In May 2018, I held a cracking Facebook Live around Understanding Anxiety in Children; it had lots of engagement where parents, carers and professionals were asking questions and developing their knowledge of the issue.
I covered anxiety in the context of trauma, communication and overwhelm and have decided to do a series of blog posts on that video content.
Sometimes parents feel out of their depth with anxiety and I think it's because it can feel like a very vague concept, if this is you, then click here and read anxiety basics.
Today, I want to talk about the ways you can indirectly make an impact on your children's anxiety, by developing a little bit more self-awareness and making some subtle changes.
When I work with parents, either in a coaching capacity or they are a therapy client; too often I hear how they want to protect their children from intense negative emotion. When I say negative emotion, I'm referring to those that don't feel nice to feel i.e. sadness, fear and anger. You may be asking why I say 'too often' because wanting to protect your children from something negative is in part, what parenting is about; and I agree. However, we can only protect them from painful feelings for so long, until they are out in the big world without us holding their hands, when there will be invitations and life events which will, without doubt, trigger painful feelings. At this point, a teen or adult that has been protected from feelings such as fear and worry, may be ill-equipped to deal with them.
So what if, we support them with the difficult feelings instead of protecting them, so we can help develop their understanding, their ability to self-soothe and self-care? I think this is the best route, it isn't the easiest for us as parents, I know it can be so difficult to see our children hurting, but it is a part of life and if we want them to be resilient, we need to let them feel - all of it!
I want you to consider the ways that you protect your children from feeling negative emotions.
Do you hide your negative emotions away?
Do you talk about strength as not crying and not caring what people say about you?
Do you hide that you're having a bad day and miss the opportunity for them to explore this with you?
Do you hide that you don't have all the answers, that sometimes that makes you feel worried or vulnerable too?
This is all really important. What this shows our children is that we are human too. That we feel the whole spectrum of emotions, we learn as we go, we access support, we talk about it, we engage in problem-solving and sometimes we hurt.
Often we think it's the children that need to change how they look at things and how they react, but if we're not modelling that very same way of being, then they are less likely to go down that route.
So when I say show flexibility, what I mean is let them see that life is up and down and you can navigate that. That there is no black and white when it comes to managing our mental health, we're all in the land of grey where it takes time, effort and support to feel OK some days.
Walk the Talk
I touched on this above, this is the idea that whatever we tell our children to be right or true, we need to show them that we wholeheartedly believe it; and we do this by making sure what we do, matches what we say.
During childhood, we begin to develop our belief systems, we are like little professors, tuning into the most subtle of behaviours to make sense of our world. It's really important that we try and give ourselves the same permissions that we give our children if we hope that they will really hear us. If we don't, if our walk doesn't match our talk, then they will see the mismatch and our verbal message will not be as powerful as we hoped.
In the context of anxiety, a helpful message is that it's normal to worry, that worry/anxiety has kept us alive for millions of years and with a little effort, we can train our minds to pick out what's useful and help us make really important decisions. As an adult, do you do this? Can you articulate it with your children so they can see it happening and learn from your experiences? If you can, it will increase their ability to do the same when they are worried or anxious.
Demonstrate Compassion to Self and Others
Do you find that you criticise or nurture yourself when you're feeling low? Do you observe other people at times and wonder what the hell they have to feel down about or think that they play the anxiety card a bit too much?
The way your children see you treat yourself and others will effect their own internal dialogue, will effect their ability to give themselves permission to feel, to need and to take. The issue here, is that children need to feel, to need us and to access us so that we can confront any false beliefs they have and help them stay grounded. If they see us berate ourselves or others, do we think they would choose us for words of wisdom and do you think they would believe us if they did?
Whilst on the subject of self-compassion; now is a good time to start. You may be reading this and thinking 'oh my word, I've been doing it all wrong', and if you are; stop! We can only work with what we know and I for one didn't know this before I learned it, and I was not brought up knowing or believing this either. We all have the capacity to learn and to change, you haven't done anything wrong other than parent to the best of your ability. Well that ability is changing as you learn more; take one day at a time, remember you are human (I hope) and a good enough job is all it takes!
Create Dialogue & Opportunity
One of the difficult things children face when trying to communicate their feelings is knowing the words and their meanings. Children may say I feel lonely if they've heard someone else say it, but if you dig deeper, you may find that they can't tell you what it means.
By doing all the above, by talking about yourself with your children and inquiring about them, you are constantly developing their language and ability to create dialogue around the really complex area of emotions; an area we may be guilty of assuming comes very naturally.
When speaking about emotions, name the feeling, talk about where on the body they feel that, how would they describe the sensation i.e. butterflies or hot, talk about the thoughts they have at the same time and it's OK for you to share a time that was similar for you to help them develop their own dialogue (do this at the beginning but be aware that sometimes they will just rely on you to do the talking without being able to apply it to themselves).
Through my years of working with children, I have found that one of the biggest barriers they face is the fear of upsetting us or making us mad. I know there's some reality in this, we're going to be mad or upset at times, but it's worth being mindful that this may be the reason some children aren't communicating their experiences and anxieties.
When it comes to responsibility, it's important to have that conversation with them that we (parents) are human and we feel intense things too. That sometimes we don't always do the right thing but we will always try. Our children's problem solving capacity isn't fully matured until into their 20's, we can tell our children that our parent's job was to help us figure the world out and that's our job to do for them; they can't figure the world out if they're too busy worrying about what we will think or feel. Encouraging them to let us be responsible for ourselves and for them to focus on themselves is a great permission to continue learning and access us along the way.
Here are some other useful blogs: