3 Tools for Parents During Anxious Seasons (AKA: 2020)
Name the Emotion | Sit in the Pain | Retell the Story
By Jacquelyn Larson, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
Experiencing Anxiety as Parents
The other day I was chatting with a girlfriend who also has a baby around my daughter’s age. We were talking supplements and nutrition and she told me she was having heart palpitations. “Me too!” I squealed, not really for the presence of heart palpitations but just thankful to not feel alone in my weird symptom that I had been catastrophizing over for weeks.
She went on to tell me how her nutritionist told her she wasn’t sure of a supplement and asked what the “trigger” might be. I laughed out loud... “Umm, introduction into motherhood… during a pandemic… where we’re isolated and alone and we’re not sure when it will end?” She laughed with me. The truth can be funny. And the truth of our reality is also really painful…and terribly anxiety provoking.
Because the truth is, we are at a higher rate of anxiety than ever before with not a lot of resources to “fix it.” Even in my own work, I have had to re-think the way I treat anxiety because many of the resources that were available before (i.e. engaging in community, recruiting support, etc.) simply aren’t options right now.
Before we go further, I find it helpful to give this vague term anxiety a proper definition.
In layman’s terms: anxiety is the intersection we face, of undervaluing our own ability to handle something and overvaluing the problem we face.
More specifically, let’s first look at what is happening in the brain when anxiety is occurring.
Our amygdala is the area in our brain that is activated when danger exists. It is our fight or flight. It tells us to run from a bear in the woods. It tells us to be cautious when we see a fin rise up near us in the ocean. It tells us to protect our young from those that might hurt them. It is constantly assessing for danger. It signals our body to pump adrenaline so we might become “superhuman” in response to a threat. And that is a great thing. Because when there is a bear in the woods, we should run. But when our amygdala “highjacks our brain” and tells us to run when there is no bear – that’s when anxiety is born.
Our bodies begin to respond to a threat over and over… and over, again without the real presence of danger. When this happens, we are unable to reason. See our amygdala’s do a fantastic job of keeping us alive if there is a bear, but they are unskilled, ill-equipped and useless when it comes to reason, complex thinking, creative problem solving, and the like.
So what do we do? Below I give a few powerful tools that will help us as parents to understand our child’s anxious thinking:
1. Name the Emotion
This tool is my absolute favorite to use with kids and I’ll be honest, when I use it on myself it helps tremendously. We must first name what it is we are fearing before we can do anything about it. Naming it provides not only direction (we are tackling this fear), but it also provides us a sense of validation and self-compassion to the struggle we are facing. Have you ever been anxious and some “well meaning” friend tells you, “just don’t worry about it.” It’s not helpful. In fact, when I hear this my amygdala goes, “oh, here’s 87,000 more reasons to be worried about it!” Remember… the amygdala is not reasonable. Its reactive. We have to validate the pain in the fear first. It is only when we voice the fear and process it that we can begin to slow down. This allows our prefrontal cortex (the area of our brain for reason) to take back the reins of our thoughts.
What’s more, as adults we have words to express our fear and anxiety! Our children do not have that same sophisticated language. Just think of all the ways you experience anxiety in your body: the tension in your shoulders and back, the possible stomachache or headache, the increased heart rate, the paralysis in making decisions or getting on with your day, the physical retreat or withdraw you intentionally or unintentionally make. The list goes on.
Now, imagine experiencing all of that and having no words or understanding of what or why it is happening. This is a child’s experience of anxiety and why most often as a therapist I see anxiety played out in “unwanted behaviors.” As a parent, you have the unique opportunity to name the experience… to give language to it and organize the child’s world as well as their pain. It is a powerful tool and a necessary component to a child’s emotional development. The simple act of saying, “I see you are so sad that school is not going back in session”, or “you’re frustrated and you want to throw your toys to express how angry you are.” This language tells the child you see them and that their experience is real and valid to you. This leads me to my 2nd step:
2. Sit In The Pain With Them
At this point, and for as long as it takes, we MUST allow ourselves to sit in the pain with our children. We live in a culture that is more interested in “fixing it” than in “sitting in it.” When we cannot “fix it”. The it becomes too painful to “sit with” and bad habits, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and anxious tendencies manifest.
Especially in the situation we find ourselves in with COVID, this step has become more integral to our emotional and mental health. Sometimes there isn’t a fix. We cannot return to school because numbers are too high, and this is something we must learn to mourn. In therapy land we call this “distress tolerance.” As parents we actually have the opportunity to model healthy distress tolerance to our children... that our feelings don’t have to rule us, that we can have these feelings in a healthy way without trying to run, fix, or ignore them. We stop the rumination of thoughts and the breeding of anxiety because we address the root of the issue. This does not look like moping about it and wallowing in our feelings. This sometimes looks like a good cry, holding our children, continuing to name how unfair or how sad the situation is… and (why I love Kylee Makes It) finding healthy ways to express the pain like through art!
As a parent, you will know when the ‘sitting in it’ has fulfilled its goal. The child will begin to regulate.
3. Retell the Story*:
Often, anxiety can stem from a real experience where there was a bear in the woods, the bear is now gone, but we are re-living that event. This can lead to toxic stress if not handled in a way that carries high support as parents.
For example: my daughter had an episode of SVT when she was 4 months old. This led to a heart rate of over 300 bpm, an ambulance ride to the hospital where doctors and nurses poked needles in her arm to start an IV so medicine could be administered, and a few nights stay in hospital being monitored by every machine possible. It was traumatic for her (and me). I got so angry with the nurses who told me, “she’s so young, she won’t remember this.” Not true! Her body, her implicit memory, will remember this! She had endured trauma and without any organization of her pain or experience the stress would become toxic. In this situation, when she would scream in the middle of the night holding her little fists so tight I began to retell her the story of what had happened. “That was so scary when your heart was beating so fast, and then the ambulance came with strangers who took you and mommy to the hospital. And then there were bright lights with all those people staring at us. And they had to put needles in your arm to give you medicine and that hurt. But then we got medicine and your heart rate went back to normal and you felt better and you fell asleep on mommy’s chest.” As I recounted the story to her, put words to her experience, validated her emotions in it and organized her pain, she would calm. At 4 months… she tracked with me on every detail of the story with her little noises. I retold that story to her for a month. It was necessary for her to handle the experience that saved her life but was also incredibly scary.
Whether your child is 4 months or 10 years old, this is crucial to helping a child handle stress and organize a world that might feel incredibly out of control. If your child is old enough, have them retell the story to you. You can do it with them to help them get used to retracing each detail. The more you tell the story, the more ownership is taken and the less the child feels like the story is overwhelming or unmanageable.
This last step is borrowed from the book “The Whole-brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.” which I HIGHLY recommend to all parents.
*Siegel, Daniel J., Tina Payne Bryson, and OverDrive Inc. The Whole-brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. New York: Random House, 2011.
Jacquelyn Larson is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (115070) under the supervision of Janelle Froehlich, LMFT (90564) at Teen Translation, inc in Southern California. She has experience as a therapist, coach, speaker and artist and leads with creativity, humor, and compassion in the work she does. She holds a Masters of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA and is passionate about seeing families and couples thrive.