Joyful Parenting Tool: Acceptance, change, and your kid's anxiety
As parents, we want the best for our kids. We also want to protect them whenever possible from negative feelings. I would love to wrap my son up in protective bubble wrap and ensure that no physical or emotional harm ever befall him. However, that would make for a rather poorly-adjusted adult. And, really, my job is to raise a human who can function in the real world. Sometimes our instinct to protect our kids and our responsibility to help them become the most adaptive versions of themselves come into conflict. This conflict gets heated when our kids are anxious about something and all we want to do is “fix it” and spare them discomfort. Let’s talk about how to do both: supporting our kids and encouraging them to overcome their fears.
If you’re thinking this “and” thing sounds awfully familiar, good work, smarty pants! We are using our dialectical framework from Dialectical Behavior Therapy to support our anxious and/or avoidant kids. As parents we have roles that may at first glance seem contradictory, but can actually coexist. Actually these roles must co-exist. Effective parenting relies on our ability to both unconditionally love and accept our children just as they are right now AND challenge them to learn, grow and adapt. This is fundamental balancing act of DBT: acceptance and change. This post relies heavily on content from the book Wise Minded Parenting, which I cannot recommend highly enough – click here to buy through an affiliate link!
But first… What does “Wise Mind” even mean? This DBT phrase refers to the integration our emotional instincts (or “Emotion Mind”) and our rational awareness (or “Logic Mind”). Both offer valuable insight, and when we think and act from a place that honors both (instead of allowing one side to take over), we are using our “Wise Mind”. This is where we are most effective. When we approach our children’s anxiety from a “Wise Minded” approach, we engage our emotional side to empathize with our children and validate the distress of anxiety. At the same time, we engage our logical side to motivate and reinforce adaptive behavior that encourages our kids to overcome anxiety.
Per Dr. Laura Kastner, in Wise Minded Parenting, with anxious kids, it becomes clear that at some point, if the child is left to their own devices, they will miss important growth experiences. Our job as parents is to support self-regulation so that they can cope with challenges. Remember: if we allow our kids to avoid all anxiety, we end up reinforcing those fears. Granted, you know your child best and know when they need an emergency escape hatch. But when we cave and pick a sobbing child up early from school, we reinforce the message that she doesn’t have the skills necessary to survive the school day. And when we let him skip that birthday party he was really excited about until the very last minute, we reinforce that social situations are pretty scary and avoiding them is for the best.
To best support our kids, we need to understand what’s happening when they are worked up and anxious (and why lecturing them into a non-anxious state isn’t going to work…). When we are triggered by an experience we perceive as threatening/scary, the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala) is activated. Our heart rate increases, adrenaline is released, and our bodies prepare for “fight or flight”. The “danger” triggering your child may not be life-threatening, but their physical and emotional response to it is very real. Think of the last time you were called into your boss’s office. Probably (hopefully?) it wasn’t a life-threatening encounter, but you may still have noticed feeling a bit shaky or having an increased heart rate.
So even though in reality the situation may not be as dire as it feels to your child, the first step is to validate their emotions. Let’s not discount their feelings of fear, panic, or anxiety…the phrases “don’t worry about it” or “it’s no big deal” are rarely helpful once your child is extremely upset. In fact, they are likely to prompt your child to dig in and try to prove just how overwhelming this situation is. Something along the lines of “wow, I can see why you would feel nervous about that” is likely much more helpful.
Similarly, problem-solving needs to be on pause until your child is less overwhelmed. I, for one, am not a huge fan of problem solving attempts while I'm in the throes of expressing how overwhelmed I feel. My husband can attest to that. Here’s why: once the brain is triggered, the amygdala’s warning sounds will “hijack” the superhighways of the brain and take precedence over the more rational conscious processing. This means:
Fear reactions overrule thinking processes
Our emotional centers are triggered many times faster than our thinking brains
In order to recover rational thinking, we first need to calm down
Kids and adults with anxious temperaments get a lot of “false alarms” setting off the amygdala. This puts them at risk of missing out on life experiences as they will develop the tendency to avoid new or challenging situations. So how do we balance supporting our kids when their alarm bells are firing, without reinforcing their anxiety? Here is a step-by-step guide from Wise Minded Parenting:
Skip the lecture! Avoiding dismissing the fears
Label the emotion and sensation: “Going new places give you waves of anxiety in your stomach that feel awful”
Validate the feeling: “That makes sense! Trying new things can make anyone nervous!”
Use positive messages: “I am confident that you can do this”
Praise courage and self-soothing attempts: “I see you using your deep breathing to help you feel brave. Way to go!”
Negotiate a plan to help cope with anxiety while following through on commitments, “How about you go to the party for a half an hour and then we decide if you want to stay?”
Set extrinsic rewards: “If you make it through the sleepover, let’s go out for breakfast after I pick you up!”
More tips from Wise Minded Parenting to provide a balance between acceptance and change:
At whatever pace works, insist that your child do new things that challenge them
Provide plenty of warning, but let them experience (and manage) anxiety
Remain firm, but compromise on small details that will help them cope
Validate feelings, then help your child come up with solutions
Remember that your child is doing the best he can
Remember that you, too, are doing the best you can! Finding the balance of supporting and challenging our kids is tough. Practice validating your own emotions and rewarding your efforts too. You deserve it, my friend.