Anxiety: What we decide, they will follow – but first, the decision.

When anxiety hits, our children will look to us for signs of safety. They’ll be needing to know, ‘Do you think I’m safe?’ ‘Do you think I can do this?’ ‘Do you think I’m brave enough, strong enough, capable enough?’

What we decide, they will follow. They might be achingly unwilling for a while, but eventually, they will follow. If only making the decision wasn’t so entangled, so often, with our own anxiety, their distress, and the smudgy, uncertain line that often comes before brave.

One of the hardest things as a parent can be deciding when to protect our kids and when to support them into brave. For them, brave, hard, new things (scary-safe) will often feel like dangerous things (scary-dangerous). Their anxiety around this will drive anxiety in us. It’s why their brave things will often feel scary for us too.

There’s a good reason for this. As their important adults, we’re designed to feel distress at their distress. This is how we keep them safe. It’s normal, necessary, and the thing that makes us loving, beautiful, available parents. But – it’s also why their anxiety will often drive anxiety in us, and a powerful drive to protect them from whatever is causing their distress.

Their distress will drive distress in us … exactly as it’s meant to.

When our children are truly in danger, their distress (fight or flight) will drive distress (fight or flight) in us to give us the strength, the will, the everything to keep them safe. Fight or flight in them will raise fight or flight in us – to give us the physiological resources to fight for them or flee with them if we need to.

We’re meant to feel distress at their distress – but those distress signals can also run interference on brave behaviour. Anxiety can make safe, brave, important things feel like dangerous things – for them and for us. This is normal and healthy. What matters is our response.

Sometimes making the decision, ‘Do I step back into safety or forward into brave?’ is too much for our kids and teens, so we have to make the decision for them. What we decide, they will follow. 

You will see evidence of this everywhere in your home: Do I need to brush my teeth? Is it okay if I hit? Do I need to be kind? Do I matter? Is my voice important? And the big one to strengthen them against anxiety … Can I feel anxious and do brave? The decision on most of these is an easy ‘yes’. We decide. They follow (eventually).

With anxiety, the line can be blurry. Sometimes your concerns might be valid, in which case their fight or flight (anxiety) will be doing its job. Sometimes though, our enormous drive to protect them isn’t so much about needing to protect them from the situation, but about wanting to protect them from the distress of their anxiety. This is so normal! It’s what makes us loving, responsive parents. It’s also why we have an incredible capacity to respond to their anxiety in ways that can widen the space for brave behaviour to happen.

They will follow our concern, or they will follow our confidence – eventually. It doesn’t matter how long the move towards brave takes. What matters is opening them up to the possibilities for brave behaviour that are already in them, and have been all along. They can feel anxious, and do brave. So can we.

This is why we have to ask the question, ‘Do they feel like this because they’re in danger, or because they’re about to do something brave/ hard/ important?’Am I reacting to the situation, or to their distress?

And what if I feel uncertain?

If you do feel uncertain, what do you need to feel safer?  More information? More conversation? Smaller steps towards brave? If you don’t believe they’re safe – at school, swimming lessons, with the person taking care of them in your absence – they won’t either. Do you need more information or conversation to feel more certain that they are safe?

What information do you need to be able to position yourself to respond the way your young person needs you to – either by protecting them, or by giving plenty of signals of safety so they can feel bigger and safer as they move forward into brave. Until we make the decision, they won’t either.

So I’ve made the decision. This is a time for brave. What now?

If you’ve decided that this is a time for brave behaviour, now they will need you to love and lead. It’s not about one or the other, but both. See their anxiety and make space for it, and also see their brave and make space for that too.

This might sound like, ‘Yeah, this is big isn’t it. It’s okay to be worried. Of course you feel like this! You’re about to do something brave. I know you can do this. If you can’t do (the whole brave thing), what will you do – and don’t say ‘nothing’, because ‘nothing’ isn’t an option.’

The posture to take here is, ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ I believe you that this is big for you, and I believe you that you feel worried or scared or threadbare – and I know you can do this. I know it with everything in me.

Leave a Reply

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

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Thanks so much @maggiedentauthor♥️…
“Karen Young - Hey Sigmund has such a wonderful way with words especially around anxiety. This is her latest beautiful picture book that explains anxiety through the lens of the Polyvagal theory using the metaphor of a house. This shows how sometimes anxiety can be hard to notice. I think this book can help kids and teens better understand stress and anxiety. I loved it! This would be great for homes, schools and in libraries.
Congratulations Karen.💛”
Of course we love them, no matter what - but they need to feel us loving them, no matter what. Especially when they are acting in unlovable ways, or saying unlovable things. Especially then.

This is not ‘rewarding bad behaviour’. To think this assumes that they want to behave badly. They don’t. What they want is to feel calm and safe again, but in that moment they don’t have the skills to do that themselves, so they need us to help them. 

It’s leading with love. It’s showing up, even when it’s hard. The more connected they feel to us, the more capacity we will have to lead them - back to calm, into better choices, towards claiming their space in the world kindly, respectfully, and with strength. 

This is not about dropping the boundary, but about holding it lovingly, ‘I can see you’re doing it tough right now. I’m right here. No, I won’t let you [name the boundary]. I’m right here. You’re not in trouble. We’ll get through this together.’

If you’re not sure what they need, ask them (when they are calm), ‘When you get upset/ angry/ anxious, what could I do that would help you feel loved and cared for in that moment? And this doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to a ‘no’ situation. What can I do to make the no easier to handle? What do I do that makes it harder?’♥️
Believe them AND believe in them. 

‘Yes this is hard. I know how much you don’t want to do this. It feels big doesn’t it. And I know you can do big things, even when it feels like you can’t. How can I help?’

They won’t believe in themselves until we show them what they are capable of. For this, we’ll have to believe in their ‘can’ more than they believe in their ‘can’t’.♥️
Sometimes it feels as though how we feel directs what we do, but it also works the other way: What we do will direct how we feel. 

When we avoid, we feel more anxious, and a bigger need to avoid. But when we do brave - and it only needs to be a teeny brave step - we feel brave. The braver we do, the braver we feel, and the braver we do… This is how we build brave - with tiny, tiny uncertain steps. 

So, tell me how you feel. All feelings are okay to be there. Now tell me what you like to do if your brave felt a little bigger. What tiny step can we take towards that. Because that brave is always in you. Always. And when you take the first step, your brave will rise bigger to meet you.♥️
#anxietyinkids #consciousparenting #parentingtips #gentleparent #parentinglife #mindfulparenting #childanxiety #heywarrior
If anxiety has had extra big teeth lately, I know how brutal this feels. I really do. Think of it as the invitation to strengthen your young ones against anxiety. It’s not the disappearance of brave, or the retreat of brave. It’s the invitation to build their brave.

This is because the strengthening against anxiety happens only with experience. When the experience is in front of you, it can feel like bloodshed. I know that. I really do. But this is when we fight for them and with them - to show them they can do this.

The need to support their avoidance can feel relentless. But as long as they are safe, we don’t need to hold them back. We’ll want to, and they’ll want us to, but we don’t need to. 

Handling the distress of anxiety IS the work. Anxiety isn’t the disruption to building brave, it’s the invitation to build brave. As their important adult who knows they are capable, strong, and brave, you are the one to help them do that.

The amygdala only learns from experience - for better or worse. So the more they avoid, the more the amygdala learns that the thing they are avoiding is ‘unsafe’, and it will continue to drive a big fight (anger, distress) or flight (avoidance) response. 

On the other hand, when they stay with the discomfort of anxiety - and they only need to stay with it for a little longer each time (tiny steps count as big steps with anxiety) - the amygdala learns that it’s okay to move forward. It’s safe enough.

This learning won’t happen quickly or easily though. In fact, it will probably get worse before it gets better. This is part of the process of strengthening them against anxiety, not a disruption to it. 

As long as they are safe, their anxiety and the discomfort of that anxiety won’t hurt them. 
What’s important making sure they don’t feel alone in their distress. We can do this with validation, which shows our emotional availability. 

They also need to feel us holding the boundary, by not supporting their avoidance. This sends the message that we trust their capacity to handle this.

‘I know this feels big, and I know you can do this. What would feel brave right now?’♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This