It’s normal for us to feel anxious from time to time. In fact, it’s a necessity. Anxiety helps to keep us safe. It alerts us to potential dangers in our environment – a car hurtling towards us, a child stepping into the road, a stranger following us etc.
When we look to nature, we can see how anxiety works in the natural world. A gazelle sees a lion on the prowl. It’s instincts kick in and he’s on high alert. The lion gives chase, the gazelle goes into fight or flight mode and runs for his life and having successfully escaped the lion, the gazelle simply returns to grazing.
This is exactly how we’re supposed to work – only feeling anxious in-the-moment when our life is threatened. But somewhere along the way we’ve learnt that non life-threatening situations are events to be feared, such as exams, other people or a job interview, for example and we’ve learnt to fear them for prolonged periods of time. When anxiety becomes overwhelming in this way, to the point that it interferes with our everyday lives, people suffer.
As a parent, when our child is suffering we will do anything to take that pain away from them. However, when we see how anxiety really works, we can help them to navigate their feelings with ease and grace.
In simple terms, anxiety is just a feeling – a puff of energy, that arises into a thought and like any other thought, we feel it, but left alone, it simply fades away ready for another moment, another thought and another feeling to take its place. That’s what being human is – a string of moments buffering up against one another, giving us our embodied experience of life, from the good, the bad and the ugly.
So the goal is not to make anxiety go away. The goal is to help your child see that their anxiety is made of thought! Just like we get to see who the real Wizard of Oz is once the curtain is pulled back, we can begin to see the true nature of our mental health when we see how anxiety is really created and that we don’t need the Wizard to help us get home, because the capacity to go home is always with us, just as it was for Dorothy! She just didn’t know.
So if you have a child who is suffering from anxiety, here are five ways in which you can support them through challenging times.
Understand where you’re at first
Our thinking is the only variable in our human experience, which means we never get to experience the world directly. We can only know it through the filter of our own thinking. This means there are 8 billion different realities! So when we’re trying to support our child during an anxious time, it really helps to know that our own thoughts and feelings can impact how we see and support our child’s suffering.
So check in with yourself first. How are you feeling? Is their anxiety making you anxious? Are you frustrated because you don’t think they should feel this way? Are you worried or sad?
The best way you can serve your child is from a place of love and peace. It may sound woo-woo, and yes, it’s hard, but when we’re operating from that place, we are offering the very best of ourselves to them. Better solutions come to us and we know just what to do, whether that’s simply to sit and listen or take action.
Are you REALLY listening?
Active listening is actually a skill and much harder than you might think. We all have our own beliefs and opinions, so our view of the world will always be tainted in alignment with these, unless we’re mindful of them!
Next time you’re in conversation with your child, whether it’s regarding anxiety or not, notice how your mind wanders! Look out for how your own belief systems are influencing your thoughts and reset yourself. Here are some things to look out for:
– Be in the moment. Be fully with your child. Feel alongside and validate their story, but don’t take on their feelings. Give visual cues to let them know you’re with them such as eye-contact, and head-nodding to confirm you understand what they’re saying. Put away distractions such as phones and computers. Your child needs to know that they have your undivided attention.
If your mind wanders, bring it back to now. It’s not wrong if it does that- that’s just what minds do. They make connections from conversations or your environment and go off on their own tangent. Noticing when that happens though, will enable you to come back to the present moment.
–Listen without judgement. Most of the time we find that our thoughts are criticising or judging what is being said or we’re listening to create a response in our head whilst the other person is still speaking. We’re waiting for a pause or a break in the conversation so that we can regurgitate what our mind is so eager to say! When we are truly present and engaged with another person, it makes them feel valued and cared-for.
– Be ok with silence. We generally feel awkward when there are silences within a conversation and we tend to scrabble around for something to say just to fill the void. However, these silences are necessary in order for your child have the space they need to reflect on what’s being said. It offers them the opportunity to see deeper and add further to the conversation if they want to. So don’t be compelled to fill in the gaps – as far as conversation goes, it’s quality not quantity that counts!
– Repeat back what was said. When the opportunity arises, sum up what your child has said by saying back to them. Doing this will let your child know that they are being heard and that you understand what they have said. It’s further validation that you’re listening and once again gives them the opportunity reflect on their own thoughts and feelings.
You don’t need to fix something that’s not broken
We often approach issues, especially when it comes to our children, with a view to fixing them. Of course we would! Why wouldn’t we, when all we want to do is stop our child from suffering?
But what if your child isn’t broken? What if your child is perfectly psychologically well, but for their thinking? There’s nothing to manage or fix because anxiety as a ‘thing’ is an illusion. I appreciate that if you’re hearing this for the first time, that idea might sound heartless or dismissive since it certainly doesn’t feel like an illusion to anybody who’s experiencing it ( I know, I’ve been there), but what if anxiety was actually fluid like water, albeit it gives the appearance of solidity, like ice?
If your child could see on a deeper level that anxiety is simply a label given to a feeling and like all feelings, it’s designed to flow, what difference would that make? If the only reason they got stuck in that feeling , was because they were innocently giving it more attention by trying to manage or get rid of it, it might start to feel less solid.
When it comes to anxiety, it’s also helpful to understand that it’s made of the same stuff as all thoughts – energy! It literally is a burst of energy in the form of a thought, which left alone, will simply disappear. There’s no substance to it. It’s not solid or real. On the contrary, the only thing that is real is our innate wellbeing. It’s our unbreakable true nature – it’s the place we always return to when our thinking settles.
It’s our anxious feelings that come and go because those feelings are always and only caused by the thinking that they’re believing to be true in that moment. When your child is not thinking those anxious thoughts, anxiety literally doesn’t exist. When they are, and they believe those thoughts to be true, they feel solid and real and it then feels like a ‘thing’ that needs to be fixed. But the truth is, your child isn’t anxious, they just feel anxious. There’s a big difference.
Get curious about anxiety
Rather than approaching anxiety as something real that your child has to find ways to manage or live with, explore it with your child. What do they think is the cause? Speaking in front of the class? Experiencing new things? Spiders? Heights? Whatever it is that they think is the cause of their feelings, start to question it. How true is it? Do they feel anxious every time they’re in that situation? If not, why not? If yes, is it with the same level of intensity everytime? If it really was that thing that caused anxiety, wouldn’t it make everyone feel anxious?
Start gently prodding and poking around the topic. Use phrases like, ‘Isn’t it interesting that…… (sometimes you feel this way when you’re in this situation and sometimes you don’t?)’ and why do you think that is? Discuss their feelings – how do they feel when they are experiencing anxiety vs when they are not. What thinking are they having when they’re anxious? Could these feelings be a part of them, or could they be passing through?
Curiosity will give you and your child some space around their feelings. It will make their anxiety feel less solid and more fluid. You can start to unravel it together. By being curious, you’re opening yourselves up to seeing something new!
Despite there being no actual substance to anxiety, it absolutely feels real. Those uncomfortable feelings – the sweaty palms, pounding heart, dizziness, butterflies in the belly etc. are like the special effects department of your child’s thinking! They might not be aware of the thinking that’s causing their anxiety, so they’ll attribute their feelings to their situation. Telling your child that their feelings are coming from their thinking, is likely not to sink in immediately because it’s a complete 180 degree flip to what they’ve always been told. It’s not easy to see off the bat that there is a correlation with a situation and anxiety and not a causation.
That’s where being curious about anxiety comes in. You get to explore it together and see what you can see about it and you can find different ways to point to the same thing. For instance, I like to use the weather metaphor to describe feelings and emotions as it’s a simple idea that children can easily understand.
Giving your child your time and attention to work through the feelings of anxiety that they are experiencing, will be a huge support for them.
Making yourself available for your child is one of the most supportive things you can do in helping them see through anxiety
As hard as it is, try not to be pulled into your child’s suffering. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t validate their feelings, it just means feel alongside them, don’t share their feelings with them. It’s the difference between jumping in the hole with them to help them out (then you’re both stuck) or standing on the edge and shouting, “I understand that it’s cold and dark down there, but I’m here to help you.” That serves both you and your child in a far better way.
Overall, remember that all humans are innately well by design and support your child from that place. Talk to their always-there-wellbeing and not their temporary, arbitrary anxious thinking. That’s not who they are. When they see that you see that they’re OK, no matter what, they begin to see it for themselves too.
As I said at the beginning, the goal is not to rid them of anxiety, it’s to help them see that they are ok despite it!
Anxiety: Further Reading
If you’d like to read more about how you can understand anxiety on fundamental level, A Little Peace of Mind (The Revolutionary Solution for Freedom from Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Stress) by Nicola Bird is a great place to start.
Dr Amy Johnson also has fantastic resources available on her website, as well as two books The Little Book of Big Change and Just A Thought.