back and she stated she is “pissed”. The teacher has long used the upper level classes as a form of therapy where she shares inappropriately.

In one of the recent classes, she picked out my daughter as an example of how the class hates her. My daughter was with friends and ran into her dance teacher downtown. The teacher said hi and my daughter smiled back. The teacher saw them in a shop later and publically berated her for not acknowledging her. My daughter said she smiled, but by then she was humiliated in front of her friends. This incident was used in front of her class with her name. This caused my daughter to cry and then leave the room where she had a panic attack. She was out of the room for over twenty minutes and no one checked on her.

The dance teacher later sent her a non apology saying she thought it was a funny story (because she was playing Pokemon) and didn’t think it would upset her. The teacher went on to say that the whole class hates her and thinks she is a bad guy.

I have requested a meeting with the teacher. I am concerned about my daughter and the entire class. I know from personal experience that bipolar people tend to think of themselves as victims as they lash out and hurt the people around them. I have deliberately waited a week to meet because of the strong emotions involved. I also know that I do have to express some sympathy, even though I do not feel it is the students’ role to fulfill the unmet emotional needs of the teacher.

Your articles and advise resonate with me. I would appreciate any advice on how to navigate a meeting with an unstable person. My thought is to discuss my daughter’s panic disorder as a medical condition and then go into Quiet revolution talk, ie., it might be frustrating to have an introverted class but that is their personality and they express themselves through dance.

I don’t know what the “ask” is. She may agree to try to be less cruel, but her capacity to hold on to grudges is legendary.

P.S. I wish it was easy to just drop the class/studio.

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Claire it’s great that you are going to have a conversation with the teacher, but my concern is the teacher’s obvious lack of compassion and empathy. This isn’t something you will be able to change in a conversation. The teacher sounds as though she has a limited capacity for self-reflection, and worse than this, twists situations to be what she needs them to be. As a teacher, she has a lot of influence over your daughter. In other circumstances, I would say absolutely discuss your daughter’s panic disorder and give the teacher all of the information they need. In this case though, given the lack of empathy, compassion and remorse, my concern is that any discussion of your daughter’s panic disorder will be used in the future against her, ‘she’s oversensitive/ takes things the wrong way/ not open to feedback’ etc – that sort of thing. My concern is that whatever you say will be twisted and used against you or your daughter. It sounds as though there has been limited honesty up to now from the teacher and that isn’t likely to change.

If it was me, my first move would be to make sure the teacher didn’t have contact with my daughter. If removing her from the school isn’t an an option, I would be much firmer with what I expect from the teacher in relation to my daughter. Regardless of whether or not your daughter has panic disorder and is an introvert, the teacher’s behaviour is wrong. Let this be the focus of your conversation without focussing on your daughter. Nothing your daughter has done makes the teacher’s behaviour understandable and okay. Introverts in a class can be an absolute strength, and not something the teacher should have to adapt to.

There may be fallout from a conversation like this as she is unlikely to take on any awareness or insight. Given that, the alternative may be to skip the conversation altogether (I would be concerned there is nothing in it for you, given the teacher’s behaviour) and work on strengthening your daughter. Be honest her daughter about the teacher’s behaviour. Let her know that it’s unacceptable and is more a reflection of what is going on for the teacher, rather than anything your daughter is doing wrong. Give your daughter the option to leave and if she doesn’t want her, let her know how important it is that she doesn’t take take the teacher’s behaviour personally because there are separate things going on for the teacher that are directing her behaviour. Build her up and empower her to see the teacher’s behaviour for what it is. At 17, it is an opportunity for her to learn how to deal with difficult people without letting it hurt her.

I hope that helps and wish your daughter all the best.

Lois Parkison

Wow, Karen! I am so impressed with this article–clear explanations and helpful tools. Looking forward to exploring your site further and plan to share this article with others through social media. ‘Boundaries’ are such an important concept and one that I’ve been exploring in my own work (as a psychiatrist and blogger) recently too.

Hey Sigmund

Thanks Lois! I absolutely agree with you – boundaries are vital. A happy, healthy life is as much about who we let in as it is about who we keep out. Such an important topic – if you would ever like to guest post please let me know!


This was the most amazing and helpful information. I feel confident in my abilities as a mother. I have two older children in their late 20”s and now I have a 12yr old son and a 10yr old daughter. Their father was recently arrested for domestic violence against me. I now have to deal with these boundary issues with them and their father. Thankfully I have a restrain order against him. But the children are still required to visit with him. What’s difficult is not how to teach them these boundaries, but how to help them overcome their fear of gim. I understand where the fear comes from and why they feel it. He’s an angry verbally and emotionally abusive man. I have taught and said the same words in your wonderful article. But I can’t seen to figure out how to teach them to move past the fear to speaking up for themselves to him. For example, our 10yr old daughter is starting puberty and her underarm oder is very strong. Her father just tells her she stinks, I can’t stand how you smell go shower. Or our 12yr old son, doesn’t care for aikido. But their fathers remark is, ‘I don’t care if you like it or not, you’re going because I said so.’ Or, suck it up Dylan, their are a lot of bullies in school. Or, Why are you doing that? Are you even thinking? I do understand their fear, as I felt it for the 13yrs I stayed. How do I teach them to move past it?

Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though your children both have a very good reason to feel scared of their father. Sometimes fear can be healthy and protective and drive the very behaviours needed to keep us safe. If their father is violent, it is likely that it is not safe for them to speak up. What’s sad about their situation is that it is a relationships they are being forced to maintain, but given this, it is probably in their best interests to stay quiet in order to avoid the possibility of a violent confrontation. Acknowledge this for them. Build them up in other ways. Let them know how brave and strong they are, and how smart they are to be able to know when to speak up and when not to. The important thing then is letting them know that this isn’t how it should always be with people. You have a really important role here. Let them know that it’s okay to question you sometimes and to speak up – as long as they are respectful of course. Nurture their voice, but acknowledge that there are times to use it and times to keep it quiet, such as when using that voice might get them in a lot of trouble. Let them know that when they are able, the relationships in which they don’t a voice are the ones to walk away from if they can, but if they can’t, staying quiet is a really healthy, strong way to adapt to that situation. Ask their opinion and let it be different to yours sometimes. Let them know that their voice is strong and important and that it deserves to be heard.

The point is, it might not be a good idea for them to move past their fear with the father as it might put them at risk, but the message is that this is a one-off and not at all representative of the way they should ordinarily be in relationships. Build their independnet minds and their voices whenever you can. Nurture them and lift them up and teach them how to do this for themselves. Let them know how great they are at ‘managing their father’ so they can feel more empowered and less like victims. If your daughter’s underarm odour is strong, letting her buy a deodorant can be an opportunity to show her that this is one way to love and nurture herself. This becomes particularly important when love and nurturing from the environment is scarce, as it may be with her father. For both of your children, acknowledge that what they are hearing from their father and that it is important that they don’t believe it. You sound as though you have incredible strength and insight – you have enormous power to give your brave, beautiful children what their father might try to take away.


Loved this article! The question I have is, what to do about my child’s friend (they are both 7), who doesn’t have boundaries at home and doesn’t seem to recognize that friendships need boundaries to function optimally. She smothers my daughter by being in her space all the time when they are together, to the point that they get worked up into a frenzy and end up saying hateful things to each other. How would one go about helping the other child recognize what healthy boundaries look like? They have to be separated at school at times, because the other child tries to hug my daughter one minute, and is eventually shouting, “I hate you!” My daughter just doesn’t know what to do about her friend. She tries to be her friend because others don’t want to be, but it is all confusing to her.

Hey Sigmund

I completely understand why this is so confusing for your daughter. It might be worth speaking to the teacher, not to complain about the other child but to get support for her. Kids will do the very best with what they have but if they don’t realise what they are doing, they can’t change it. She needs support and guidance and the right information in order to be able to manage her relationships better. It’s important for her because it sounds as though her behaviour is getting in the way of her friendships. Often the teachers will be able to get the support of parents or the school counsellor and work through this with the child. Make it clear that you aren’t wanting to make a complaint about the child but you do want to get her the support she needs for her sake and also for your daughter’s sake. Your daughter can’t manage this alone, and she shouldn’t have to, and there is a limit to what you can do with someone else’s child. This other little person can grow to have really healthy friendships – she just needs to be guided in the right direction.


Hey Sigmund

My friend sent me your link, this is insightful and refreshing, what a super forum. I would appreciate your view on what would be an appropriate response to when ones partner puts you down in front of his children and /or when he accuses me falsely on the phone in front of them and I’m not there in person to see their reaction. I’m concerned as I feel they don’t respect me as now his son name calls me too which is embarressing and concerning? Please could you kindly refer me to previous discussions if this has been discussed before? Sincere thanks

Hey Sigmund

What your partner is doing is so wrong. If you can, stop the conversation when it starts to feel disrespectful. Let him know that you want to hear what he has to say, but only when he can have the conversation without putting you down. Until then, let the conversation be over. Let him know, in front of the children, that you’re not okay with being put down. Say it calmly and gently. There is nothing wrong with the children seeing you set a boundary, provided that it is set calmly and with a view to making things better. It is clearly unacceptable for your partner’s son to call you names. Let your partner know how you feel and ask that he speak to his son about the way he treats you. It will be difficult to bring about change if you don’t have your partner’s support, and if you don’t have it, you would have to wonder why. Discuss with your partner what the consequences will be for his son’s name calling. This is important for his son as well as for you. Your partner might be okay with his son calling people names, but the world won’t be and tends to return serve eventually. I hope this helps. Know that you deserve respect and that when it’s not happening, you deserve the right to ask for it or walk away. I hope this helps.


Thank you for this. I am a mom who was sexually abused as a child and I now have two little girls. Making sure this doesn’t happen to them literally dominates my thoughts every day. This article has produced several great tools for my “arsenal”. Which, let’s be honest, sometimes it feels like you need an arsenal to help protect your kiddos these days! My oldest is three and I am really starting to realize that I can’t do all of the protecting for them forever. There will be times, in the future, when I will have to trust them to have and respect their own boundaries. I am trying to wrap my head around this concept. Right now, I just watch every interaction with them like a hawk. My past abuse was perpetrated by a family member…and it really messes with your head.. So even, or especially, when we are around family, I feel like I am always on a hidden state of alert for them. And so starting this conversation with even a three year old seems like a very good idea (my youngest is 9 months). I have always made sure that my oldest knows what physical boundaries from adults or older kids are and that her dad and I will always support her and believe her if someone makes her feel uncomfortable…but the way you role-played some of the conversations here…this will definitely be going in my ‘Conscious Parenting’ file! I guess I’ve been hyper-focused on making sure to help her with physical boundaries, sometimes I forget that there will be plenty of situations where emotional boundaries can be crossed as well.

Thank you for this.

Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Jen. You’re so aware of the issues because of what you’ve been though. I completely understand why protecting your little ones would dominate your thoughts the way it does. You’re doing everything right. Your kids are in amazing hands.


Such a moving & powerful article, Thank you. This is exactly what I needed to read to help my 7 year old daughter who is going through this with a toxic friendship, which has spilled over to the mother of this child being toxic to my daughter as well. I can’t wait until she gets home now, to give her the encouragement & reinforcement you have provided for me. Thank so very much!

Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Louise. I hope this will empower your daughter to deal with the difficult people who have found their way into her life.

A Mom

I just stumbled onto this article through a board I follow annonymously. My girls’ (ages 12 & 8) father is BPD with narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies, and has successfully removed them from their therapist – again – after he was reported to CPS – again. at any rate, can you recommend some books that might help me help my kids in the meantime? Many thanks in advance.

Hey Sigmund

I’m sorry to hear that you and your girls are going through this. I haven’t personally read any kids’ books that I can recommend but there is a comment in this thread from Jayneen Sanders who has written kids’ books around boundaries. Here is the link if you want to check them out http://www.somesecrets.info. The most important thing is the conversations you have with your girls – especially the incidental ones – in the car, while you’re sitting with them at bedtime, when they’re standing next to you while you cook. Whatever they go through with their dad, every positive experience with you will push against it. The more positive experiences they have with you, the more it will act to rewire their view of themselves and the memories they are quickest to access. It must be difficult watching someone like this with your girls, but know that you can make the difference.


A superb article, which gave me a lot to consider. I like the idea of an invisible forcefield that you have control over.


I found this article very helpful. My son us 16 and has struggled for many years with bullying and from this it has impacted our home life significantly. Being a single mum is hard but the bullying has bough out anger issues and extremely low self esteem with an attempt of suicide. He has always been very sensitive and feeling he isn’t fitting in. It is his best mate who calls him fat and ugly and the rest of the group joins in. I am very saddened about my situation and all bullying. Life shouldn’t be like this for our kids. Please keep the information coming. Although we continue with counselling etc this sort of information is very helpful understanding the issues and helping us deal with it.

Hey Sigmund

Hi Jenny, I’m so sorry your son is going through this. You’re absolutely right – our kids should never have to through anything like this. It’s so easy right now for your son to think the environment he’s in and the people he’s with represents the world. The truth is, those people and that environment represents parts of the world – the toxic, depleted, ugly parts, but there are also places where he will fit in beautifully and where there will be people who will love him for exactly who he is. What are the qualities in your son that are different to the bullies? These are the ones for him to focus on and value because these are the ones that will set him up for a successful life and healthy relationships with people who deserve him. The qualities that make bullies bullies might make them seem powerful now, but the truth is that they will only lead to heartache for them later on if they don’t change.

It’s also important thing for your son to know that people aren’t born cruel. Without exception something happens to make them that way. The other thing for him to know is that people can also change. Here is an article that might help you out https://www.heysigmund.com/the-proven-way-to-build-resilience/ . (It’s about work that was done with year 9 kids so just ignore the photo of the little girl.) It’s work done around mindset, which is a fast-growing field in psychology, and how the belief that people can actually change is something that can protect kids and help them to build resilience. It includes the ‘how-to’ as well.

It sounds as though you are doing a great job being there for your son. Don’t underestimate the difference you’re making by pushing back against what they would otherwise have him believe about himself. I’m so pleased you found Hey Sigmund and that the articles are helpful. It takes a village doesn’t it.


What if the toxic adult is a caregiver to the child? I know of a number of situations in split families where one parent is concerned about how to help their child deal with the toxic behavior of the other parent. How do we teach our children to protect themselves from emotionally and psychologically abusive behaviour, and at the same time allow the child to maintain a relationship with the parent or caregiver? The first step seems to be giving them the knowledge to recognize abusive patterns. But once the child recognizes these, how do we help the child to navigate the relationship?

Hey Sigmund

When the toxic person is a caregiver helping the child to navigate through the relationship comes down to awareness, permission and courage – awareness as to why people think the way they think and do the things they do, permission to challenge what that person thinks and does, and the courage to have their own mind and view of the world in a way that is healthy for them.

It’s important to do this without judging or attacking the caregiver. Kids still need to feel as though they are free to love and have a relationship with their caregivers if they want to. If it’s a parent, the risk is that by attacking the character of the other parent, the child will absorb some of that for themselves – ‘I’m part of him/her so maybe I’m bad too’. It’s important to keep having the conversations around the behaviour of the toxic person and their impact on the child – that’s how you will navigate them through the relationship – but it’s critical to stick to the facts and deliver them without judgement.

You can’t control what the toxic caregiver says or does or withdraw the child from the relationship, so it comes down to empowering the child against the toxic behaviour. Children have the capacity from a young age to understand that people can have different intentions to them and a different mind to them. When it comes to parents, there is often an assumption by children that parents are always right. What’s helpful is teaching children that what people do or say is coloured by many things – their history, their life circumstances – and that for many things there is no truth, just opinion. An important lesson for children is that they can love people and care about them, but that doesn’t mean they have to take on what those people say as their own beliefs and values. People have all sorts of reasons for doing and thinking as they do and often none of them have anything to do with the the truth about the child’s character or behaviour.

I believe that it’s important to strongly challenge toxic thinking, and to teach our children to do the same, but without being personally judgemental of the person. Giving kids the power, the permission and the tools to challenge the way other people (including you) think and feel in a way that’s respectful, without judgement, and that comes from generous intent (not just to get out of doing a chore, for example) is a way to teach them how to have healthy, loving relationships that nourish rather than deplete them.


Oh I absolutely love this article. So much gold in this and a topic I feel incredibly passionate about, so relevant to all families at some point in time throughout their life. Thank you for your wise and powerful words. Wonderful x

Hey Sigmund

Thank you Elisha! Yes, at some point most of us will have someone in our lives who could so easily do damage – they having a way of finding the good hearts, don’t they x

Catriona Coles

I’m a new foster carer and have a 13 yr old boy in my care now. He has been so hurt by toxic relationships and I realise that he compensates for this by building imaginary instances in his past so as to appear more “. “normal”. It’s totally heartbreaking to witness the negative impact that toxic relationships can have on those so young who should be enjoying their youth but take on the responsibility of trying to “fix” the adults in their life. I’m trying to get him involved in as many sporty clubs as I can where I hope he will experience positive involvement, affirmation and make friends that are “keepers”. It’s such a difficult age when they can be independent one minute and totally dependent the next, he wants to be grown up but needs to embrace being a child again.

I’ve taken a lot out of your article and will try to implement this approach when we talk. Just playing with him just now, be it darts, a bike ride or watching him doodle or play a team game will, I hope, start to build a confidence of himself again, an acceptance of his good qualities and pride in the talents he has.

Your insight into the child’s mind and suggesting an approach that strengthens their own “force field” is so clever, thank you.

Hey Sigmund

Catriona, what you are doing is so important. You are potentially, quite literally, not just changing a life but changing a person. The imaginary instances are a really adaptive way to deal with his past hurt, and that’s completely okay. They will likely go when he doesn’t need them anymore. We know the brain is capable of changing and one of the most powerful ways to do this is through relationships. Every time your foster child experiences something positive in his relationship with you it will be working to create new stronger and easier accessed memories and sense of self. The time you’re spending with him, the conversations you have along the way and his involvement in sport will all contribute to this in a huge way. You are a wonderful, life changing influence.

Catriona Coles

Thank you for your encouragement.
I know it’s one step at a time and I hope he takes the opportunity to grow and benefit from the choices open to him now.
I’ve been told that kids in care often hold fierce loyalties to their family members, even if they have been negative influences in their lives. My hope is that in the years he can be with me he forms a strong positive self image and builds his “force field” to protect himself.
Thanks again, you’re doing a great job providing tools for parents to use with their children. Well done.

Nicole C


You state that making up lies about the past is an “OK” way to deal with the hurtful truth of his past…and that he will stop when he doesn’t need them anymore. Shouldn’t she encourage him to not lie? I’d be concerned of the possibility of him becoming a sociopath if he isn’t encouraged to be truthful. Sounds to me like he is in great hands now, with a supportive and loving parent(s) who will give him the opportunity to feel accepted as is. I understand that over time, his brain (way of thinking) may change due to stronger and more trusting relationships he will have…I just wanted some clarification whether or not a parent should discourage lying (call him out and obviously not in front of others)…and explain why lies are a horrible cycle that does no good for anyone. I can’t see this type of coping mechanism as healthy at any point in life.

Also, just the fact that you are exploring this subject, Catriona, shows that you will do a wonderful job with your foster son!

Hey Sigmund

Nicole this is a really good question. Two of the major difference between this situation and lying lies are intent and function. When the reality of a child’s life is brutal, replacing that reality with something that is easier to accept is a really healthy way to adapt. In a way, it is a form of denial, and denial is an adaptive way of dealing with something threatening and potentially damaging until the mind and the body are able to process it in a more manageable way. It’s why the first stage of grief is often denial. It’s not lying, it’s pushing away the reality of the situation until the mind is able to process it.

This young man is creating imaginary events to protect himself from the reality of what he has been through. Lying is to avoid responsibility for a behaviour. In a way, it’s similar to children who create imaginary friends. They don’t do this to avoid responsibility, but to experiment with their emerging social skills, to feel less lonely, to be more like older siblings who have real friendships – all healthy reasons.

The intention is critical and shouldn’t be compared to a lying. If a child is exposed to a toxic, brutal environment, the memories that come from that could potentially do serious damage to a mind that isn’t ready for that reality. We can’t simply ‘not think’ about things. By replacing these things with something safer, there is less likelihood of rumination and re-traumatisation – both of which could do serious damage. Forcing a child to let go of these defenses before he or she is ready will potentially cause painful, damaging memories to flood back and cause further trauma. This is why it is so important to understand the intention behind the imaginary incidences and not force anything upon the child.

Eventually, when children (and adults in similar situations) feel safe enough, the mind starts to let go of the defenses it has used to hold back the reality of a damaging past. Hopefully this happens in the context of a supportive, stable environment where there is less chance of re-traumatisation and the capacity to provide some sort of context to the events (‘you didn’t deserve this’, ‘this should never have happened’, ‘you’re safe now,’ ‘I’m here for you,’).

So – to answer your question, the intention is key. If a child is lying to avoid responsibility or to get themselves out of trouble, or perhaps put someone else in it, this is the time to pick them up. If the intention of the story is to have it replace something that the mind would understandably have trouble processing (such as abuse, abandonment, neglect), then this is something that the child should not be forced to give up before he or she is ready and has the necessary support in place.

Hope this helps to make sense of things. It’s why parenting is so difficult – so much gray!


I really needed this article today. My daughter has been ousted from a group of friends by one particular girl. The parent doesn’t see her daughter doing anything wrong. The girl just replaced my daughter with another girl. My daughter has been so hurt watching them all hang out together and not ask her to be involved in anything. I told her she doesn’t need friends like that and to move on with others. There are plenty more girls who love her just the way she is. She doesn’t need to please anyone or stop talking to a boy at this age because one of them might like him. Absolutely ridiculous. They are too young to be behaving in such a manner. Parents need to understand and see when their child is being mean and inconsiderate of another child’s feelings.

Hey Sigmund

Melissa, I’m so pleased this article found it’s way to you. What your daughter is going through shouldn’t happen to anyone. I’m sorry it’s happening to her. You have told her exactly what she needs to hear. You’re right, in the same way we need to protect our kids from toxic others, it’s important to make sure our kids behave with kindness and generous intent. That doesn’t mean they have to accept everyone, but it does mean not excusing or ostracizing people. A good message for your daughter right now is to value the things in herself that distinguish her from the girl who has treated her badly. Those are the things that will lay a foundation for your daughter to be much happier and much more successful.

I know how awful it is watching your child struggle at the hands of someone else’s stingy intent, but know that your daughter will get through this, especially with you behind her. The more she experiences the wrong people – and there are plenty of those out there – the more she will be able to know the right ones when she finds them and settle into relationships with people who love her, rather than those who don’t deserve her.


Thank you. I have been debating so many things on the issue. Am I doing the right thing? Will she be able to move on? Should I continue to try to talk to the other parent about the issues when they don’t see anything wrong? It’s so hard and I’ve never experienced this with my other children. I almost wish she had never befriended this girl from the very beginning and none of this would have happened.


I’m a childcare counsellor who worked tweens and teens. What you’re watching is social conditioning at its bleakest but most realistic. Girls engage in relational aggression all the time. Your daughter needs the skill set of leadership. Tell her to show generosity to the other girl: this will attract her peers, but only if it genuine. Rather than focus on the negative in the girl, as she is not really doing anything your daughter hasn’t experimented– remember to observe and watch and encourage that in your daughter– focus on the pro social skill set of tolerance (what are the genuine reasons behind the behaviour); empathy (what are the ways she’s feeling?); magniminity (Even if the girl is wrong, what difference does it actually make to your daughter? Are the “costs” forgivable?); and assertiveness (the capacity to speak her mind without fear but with none blaming language). Pro social leadership involves critical thinking of the social problem as a group issue. We want out kids to externalizer the problem: see it as fundamentally solvable either by communication or by removal of self from the problem. Importantly, it’s this distance that protects children from becoming codependent, over-dependent or overly-independent and aloof. We want kids who feel mastery over themselves and interdependence with others. They are mutual actors in their interactions. We want our kids to have an intrinsic (inside) motivation for themselves and an extrinsic (outside) projection of other kid’s motivations as not related in a grand or global way to your daughter. You can demonstrate this skill set with the other mother by being gracious, polite, continuing to include the other girls (no retaliation!) although retaliation fantasies can be empowering and fun to share with your daughter, show her it is satire and private, so as to relieve stress. When your daughter is older, you can explain this just as I’ve written it to you, and it will help her show leadership in later life.

I wouldn’t encourage her to think of these girls as ex-friends, but to instead help her navigate the situation with detached compassion and mindfulness of her own morals and feelings. Identifying what is hers and others problems. Good luck. -T


Do you have any advice for the very, very delicate situation of fortifying children when it comes to abusive parents? My children’s father has extensive mental health issues and is manipulative (guilt, fear, pity) and never happy with what the kids do. He has said to his son, “My biggest regret is having finished high school.” When that son tries new projects, the dad will make fun of the project, diminish it, etc. His whole family is this way with each other. I have walked a very careful line, saying little, but my one kid in particular, a soft, loving, eager to please kid, is struggling, trying to please his father (and come to terms with the parent’s absence). He has left school, for one thing. The other two have stronger boundaries, but one was reduced to tears recently in the outfall for not wanting to go to a movie with his dad…They know that their father has had mental health issues, etc. Thanks for any guidance.

Hey Sigmund

Hi Sara, I understand how difficult this must be for you. The most important thing is to protect your son from taking on his dad’s harmful opinions as his own. Hearing these things is one thing – you probably can’t stop that – but what you can do is push against the risk of your son owning it and help him to build his boundaries so these things land far enough away as to not do damage.

I believe strongly that the only way to do this is to be more open with kids about why people do what they do and think what they think, and give them permission to reject what some people’s opinions and their view of the world. This can be really difficult when it’s a parent involved – however old they are, kids want to believe in their parents and it can be difficult to establish where a parent ends and where they begin, but it’s important, particularly if the things the parent is doing is damaging.

Kids are, from a very young age, quite capable of understanding that different people have different ways of thinking about things and that they should determine their own view of things in a way that is most positive and constructive for them. You can give him that permission without making it too much about his father. There comes a point where not saying anything against what the other parent is saying becomes implicitly supporting their point of view. Kids need permission and support and initially (however old they are), they need to borrow some of our strength and courage to build their boundaries. That doesn’t mean going on the attack of the other parent – kids still need to be able to love them and have a relationship with them if they want to, without judgement. Also, the risk is that by making it personal and attacking the character of the other parent, the child will take some of that on (‘I’m part of them so I must be a bit like that too’).

The way around this is to stick to the facts and deliver them without judgement. Awareness is key. This is where the idea of boundaries comes in. People say things and do things – you can’t stop that – but you don’t have to let it in to you and you don’t have to agree. Talk to your son about how the things his dad says are coloured by many things – what’s going on for him, the way he was brought up, his mental health issues etc – and how it has nothing to do with the truth and what’s real. These things never have anything to do with the truth because there is no truth – only opinion.

Let your son know that his dad grew up doing things a certain way with his family and because of that, it doesn’t occur to him that there might be a different way to do things. The way he does things and responds is automatic. It doesn’t mean his dad doesn’t love him, it means that he doesn’t know how to be with him any other way but it also doesn’t make him a bad person. We all do that – we all have automatic responses.

I’m assuming that your son still has to spend time with his dad so there is still some sort of relationship there. He only has one dad so let him know that you can still care about people even if you don’t believe their view of the world. Your son will make up his own mind sooner or later as to whether or not to stay in the relationship. For now, it’s about protecting him from the things his dad says. In the same way some people don’t like black cars because they get dirty, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with black cars. There are plenty of people who love them and wouldn’t own anything else. It’s the same with people. Your son’s dad might not like something your son does, or something he’s done himself (finishing high school) but that’s his opinion and has nothing to do with truth. For some people finishing high school might not be the right thing and that’s okay, but they are arriving at that decision via a different life and a different circumstances to your son, which is why your son needs to make up his own mind.
When you discuss this with your son, be vigorous in challenging his father’s thinking with him but not personally judgemental of his father. It will give what you say more credibility because your son will be able to see it as information rather than an attempt to attack his dad.

It’s a difficult one, I know, but giving kids permission to challenge the way other people (even their mothers and fathers) think and act and make up their own minds, without judging those people, is a really healthy way to have even closer relationships.

Muriel Cooper

I’m a psychologist in Melbourne Australia who doesn’t work often with kids but I like your content and I particularly like this article. Well done, keep up the good work.


This is so helpful. I’ve just had to deal with my 12 year old sons football coach who has diminished my son’s self esteem to the point where he doesn’t play well anymore and is thinking of leaving the team.
I talked to the coach last night. A friend had given me some really good advice and practice talking about how my son is feeling, using non violent communication. It went pretty well, but I didn’t feel confident enough to tell the coach specific events where his behaviour was upsetting my son, because i couldn’t work out a way of saying it that didn’t sound like me blaming him or pointing out totally immature and bullying behaviour more suited to a 10 year old! I will use your article to go over the issue again with my son. Being able to set your own, healthy boundaries is such a great lesson to learn, so I guess we can look at this as a good opportunity. Thank you!

Hey Sigmund

Hi Georgia, I’m pleased this has helped you. Coaches have so much influence over our kids don’t they. I had exactly the same thing happen with a coach and one of my children. It’s great that you and your son are talking about it. It’s awful when they’re going through it but there is wisdom your son will take from this experience. One of them is that people like this actually do exist, which is important for being able to realise that not everyone who comes into your life is a keeper. Another is how to block the influence of toxic people and the things to be aware of. It sounds as though you’re doing a really good job of managing this. I hope your son is able to find his confidence again and realise how great he is and how much he deserves to feel that.


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Anxiety can mean danger, but it can also mean there is something brave or important they need to do. 

The problem is that anxiety will feel the same for both - for brave, growthful, important things (scary-safe), and dangerous things (scary-dangerous). 

Of course if they are in danger, we need to protect them from that. But as long as they are safe, we have another very important job to do - to give them the experiences they need to recognise they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

If the brain hasn’t had enough experience of this brave, important thing, it’s going to be on guard - not because this is dangerous, but because it’s unfamiliar, hard, unpredictable.

Ask, ‘Is this scary-safe, or is this scary-dangerous?’ If they are safe, help them recognise 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?’ 

It doesn’t matter how small or how long it takes. What matters is the experience of handling the discomfort of anxiety. Courage is not about 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 they can feel anxious and do brave.♥️
Sometimes the hardest thing about talking to someone about our ‘stuff’ is starting the chat. Let them know that if they ever want to talk, it will be enough (and so brave) if they come to you with something, like, ‘I want to talk but I don’t know how to start,’ and you’ll help them from there. 

Even when they’re so small, they’re noticing how we handle the little things to gauge how we’ll handle the big things. 

Are we available? Are we warm? Are we safe? Do we try to hurry their words and feelings? Or are we patient and gentle? Do we jump too quickly to problem solving? Or can we listen even when the words don’t make sense? Can we handle the messy stuff? Or are we best when things are tidy. (And big feelings, big thoughts, and big questions are rarely ‘tidy’ - important and necessary - but rarely tidy.)

Let them know you can handle any of their feelings and any of their thoughts. Even if the words and feelings are messy, that’s okay - the important part is to get them out.♥️
Oh I’m so excited about this! I’m joining @michellemitchell.author, @maggiedentauthor, and @drjustincoulson for the Resilient Kids Conference. We’ll be coming to Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Launceston. This is going to be so packed with information and strategies to support young people towards courage and resilience. We know our kids have everything inside them be brave, strong, and resilient. Now to make sure they know it too. We’d love you to join us.♥️

Tickets on sale now. (https://www.resilientkidsconference)


@resilientkidsconference We are in love with Karen Young - Hey Sigmund's blog Hey Sigmund... and I know so many of you have her children’s books in your home. Why not come and meet her in person? She’s equally as fabulous. 

Karen is going to talk about being stronger than anxiety. For many anxiety is an intrusive part of everyday life, with the effects often stealing into families, classrooms and friendships. Anxiety can potentially undermine the way children see themselves, the world and their important place in it – but it doesn’t have to be this way. Anxiety is very manageable when it is recognised and responded to. 

If you like to have a further look at what she will be speaking about, you can find it here: https://www.resilientkidsconference.com.au/
It is so true thay anxiety can feel brutal for so many young people (and older ones). Sometimes we, the adults who love them, also get caught in the tailwhip of anxiety. We wonder if we should be protecting them from the distress of anxiety, while we look at them wishing so much that they could see how magnificent and powerful and amazing they truly 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.’)

But we know they are enough. They are always enough. Brave/ new/ hard things (scary-safe) will often feel the same as truly unsafe things (scary-dangerous). Anxiety can’t tell the difference. It’s like a smoke alarm - it 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.

Of course, sometimes getting safe is exactly the right response, and sometimes moving forward with the anxiety is. Their growth comes in knowing which response when.

Our job as their important adults isn’t to hush the noise or the discomfort that comes from their anxiety, but to give the experiences (when it’s safe) to recognise that they can feel anxious and do brave.

Anxiety is not about breakage. It is 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, but about what the brain perceives. ‘Danger’ can be physical or relational (any chance of humiliation, judgement, shame, exclusion, separation). Brave, new, hard things are full of relational threats - but they are safe. Scary, but safe.

Growth comes from having enough experiences with scary safe to recognise that they can feel anxious, and do brave. Having those experiences might feel too big sometimes, but as long as they aren’t alone in the distress of that, they are safe.

They can feel anxious and do brave. ‘Yes you are anxious, and yes, you are brave.’ ‘Yes you are anxious, and you are powerful.’♥️
Such a great night with over 100 parents at Gumdale State School, on how to strengthen young people against anxiety. I love this school. First, staff joined me for a workshop, then parents. 

This school is doing so much as part of their ‘everyday’ to support the wellbeing of students. When the staff and parent community are able to share the same language and the same ideas around anxiety and wellbeing, students will feel the wrap around of their important adults around them. This will help make sure young people in the very best position to learn, connect, and grow. These kids are in strong, capable hands.♥️

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