Anxiety and Parenting
Our latest blog series here at New Leaf counseling has been about anxiety. On our last blog post we spent time sharing some basic information about anxiety to gain an understanding around it. Today we are going to overview that information then dive a little deeper and talk about how anxiety impacts relationships, specifically parenting.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a response from a part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is smart, strong, brave, and a little overprotective at times. It has one job- to keep us safe. Anxiety, the response out of the amygdala, can alert us when we are in an unsafe environment and creates an automatic response to get away from a threat. These responses are, fight, flight or freeze. Based on the environment, these responses can look different but they essentially have the same goal, to get away from threat.
The amygdala does not consider the difference between a real or an imaged threat and sometimes, people experience anxiety in a safe environment and still get stuck in a fight, flight or freeze response. Essentially, our amygdala gets to work when we don’t need it to and instead of feeling like a part of us, it can feel like all of us.
Two Kinds of Anxiety
Feeling stuck in anxiety is the difference between acute and chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety includes moments where you might feel anxious but it doesn’t last. An example of this could be feeling anxious before a presentation but then feeling better once the presentation is over.
Chronic (persistent) anxiety is when the anxious feelings don’t go away and you can’t always figure out why you’re feeling anxious. Chronic anxiety is exhausting and what we, as counselors here at New Leaf, want to help individuals work through by utilizing healthy coping and regulations skills.
Anxiety and Parenting
When we experience anxiety, that can impact relationships as well. Sometimes when we feel afraid or anxious, we don’t know what to do with it and we can take it out of others. We can experience fight, flight or freeze responses in relationships. With parenting, you can probably easily imagine a fight response between you and your child. Flight could be withdrawing from a conversation, giving the silent treatment, fleeing an argument, or running away from an experience that has either of you activated. Freeze responses can lead to us a shutting down all together; at worse this can be disassociating.
Sometimes when we’re anxious, the ones we love the most, the ones we feel safest with, are the ones we hurt the most. We take our fear or our anxiety and we put it on another person.
Parents experience this with kids regularly and as the adults in the relationship, it is our job to practice containing their emotional experience and modeling and teaching them how to regulate in order to move through anxiety.
When our kids or ourselves experience distress, we can have extreme responses. It doesn't have to stay this way; we can learn to slow down in moments of panic in order learn and listen. We call this regulating and once we have regulated, we are in a position to rest in what is true.
The goal of regulation is to be able to identify symptoms, build anxiety tolerance and in turn, increase differentiation. Parents, you can help your kids identify their emotions through externalizing yours. Emotion wheels are a very helpful to in identifying emotions; it gives examples of things you might be feeling, thinking or ways you might be behaving based on a particular emotion. Once you have identified an emotion, you have an opportunity to acknowledge it, move through it and then build anxiety tolerance.
Anxiety tolerance is being able to say, “I did this before, I can do this again and maybe this time it will be a little easier.”
By identifying your emotions and building anxiety tolerance, one has the opportunity to increase differentiation, which is knowing that you can be okay even if others are not okay. This is particularly helpful with parents. We don’t like to see our kids uncomfortable or in distress and it can make us want to rescue them from uncomfortable experiences. Our work as parents is being able to let our kids have uncomfortable experiences knowing that it will increase their anxiety tolerance and emotional awareness. This doesn’t mean our kids can’t ask for help and this doesn’t mean we don’t ever step it. It means that we are a consistent presence that says, “I am with you even if I can’t do all of this for you”.
Through owning our anxiety and inviting our kids to own theirs, we give them the gift of empowerment.
Some practical skills for regulating include:
Name it to tame it: naming the emotion out loud so that it loses its power in you
Breathing exercises: box breathing or breathing with a stuffed animal on your stomach
Five senses exercise: name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Resources for regulating:
What is True?
Once your child has regulated and is in a place to listen and learn, you can help them name what was happening around them when they felt anxious, what was happening inside of them, and what is actually true about the moment.
When one experiences anxiety, the emotional safety in relationships can be grounding and a source of security.
When we stay present with our kids and don’t panic with them, we stay connected and give them the gift of a stable source that leads from love not, not fear.
Once our kids have more data around what activated them and we learn from their insight, both parent and child gets to move through anxiety, knowing more about themselves and their emotional experiences.
Personal Responsibility & Empowerment
Owning your anxiety and empowering others to own theirs takes practice and trust. In parent/ child relationships, this does not mean that one can’t ask for help, it just means that we let our kids practice owning their emotions and being responsible for them.
Empowerment says, "I believe in you and I’m with you."
If we don't believe in ourselves, there are times when empowerment can feel like abandonment.
If we don’t think we have what it takes, we can misplace rescue and feel rejection.
As you’re regulating and resting in what is true, one of the best things you can do for yourself, and teach your kids, is know who you are.
Know your value you and know your worth.
It’s not always easy, but when you give yourself to the discomfort of persistence in the midst of panic, you’re able to access peace.
This gets easier with practice; when we move through anxiety we have an increase in self confidence and an increase in connection and trust for those that empower us.
This is no small task but, parents, you are not alone. We can model being a steady foundation for our kids. Empower them and direct them to the hands that know how to hold anxiety with perfect care. When we put all of our anxieties in the hands of God, it not only separates us from anxiety and worry but it brings us closer to Him. His sovereignty gives us a solid foundation to walk through the circumstances that make us feel anxious.
Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." - 1 Peter 5:7