Unhappily Married: What’s Best for the Kids – Together or Apart?

Unhappy Marriage: What's Best for the Kids - Together or Apart?

Deciding whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or leave is possibly one of the hardest decisions a parent could make.

Sometimes despite the greatest ‘happily-ever-after’ intentions, a relationship can become a tense, unhappy, conflicted union. If this is the case there’ll be no hiding it from the kids – they’ll know and according to a growing body of research, they’ll wear the impact.

A number of studies have pointed to the negative impact of divorce on children but there is compelling research suggesting that many of these problems have their roots in the conflict and tension that preceded the breakup. It is widely accepted that parental conflict does damage, particularly when it is any of the following:

  • frequent;
  • heated (verbal insults and raised voices);
  • physically aggressive;
  • unresolved (in the child’s eyes);
  • about the child;
  • brings on the silent treatment between parents.

Parents will do anything for their children and this may fuel the decision to stay together in an unhappy marriage. Conflict though, might do more harm to children than divorce:

  1. Harm to the parent-child bond.

    In an unhappy marriage, where tension and conflict is the norm, parent-child interactions also seem to show signs of strain. As explained by researcher and psychologist Chrystyna Kouros, ‘…if mom and dad are fighting, it will show up initially – and in some cases on the second day – in a poorer quality relationship with their kids.’  The exact reasons for this are unclear but there are a number of likely explanations. Conflict drains the resources of a relationship and in doing so, can give way to ineffective or inconsistent parenting. Parental energy is also strained, leaving less to invest in the children.

  2. The trigger for psychological and behavioural problems.

    Marital conflict is associated with a range of internalising (such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and externalizing (such as aggression, non-compliance) outcomes in children.

  3. Poorer academic performance.

    Children who report higher levels of hostile, intense or unresolved conflict between their parents show poorer academic performance. 

  4. Poorer interpersonal skills.

    When there is ongoing tension and unresolved conflict between parents, there is likely to be minimal modelling of effective ways to resolve conflict. Disagreements are a part of life and the first place children learn how to handle them is in the home, by watching their parents. If there is limited modelling of successful conflict resolution, there will be limited learning of successful relationship skills.

  5. Trouble with their own future romantic relationships.

    Children who are exposed to frequent marital conflict are more likely to have trouble with their own romantic relationships in adolescence and through to adulthood. For children from high conflict homes, their experience with romantic relationships and is a negative one, effectively limiting their knowledge on how successful relationships work.

  6. Leads to emotional insecurity.

    Research has found that when parents are in an unhappy marriage, the conflict compromises the social and emotional well-being of children by threatening their sense of security in the family. This in turn predicts the onset of problems during adolescence, including depression and anxiety.  

  7. Causes cardiac stress and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).

    Tension or conflict between parents causes a physiological response in children. According to research, when children see conflict between their parents, they experience cardiac stress and a significant increase in the level of cortisol in their body. This physical response can harm their stress response systems and interfere with their mental and intellectual development.

  8. Non-verbal and verbal conflict cause similar responses.

    In a study conducted at the University of Notre Dame, it was found that children responded similarly to both verbal and nonverbal forms of conflict between their parents. Yelling, name-calling and verbal spite induces the same stress response in children as eye-rolling, heavy sighs, silent treatment and non-verbal intimidation such as finger pointing or glaring.

  9. Increases the likelihood of adult children divorcing.

    Research has found the highest rates of divorce occur for adult children whose parents divorced after a high conflict marriage. The second highest rate was for those whose parents stayed together but had a high conflict relationship. 

How to Disagree Well – Even if it’s an Unhappy Marriage

Disagreements are a fact of life. Disagree well, and you’ll provide your kids with the opportunity to learn some valuable life skills that will hold them well throughout their lives. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t fight dirty.

    Reduce the hostility and don’t fight dirty. No name-calling, yelling, personal attacks, eye-rolling, glaring or silent treatment. If a dirty fight is all you have in you, just keep it away from the kids.

  2. Resolve the argument and let the kids know you’ve made up (they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking).

    Make sure you let the children know that the argument has been resolved. Research has shown that conflict is particularly damaging to kids if they believe it to be unresolved. Let them know that you and your spouse forgive each other and have made up. It’s important to do this respectfully and warmly. Children are sharper than we often give them credit for and if you’re faking the make-up, they’ll know it straight away.

  3. Keep the effects of the clash separate from the kids.

    Be deliberate in keeping the effects of a marital clash on you separate to your relationships with your kids. Conflict takes its toll on even the strongest person. An unhappy marriage will drain your energy but its important to stay patient, sensitive and consistent with your kids. Do whatever you can to make sure your children feel that you still have enough energy for them. 

  4. Be alive the possibility that the kids may blame themselves.

    Let them know that grown-ups sometimes get cranky with each other and that it has absolutely nothing to do with them. Let them know they are actually the biggest reason you love each other or care about each other and that no matter what, they’ll never be the reason for the fight. They might blame themselves whether the argument is over them or not – it’s just the way it is. If you are arguing over something to do with them, do everything you can to keep it away from them or at the very least, do whatever you can to shut it down.

Not all marital conflict is unhealthy. It’s important for children to learn how to effectively manage conflict and one of the best ways for this to happen is for them to see their parents doing exactly that – loving each other through the bumps. Conflict that is resolved respectfully and with warmth and empathy will have a positive effect on kids and equip them with valuable tools for their own lives.

 Children of divorced parents can flourish and be as successful as children from families where the marriage is intact.

Nobody but you can decide whether it’s best to stay together or separate but what we know from the research is that if you stay together, it’s critical to minimise conflict, especially in front of the kids. Constant tension and arguing can harm them more than divorce. 

I’ve never met a parent who went to divorce as anything but the last option – but it is an option and perhaps a sound one if the marriage is one of tension or high conflict. 

Showing respect to your relationship doesn’t always mean staying. If you’ve fought to keep it intact and it continues to fall apart, respecting it might mean ending it rather than sending it to a slow cold death. Only the couple involved can make the decision and it’s not for anyone else to judge.

Every family is different but there are common reasons that relationships fall apart. If you have more fight left in you, see here for the 6 most common reasons relationships come undone and ways you might be able to get them back on track.

There’s a big difference between giving up and knowing when to walk away. Deciding to divorce in no way means you have failed or that the relationship wasn’t important, right or wonderful in its prime. What it means is that it has run its course and has little more to offer either of you. Think carefully before you decide to stay together for the kids, they may be the reason you need to make the heartbreaking and brave decision to walk away.

How children deal with divorce depends heavily on how the parents deal with it. See here for ways to help  children safely and soundly through to the other side of divorce.



For years I have had thoughts of divorce but I really don’t know what to do. I have tried counselling but I go alone because my husband won’t come. I have tried planning date nights etc. My husband and I have been married 11 years and together for 15. We raised his son together who is now almost 21 and now have a 4 year old of our own after 6 years of miscarriages. I feel extremely alone in our relationship my husband doesn’t come on family outings like walking to the park, swimming lessons, Tobaganing, zoo, etc. Even when we go camping I’ll say let’s go swimming or go for a hike and he will just stay at the camp ground and I’ll take our sone and dog ALONE. My husband likes to golf and will go golfing lots with his friends, go to the casino and parties and pubs with them. I’m never invited or asked if I can find a sitter. He often spends the night at friend’s because they drink to much to drive home. Even when we go on holidays he will spend most of it golfing with friends and we will be on our own at the beach and on totally opposite schedules. I even wanted to go on a steam train and he had nothing going on and instead of joining us on the steam train he chose to stay at the camp site alone. I feel like he takes every chance possible to not spend time with us and when he is with us he is usually criticizing everything I do. I crave the freedom of being on my own but worry strongly about the impact it would have on our son and I’m not sure I can share custody and I know I would have to. What do I do. Trying to talk about it usually makes things worse and not better.


Dated 4 years and have been married for 10.

Courtship was near perfect so i believed marriage would be bliss untill i found he was cheating jusy a fee months after our wedding while i was with child. It broke my trust but we tried to work it out. I forgave. In year 2,3, and 4 of our marriage i found that he kept ties with the same woman and a few others. It broke me completely. Trust was dead and romance was now a mirage. He swore he never cheated again my the coversations i found him to have made me doubt his love for me. Sex became a horror for many years beacause i always wondered if it was me he thought about while we were at it. It broke me. Little arguments started to turn bigger fights and today 10yrs in with 5 kids i sad to admit i probably made it worse by staying after he first cheated. That was a clear sign of lack of love. I hoped that we would get better but we are visibly worse today. I as most sad to see my kids watch us fight. I am 100% cetain he does not love me. He has no empathy towards me. He calls me names easily and snaps easily. He proactively ensures we spend no time together. Funny as it sounds he is a great dad and loves our kids. He provides their needs and a hard working guy. Apart from these good traits i have absolutely no other good things to say about him. I have tried to get us counselling but he acts as though it is a personal favour to me. My kids are afraid of divorce and i dont want to hurt them but i know deep down that he doesnt love me and staying will drain me more. I am a shadow of who i used to be.

Help me


I’m in a really similar circumstances however money has it’s not involvements and kids we’ve been married for 2 year and together for 6 years.

We have a 12 week baby and I cannot tell you how bad things have been. We hardly have sex, she’s never wanted to be close to me as in holding hands and kissing.

I thought I’d be okay with this until I saw other couples and I thought you know what ib ant some of what they have.

I’m so worried about leaving my children as they’re my world. But what else can I do? We argue all the time and I’m absolutely sick of it. Life is too short. I thought the way I’m treated was normal. Until someone from work started to text me and I knew she liked me then I saw what someone does who really wants to get to know you, kiss you ect.

The woman who is texting me is 24 with 2 children and I’m 32 I don’t want to leave my situation and go into something that’s just as bad.

I’m so anxious about all of this I can’t eat correctly and feel really sad all the time


A mom

You have a 12 week old. No one with a 12 week old is having sex. Have some empathy for your wife. Think about what she is going through, what her body did, how it changed, how that must make her feel. How tired you both are. Empathy is the key here, not running from a new mother and your infant. Be brave and strong. You have a family now; you need to teach yourself how to care for it as much or ideally more as you cared for yourself as an individual.


I’ve been married for 14 years.it was aranged marriage.i ahave two special needs kids. bonding between me and my husband is not do good.we are not ekotionally attached.he is not romantic person at all.The first five years lot of times he was rejecting me for sex. he was coming to me according to his mood,otherwise always said that i am tired. in the beginning i loved him but later I started to stay away from him.now i am diagnosed with moderate anxiety and depression.we have no intimate relation since long (6 months almost i guess). now i feel trapped in this relation.i feel improsoned and want freedom but i can’t.i don’t know where to go.my parents are not going to support me i know.even my brothers will not support.i don’t have friends here who can help me.i dont know where would i go if i get divorce.i am really dying inside..😢😢


I know this article is old but the topic is still so relevant. My marriage will too be just another statistic, a tale as old as time.

Met him at 32, he proposed 6 months later and within the year we married our only daughter was born.

We have been married 7 years and for the last 6, he has not had sex with me. I never rejected him but he always rejected me. Initially it was in a joking manner, he would let me touch : tickle him and then after a few minutes he would say he’s tired. I asked him why no feeling he would say tired or didn’t want me to get pregnant again so soon etc etc. after 3-4 years sexless I still asked he would joke he has achieved nirvana.

Eventually I couldn’t even touch it he would just flick my hand away rudely. While I have been celibate for 6 years, There has been some small hint and incidents that has led me to suspect he is cheating while I am busy with the kid’s activities. He tells people I’m fat but stops me from working out then says he likes me fat. He doesn’t give me any allowance even when he is earning much more now. I married him when he was earning peanuts and now he’s doing well he’s keeping it for himself.

I have finally commenced divorce proceedings and I pray to god it will go smoothly. I believe it is for the best. I am only 39 and cannot continue to waste my life like this. I owe it to my kid to show her what a healthy happy strong and independent woman in mind body and soul

Hazel A

I am in the exact same situation as you, except maybe mine is a few years before yours. He also has not initiated intimacy with me anymore and although he calls me fatshaming names he claims they are affectionate pet names. I also have ever questioned him before about why he used to always like to be intimate with me in first few years of dating and beginning of marriage but now he is completely not attracted to me. He too said he already attained nirvana, sometimes he gives other excuses like being together for 10 years, the both of us have “progressed” our relationship into more than just sex. Actually deep down inside, I know myself that I have gained weight and no longer look as young and cute anymore. 2 years back he started requesting for intimacy towards me. That was after his mum passed away and he has the belief that his mum would reincarnate back as his child if he could get me pregnant. Upon knowing i have some fertility issues, he put me under so much stress to lose weight and go through IVF. The sex during these periods felt like just an act to bear him a child. Last year I finally succeeded in my IVF and bore him a baby boy. Since my delivery, I have been sleeping in a shared room with baby and the helper. I have not slept back in our bedroom not even once since. The concern is we cannot trust our new helper to wake up in time to meet the baby’s feeding time, at same time he snores so baby cant share a room with him. When I felt like I couldnt stand it anymore and asked to return to my bed with him, and asked to bring the baby along, he even asked to wait till after CNY to resume our couplehood sleeping arrangement. I feel very neglected emotionally and psychologically. Unhappy marriage is an understatement because now I must find a time to talk with him and that too are topics of clockwork regarding the baby. I dare not think sometimes knowing this may be the kind of marriage for me for the rest of my life and cant help but wonder after I oull through this pathetic existence to him, will I be happy or blame myself for accepting such a fate for myself on my deathbed.


Human emotions are like a hot and cold tap. To get the right temperature you need input from both. Too hot you get burnt, too cold you get chills. Either way pull the plug out and start from new, refill your new bath 😘


You go girl! You need to be loved and you will be happy if you make a decision to be happy it’s a choice. Hopefully your daughter will get to see her dad often. Believe in your self you will find Mr. right and enjoy life.


This will be a great step forward for you. Divorce is hard but your happiness and content is worth it!!


Esther , your story made me tear up as i too am in a similar situation. My parter is a Narcissist, on the highest level! he has been un employed for three years, tryig to kick his business’s off the ground. i have assumed the possition of bread winner for that time being ..but because that is my position i have taken the abuse that comes with it from a man like him. it bruises his ego. He accuses me with every man he can fathom up, speaks down to me, isolated me from my family, and when we fight my daugther whom is 3years old takes his side, makes comments at me and it kills me because because i am a fantastic mum, i work my ass off to support this family and i feel so alone…i want to leave so badly.. but the way he has wired my brain already, wow…all i can think about is all the people whom he said envy’s us will rejoice that i am now a single mum and im worried my kids will suffer that trauma…but i can no longer live like this…oh did i mention multiple times on his phone i have seen things that point toward him cheating? texts between him and woman..picking them up with my vehicle, spending my money on buying them drinks! wow…i didnt realise how angry i am till i wrote this! and through all of this…i stayed fathfull…and i stayed loyal..i work from home, so if im not work, im home with the kids..he goes out and sometimes doesnt even com home for the night. i basically feel like im working to pay the house, the car, and his spending to live his life how ever the hell he wants, why do i stay??? only god could answer that…


I have been married for 26 years and only happy for about 1 year of that time , my wife had OCD issues and never told me before we got married and they just exploded after we got married but I stayed with her and tried to help her. Four years into our marriage we had a son and that’s when things took a turn for the worse , I was forced to sleep in a separate room after that point due to the controlling nature of her obsessions she would throw items like books magazines, etc that I brought into the room away saying that they may be contaminated . This would lead to me trying to reason with her which just made her obsessions worse. One day she said I want a girl in my life as boys don’t see what I am going through , she got pregnant straight away and she gave birth to a second son. There has been no physical contact between us since that time 15 years ago she won’t even hold my hand in case it’s contaminated, I got Stage 3 cancer 5 years ago and then a stroke and heart disease 2 years ago and I have had no support from her at all and in fact, she said I must be making it all up even after operations and radiotherapy, etc. I stay in the home because of my 2 lads but the pressure and the worsening condition is taking its toll on me and the lads now . The neighbors and their friends have witnessed her behavior and generally ignore her. I have spoken to doctors and broken down in tears in their offices , I used to be a stong minded individual with career prospects but now feel broken


My son is in a loveless marriage. He works, does the shopping, cleaning, childcare. The kind of husband that is too hard to find. I can’t, don’t know what to say. His daughter is his heart, but there’s no caring and love between them. Heart wrenching, and I don’t know what to say anymore. I want him to have a loving relationship. It’s just not there. They don’t argue and fight, there’s just no affection at all.

Julia R

Great article…my son and his wife are having issues in their marriage. They both relate to me. I want to be able to give sound advice.I am concerned about the effects on the children.


I am a married man aged 34 and i have been in this marriage for 3years. When i met my wife she didnt disclose that she has 2kids (boys). When she told me i was shocked and i tried to be strong and thought God has a purpose for the 2 of us. We were blessed with a baby girl 2years ago. The problem is that we are always fighting in front of kids. when the boys do wrong she doesnt want to correct them and it affects me as i dont want to see wrong behaviour in them. Also she talks too much about how much she loves them and that she will do whatever it takes to be with them and make them happy. The other problem is she seems to be caring about the kids more than me. Personally i care about her a lot and also the kids. Of late she shouts at my face in front of kids and even tells me to go to hell. what should i do. I have even developed red eyes because of stress and crying


You have to communicate your feelings with your wife! Kindly sit down and tell her how you feel when she talks down to you! Counselling may help either separately or together! Don’t tolerate her behaviour,.. but ask her why she’s talking down to you? Communication is key!b


I’m in kind of the same situation and I’m seriously thinking about leaving, Life is just too short and kids shouldn’t be watching their parents fighting and not loving each other. IMO


Wow, I’m shocked to see a man upset because he’s jealous of the attention a wife is giving to her kids from a previous marriage. Those kids went through one divorce already, they deserve peace & happiness. Try counseling. You two should’ve gone to marital counseling before you married & had a child together. I feel your pain. I’m in a marriage with kids from previous marriages & we had 3 children together. It’s easy to feel lost as a couple while raising a family. That is normal. Set date nights. During your alone time ask your wife to set healthy boundaries for the boys behavior & suggest if it’s to much for her that you help pitch in & agree on guidelines. Your communication is lacking from the sound of it


I’m in the same situation🥺.

I have been in a relationship for the past 10 years and we now have two boys together 6 year old and a 18month old .

The issue is that for the past 10 years he has cheated taken drugs lied and has a bad relationship with drink . I should have left him before we had kids but I was so blinded by love !!! I didn’t but since we have had the boys each day I feel more and more angry towards him as he spends every week end hungover as he wold have drank on the Saturday night to excess so he spends Sunday’s hungover in a foul mood .

He works all week and we don’t see much of each other and i get by happily to be honest I dread the weekends as we would have spent the su day arguing or silent treatment because of his drink this has been going on for years and now I don’t have the energy to be has energetic and go lucky as I once use to be I feel drained and helpless as the kids love him .

The truth be told I’m happier with out him and I feel like I’m a better version of me when I’m on my own .

We are not married.


@Ryan it’s well…Am a lover of happy homes.. But you know what for a marriage to work the two involved have to come together and make it work..It’s not a day thing..It’s something you never graduate From…When you think of divorce..How are you sure you will find peace or fulfilment where you are going to…For me am a broken woman..I love my husband so so much..Have been married for 8yrs plus now but I notice that he doesn’t have My time anymore… Little things piss him off..We might be joking for example and I say something that doesn’t go well with him…He will just start shouting..This is a man that use to worship the ground I stepped on before…I have been thinking of leaving.. But am scared because of the boys.. I don’t have a job…..And even if I leave.. Where will I start from.. Please what should I do??


Leave anyway. Sometimes without knowing it we tend to come up with excuses not to leave because a part of us is hoping the man we married will reappear. Evaluate whether you truly want to leave and if you do, understand that it will by no means be easy, but the best outcomes are when your back is up against the wall. Dont simply walk out without a plan, but start bulding yourself, your career, finding your own purpose, dress up without reason, and do things that will make you feel better and build your confidence. When you stay, understand eventually your kids will go on about their lives, and it will be just you and him. Do you feel that your connection will pass that test?


I hope you’re in a better place. I’m in the same boat and I’m pregnant. What did you do? I feel so helpless

Angela W

my suggestion (and im not expert as im going through a separation at the moment) but resources ive found helpful are mort fretel and the book, hold me tight by sue johnson. either way. a proper sit down and talk about what each of you want and what will make you happy and if that will be with each other. our problem was communication, and seems to be for a lot of people. dont wait until it’s too late. i did and now my husband doesnt wnat to work anymore on the marriage, even though he wants to stay for the kids as now are are getting on so much better.

Dan S

I’m 35 year old man with 4 children rang from 3 weeks to 9 years of age. I love my children with all my heart and would walk through fire for them. My wife and I have been falling apart for a few years now but try to always do family activities like hiking, canoeing, camping or beaching. I make really good money working as a Union rep and she spends the mass of our money while she works at different places at minimum wage for 3 to 6 months at a time. She won’t help me clean house and I do most all of the cooking. I want to stay with her for the sake of our children but I’m running out of options. I’ve often thought about a bullet through my head may solve my problem yet my children would suffer. I take meds for a back injury and always come up way short even though I take less then the prescribed dosage. She isn’t strung out or anything like that but I know the meds giver her energy because I have given her one or two on separate occasions for her knee. I really don’t care that she takes my meds, I care that she lies about it and doesn’t seem to give a crap when I run out and am down with pain. Even her taking care of our children is very very lacking, she won’t ever tell our kids to brush their teeth or even shower. I’ve personally seen them wear the same clothes for a week at a time while I was working power plant outages. I just wish I had married someone that gave a damn to begin with yet I have my kids and would not change it for the world. I need a wife that loves life and her man, not one that acts without care. I’m a good looking and fit guy with no problems in the bed at all but I do feel like I can’t even touch her sexually anymore. I just don’t feel love for her in that respect anymore. Tennessee is a great place to live but I feel like I’d be better off on the other side of the planet so long as I had my children. I just don’t know how to approach any of this anymore. Hope the best for the rest of you out there with similar issues.


I’m 11 years in a marriage. By year 3 it was bad. I kept having compassion. He is arrogant and sarcastic. He keeps secrets from me. We had counseling both from pastors and cognitive therapists. We yesterday again found ourselves fighting. He doesn’t treat me well period. Not violent but dismissive and not loving, rather he is on his own world. At least he shows he is caring by offering food, but then he doesn’t respect me in front of kids. So it’s rather toxic. There is no healthy communication at all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

There are lots of reasons we love people or places, and a big reason is that we love who we are when we’re with those people or in those places. It’s the same for our children.

Do they feel seen, important, fun, funny, joyful? Or do they feel annoying, intrusive, unimportant, stupid? Do they feel like someone who is valued and wanted? Or do they feel tolerated? Do they feel interesting, independent, capable? Or do they feel managed?

It’s so easy to fall into a space - and this can happen with the most loving, most wonderful parents - where we spend too much time telling them what to do, noticing the things they don’t do, ‘managing’ them, and not enough time playing or experiencing joy with them, valuing their contribution (even if we’ve had to stoke that a little), seeking out their opinions and ideas. 

We won’t get this right all the time, and that’s okay. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about what we do most and being deliberate when we can. It’s about seeing who they are, through what they do. It’s about taking time to enjoy them, laugh with them, play with them, so they can feel their capacity to bring joy. It’s about creating the conditions that make it easy for them to love the people they are when they are with us.♥️
This week I had the absolute joy of working with the staff of Launceston College, presenting two half-day workshops on neuroscience and brain development for children and adolescents. 

The teachers and staff at this school care so much about their students. The everyday moments young people have with their important adults matter so much. It’s through these moment to moment interactions that young people start to learn that they are important, believed in, wanted, that they belong, and when this happens, learning will too. It just will. 

This is what teachers do. They open young people up to their potential, to their capacity for learning and doing hard things. They grow humans. The work of a teacher will always go so far beyond content and curriculum. 

Thank you @launceston_college for having me. Your students are in strong and wonderful hands.♥️

Posted @withrepost • @launceston_college
#LC2022 #
Building brave and moving through anxiety are like lifting weights. The growth happens little by little. Sometimes this will be slow and clumsy. Sometimes it will feel big bold, certain, and beautiful. Sometimes undone, unhappened, frustrating. It all matters. 

There will be so many days where they will see the brave thing in front of them, and everything in them will want to move towards it but they’ll feel stuck - between wanting to and scared to.

This is the point of impasse. The desire and the resistance come face to face, locked in battle. On the outside this might look like frustration, big tears, big anger, the need to avoid or retreat (or in us, a need to retreat them), but inside the work to strengthen against anxiety is happening.

This isn’t the undoing of brave. It’s the building of it. In this precious space between the wanting and the fear, they’re doing battle. They’re doing the hard, imposing work of moving through anxiety. They’re experiencing the distress of anxiety, and the handling of it, all at once. They might not be handling it well, but as long as they’re in it, they’re handling it.

These moments matter so much. If this is all they do, then they’ve been brave today. They’ve had a necessary, important experience which has shown them that the discomfort of anxiety won’t hurt them. It will feel awful, but as long as they aren’t alone in it, it won’t break them. 

Next day, next week, next month they might handle that discomfort for a minute longer than last time. Next time, even longer. This isn’t the avoidance of brave. It’s the building of it. These are the weight lifting experiences that slowly and surely strengthen their resiliency muscles. These are the experiences that show them that the discomfort of anxiety is no reflection at all of how capable they are and how brave they can be. It’s discomfort. It’s not breakage.

These little steps are the necessary building blocks for the big ones. So, if they have handled the discomfort of anxiety today (it truly doesn’t matter how well), and if that discomfort happened as they were face to face with something important and meaningful and hard, let them know that they’ve built brave today.♥️
Anxiety is a valid, important, necessary way the brain recruits support in times of trouble. In actual times of danger, the support we give is vital. This might look like supporting avoidance, fighting for them, fleeing with them. BUT - when there is no danger, this ‘support’ can hold them back from brave, important, growthful things. It can get in the way of building resilience, self-belief, and the capacity for brave. All loving parents will do this sometimes. This isn’t the cause of anxiety. It’s the response to it. 

We love them so much, and as loving parents we all will, at some time or another,  find ourselves moving to protect them from dangers that aren’t there. These ‘dangers’ are the scary but safe things that trigger anxiety and the call for support, but which are safe. Often they are also growthful, brave, important. These include anything that’s safe but hard, unfamiliar, growthful, brave.

This is when the move towards brave might be in our hands. This might look like holding them lovingly in the discomfort of anxiety for a minute longer than last time, rather than supporting avoidance. It might look like trusting their capacity to cope with the discomfort of anxiety (and approaching hard, brave, growthful things) rather than protecting them from that discomfort. Knowing what to do when can be confusing and feel impossibly hard sometimes. When it does, ask:

‘Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?’
‘Am I aligning with their fear or their courage?’
‘What am I protecting them from - a real danger, or something brave and important?’

They don’t have to do the whole brave thing all at once. We can move them towards brave behaviour in tiny steps - by holding them in the discomfort of anxiety for a teeny bit longer each time. This will provide the the experience they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety.

This might bring big feelings or big behaviour, but you don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Big feelings don’t hurt children. It’s being alone in big feelings that hurts. Let them feel you with them with statements of validation and confidence, ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle this.’♥️
We all do or say things we shouldn’t sometimes. This isn’t about breakage, it’s about being human. It’s about a brain that has registered ‘threat’, and a body that is getting ready to respond. 

‘Threat’ counts as anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their other important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, unfairness or loss. It can also count as physical (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).

The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a brain that needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, validate (with or without words - if the words are annoying for them just feel what they feel so they can feel you with them). 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets nervous systems on fire. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Stand behind the boundary, flag the behaviour (‘It’s not ok to … I know you know that’) and then shift the focus to relationship - (‘I’m right here’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’)♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This