As we've defined it, anxiety is that uncomfortable feeling you get when you think something "could" go wrong. It is the dread that arises not from a real lion in your room, but the worry that there could be. It is the anticipatory worry that life will not go the way you would hope - from having friends to doing good work.
So, what do you do to help your child with their anxiety?
You walk them through it.
Walking your child through their anxiety means keeping yourself calm while you're at it. If I think of my experiences of supporting my daughter when she is anxious, it takes some doing for me to "sit and stay" in that feeling of my OWN discomfort, let alone hers. I worry about her being anxious - and so I also feel anxious. And that's NOT helpful. So the thing to master in order to be able to "sit and stay" with your child's anxiety is "staying calm when your child can't".
If you can't stay calm, you can't make space to "be with" (sit and stay with) your child's anxiety.
What do you do to be able to stay calm when your child can't?
I have met many children who have used the term "anxiety" to describe their experiences of discomfort, but when asked what they mean by "anxiety", they were unable to answer the question. I doubt that's true for most of their parents, but, just to be sure, let's clarify what I mean when I speak about 'anxiety" and "feeling anxious".
As in yesterday's post, anxiety is that feeling that something COULD go wrong; everyone experiences it at some point or another; and it often (as we're defining it for our purposes) is associated with our (conscious and unconscious) perceptions of risk of something bad happening - whether or not the factors are based in reality and related life experience.
Like that there could be a lion under your bed; that you may fail the final exam/performance appraisal tomorrow; that you may blow your class presentation/speech and everyone will laugh at you; that you won't meet a single friendly peer on your first day at your new school/job; that your teacher/boss won't like you. You get the idea.
When you're having those kinds of thoughts, you may notice that your heart is beating harder and faster, your breathing is becoming faster and more shallow, your hands feel clammy, you feel sweaty, your muscles tense up, your vision becomes very sharply focused, and/or you feel butterflies (queasiness) in your stomach. This is all the result of your autonomic nervous system kicking in to help you fight off, run away from, or play dead in the presence of a threat ... in order to survive. It's a protective system kicking in when it's not really all that helpful. Fighting, running away or playing dead won't help you with these kinds of threats. And it makes you feel crappy - or "anxious".
The good news is that you're NOT in physical danger - there is no risk of physical harm or death.
But the bad news? You FEEL like you're at risk socially, emotionally or psychologically and it still feels yucky.
Does this resonate for you? For your child?
Before we get too far down this road, let's first define what we mean by anxiety and how feeling "anxious" is different than fear or feeling "afraid".
First off, it's perfectly normal to feel "anxious". Everyone experiences some level of anxiety at some point. We "feel anxious" when we perceive a potential "threat" to our safety. However, what is perceived as threatening to one person may not be threatening to another because, unlike "fear" (as we will define it in a future post), our individual interpretations and responses to our environment are based on our unique biology (genetic and epigenetic factors) and our individual life experiences. Nature and nurture create our sensitivity to responding with the heightened state of alertness we experience as "feeling anxious".
When we feel "anxious" we have both a physical (physiological, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, hormonal, neurological) and emotional experience of feeling that we might be unsafe. There may have been some sensory cue that caused this alarm response, but often it is our thoughts or unconscious beliefs about some sensory cue or situation that produces the experience that makes us feel anxious.
To be clear, for our purposes, we are not talking about sensory cues that represent a "clear and present danger"; for our purposes, we will call that "fear". It's the difference between what you would feel if a lion were crouched immediately in front of you about to pounce (fear) and thinking that a lion could be hiding under your bed in your suburban 3 bedroom 2-storey home (anxiety). It's the difference between having had a peer threaten to harm your child at school tomorrow (fear) and worrying that a peer could threaten to harm your child if they went to school tomorrow (anxiety). One means our life is in danger; the other feels like our life could be.
AND, both feelings are REAL. Both feelings are uncomfortable. Both feelings need your support and help for your child to work through.
We'll delve more into anxiety - what happens in our bodies and how you can help your child work through it - in future posts. For today, consider: Do you feel anxious from time to time? Does your child?
So you've noticed your child is angry, you've taken the time to understand why and offered your support, you've helped them let go of those uncomfortable feelings from their body. Now what?
Well that all depends on what caused their anger.
If they are angry because they were uncomfortable feeling and expressing disappointment, sadness or embarrassment, they will need help to work through those more vulnerable feelings.
If they are angry because they were unfairly treated by a friend, they may need help to stand up for themselves and have that difficult conversation with their friend to set clear boundaries. They may need you to coach them to learn how to do that.
When anger is a result of someone having violated a boundary and places your child at risk of harm, your child will need support with more than just working through their feelings. Sometimes, helping them with anger will require that you as a parent protect or defend your child. So, if they are angry because they are being bullied at school, you need to contact school staff to ensure that they will be safe and that they bullying will be addressed!
What do you need to do to help your child truly resolve their anger?
So once you're understanding what their anger is about, then what? How do you help them let go of those angry feelings?
Well, that depends. But let it go they must! And your children will need your help!
Some children (and adults) find just talking about their experience with a supportive other helpful enough to release anger, but many will also need to have some physical means of letting it go. Going for a walk, doing vigorous physical activity of one form or another - jumping jacks, skipping, dancing, push ups - or doing some pleasurable activity that can be a distraction - reading, drawing, playing with Lego - can all be helpful.
Whatever you and your child choose, the most important factor is that it MUST be HELPFUL to release the anger.
That means that AFTER they've engaged in the activity, they FEEL BETTER.
If they don't feel better - or worse, if they feel MORE angry after the activity - that's NOT a useful activity for them.
For example, some children say that they need to "punch something". You can help them try to punch a pillow - something that is soft and NOT alive, so...NOT a plant and NOT an animal. But some kids feel MORE angry after punching a pillow. In that case, this is NOT a useful strategy for that child. IF, however, punching a pillow helps, then it's a useful activity to keep in mind to help release anger. Same principle with any other activity - for physical release or distraction - you might try.
What works for your child?
Anger is a hard emotion for most of us to confront - in ourselves and in others.
It can be expressed in so many ways - from quiet withdrawal to yelling and physical aggression - and we often find ourselves responding to anger with anger. So when push comes to shove (pardon the pun), we often find that it can be hard to stop and just "label" the feeling. But as parents who want to help our children manage their own anger, we MUST slow down and begin by doing just that.
But then what? What do our children need when they are angry?
Like sadness, when children are angry, they need to be heard, seen and understood...with help to keep themselves and others around them safe. Then, like when they are sad, they need to feel your agreement with their experience of anger - "Of course you're angry because you weren't picked for the team; you worked really hard and it doesn't feel fair!" This is "Saying YES"!
Remember, saying "yes" dos not mean you would also feel angry or that you agree that they worked hard or that you agree it isn't fair. Saying "yes" means you understand and agree that this IS their experience.
This is NOT the time to teach, preach or lecture about what they should be feeling, how they should have prepared for a situation, how they should have reacted, or doling our punishment. This IS the time to just understand.
Because you care about them and want to them to feel loved and accepted and valued.
What if it was "something you did" that triggered your child's sadness? Is that a little harder?
For instance, your child may be sad (and may express more than a little anger) about a new household rule based on your family values like, "No electronics for the summer". What then? How do you hold the "tension of opposites" as Jung would put it?
Well, consider what you might do if something you did to set a boundary or state your own need resulted in an adult - your spouse or a friend - feeling sad or disappointed. What would you do? Isn't it another one of those "Yes...And" kind of moments?
This becomes a key skill in a relationship dance - embracing both empathy (an understanding of the needs of the "other") and boundaries (clear understanding of YOUR needs). Remember, a secure relationship is a balance between each party having autonomy and connection, with the clear understanding that the parent-child relationship is NOT one of equals because you have more power by dint of your role...and with that, more responsibility.
In this case, you step in and acknowledge those feelings of sadness, agree with them (because they ARE sad), and then
offer comfort (to meet the need of sadness). This does NOT mean that you eliminate the source of their sadness by giving them their electronics! Instead, you offer an explanation for why you have made the choice you have - because you're wanting them to have an active, play filled summer break - and HOLD both truths. YES, they are sad AND this is the new rule. Offer comfort AND clarity. Always with gentle, warm presence.
Learning to hold this balance is essential in life. They will be sad and need to cope (find ways to meet the needs that sadness brings) without any resolution to the cause of sadness. Their dog will not return from "the farm"; their grade will not be changed; they will not get an invitation to the birthday party; they will not get put onto the sports team; and they will not have access to electronics for the summer.
Life can be hard, but they can learn that it doesn't also have to be lonely if you can meet their need for comfort when they are sad.
As promised in yesterday's post, I'm going to try to tackle KEY emotions (because I would likely spend my life doing this if I promised to write about ALL of them!) in the next few blog posts.
So what's a parent to do when your child is sad? Remember this is a bit like feeding them when they're hungry. Sadness has a need too.
Consider for moment what YOU have needed when you've been sad. Was it a friend to just listen? To stay with you? To hold your hand? To give you a hug? To just know that someone else knows what you're going through and cares? This is the act of comforting.
What if this is true for kids too? How can you meet your child's needs when they are sad?
It's all well and good to sit and stay in the difficult emotions with your child (see yesterday's post), but...then what? What's a parent to do AFTER the sitting and the staying?
Then comes the second most important part of parenting. The "doing something about it" part.
But what's a parent to do?
What do you do when your child is feeling sad and vulnerable because she wasn't invited to a birthday party? What do you do with your child's legitimate sadness about not having friends at their new school? What to do with the disappointment of not getting a good grade or making the team? Meet the need.
Just like when they were infants and you figured out they were crying because they were hungry, or tired, or in pain, or sick, or needed a diaper change and then met that need by feeding them, helping them get to sleep, addressed the source of the pain, helped them get better, or change their diaper, you meet the need they are having now. But this time it's NOT the practical need you're going to meet - you're NOT going to "fix the problem". No. This time, you're going to meet the emotional need.
So once you really understand the emotional experience of your child from their perspective, think for a moment: What need is being expressed by sadness? Or disappointment? Or anger? Or jealousy? Figure that out and then meet it!
We'll explore the needs of specific emotions in future blog posts. In the meanwhile, reflect on what YOU have needed in these different emotional states and consider if that may be the same for your child.
Ever have the impulse to sit with your child when they're in distress and stay in the uncomfortable feelings with them, without making any effort to change it?
I didn't think so.
Why is it so hard to just "be with"? To just see and hear and acknowledge what IS without trying to change it?
Well, for most people it's because it's excruciatingly uncomfortable.
Who really wants to sit and stay with feelings of sadness and rejection because our child didn't get invited to the birthday party? Or sit and stay with feelings of loneliness because our child is struggling to make friends at their new school? Or sit and stay with feelings of disappointment because they failed a test or didn't make the cut for the basketball team? No one. Not me. And, likely not you.
But, what if I told you that that's what your children need? Not a change of focus to the fun time you're going to have with them instead of them attending that silly party; not suggestions to meet people at their new school; not tips to improve their test score or their layup. What if I told you they just need for you to notice their feelings of sadness, loneliness, or disappointment and to sit and stay WITH them in those difficult feelings.
Even if it's uncomfortable for you.
Because it's uncomfortable for them.
But especially because it's even more uncomfortable for them to be in those hard emotional experiences....alone.