Are you nurturing anxiety rather than nurturing your child?
Last week I was walking with my ten year old son to school, a democratic school in the south of Paris. “I can’t believe”, he said, “all the things I used to be scared of”.
Nor can I. Because when he was nine, his fears were many, and they controlled his and my life. He was scared to leave the house much of the time, with worries about being mugged, or being murdered. He wasn’t keen for me to leave the house either, and would physically stop me. When we attended groups he would stick by my side, worried that I might leave without him. I never dropped him off at a group, even a familiar one. It was an effort for him to walk across a building to the toilet without me. And when I say an effort, I mean he would shake, cry, keep an eye on me the whole time and sometimes come running back, saying he’d got lost and needed me with him. Often he couldn’t do it at all and I would go with him, standing outside the door in case he got locked in, walking back with him in case he got lost.
Just in case.
Our life was ruled by just in case. Every trip out was governed by his need to stay close to me at all times. Only with a very few friends did he feel relaxed enough to actually play rather than constantly check when we were leaving and whether I was still there. When we were home educators, people were mostly very kind about it and made accommodations. I went to the Laserquest centre when the other parents dropped their kids off. I jumped on the trampoline next to him at the trampoline park. I sat in the sports group when the other mothers were swimming and drinking coffee outside. I stayed in the karate class, where me sitting at the side of the hall was too much for him so I had to sit right in the class with the other children (who were all younger than him, because that was the only class which would allow parents to stay in). I stayed at every party, every playdate.
And the anxiety never got any better. Worse than that, I started to feel it too. I would spend our time out scanning for things that would trigger his anxiety – perhaps a door that might close between us. A toilet door that might be tricky to unlock. A room where he couldn’t see me all the time. The world became full of perils invisible to the rest of the world, but waiting to ambush him and me.
So what actually is anxiety?
Anxiety. We have all experienced it, perhaps before taking an exam, or a driving test. It’s part of being human. Psychologists understand anxiety as part of the way our brain and body reacts to a perceived threat. If we see something threatening, a small part of the brain called the amygdala triggers a protective response – often called the Fight, Flight or Freeze (FFF) response.
It makes perfect sense if you think about the threat as a wild animal who might attack. If you meet a lion in the jungle, your options are few – fight if you might win, run away if you can run fast enough, or stay very still and hope that the lion won’t notice you. There’s no point in talking to the lion, or staying calm and relaxed and walking on by. This response is not a conscious one, we don’t get to choose when our body goes into fight flight or freeze, because staying alive is way too important for our brain to give us a choice about it.
But often in the modern world, FFF gets triggered by things which really can’t be addressed by fighting, running away or staying still – a tax return form, for example, or social situations. And it can make it more difficult for us to focus, and it makes us want to run away from situations when we really need to stay. Our amygdala can be triggered by things which aren’t actually dangerous – I’ve met people who are terrified of balloons, safety pins and baked beans (yes really) but have you ever tried fighting a balloon or a baked bean? It just makes things loud or messy.
Because the FFF response doesn’t feel pleasant, many of us try to avoid it. We stay away from things which make us feel anxious – which solves the immediate problem and stops us feeling anxious, but creates another problem, which is that our body never gets a chance to learn that actually that thing we’re avoiding wasn’t so dangerous at all. And it can have a big knock on effect on our ability to live fulfilling and interesting lives.
This is what was happening to us. My son was so busy avoiding sources of anxiety, that he never got a chance to find out that actually perhaps spending a few minutes alone, or taking a longer route to the toilet by mistake wasn’t so bad after all. And I was helping him with that, helping him to avoid his emotions, rather than helping him to discover that the world wasn’t so frightening after all.
Everyone gets anxious
I know we are not alone.
All children will feel anxious sometimes, whether they tell us about it or not. Children who have had bad experiences of schooling may start to feel anxious about other children, because it reminds them of school. Or they become anxious about reading, or numbers. But also, children who apparently have never had really bad experiences can be anxious, because it’s a normal human emotion – and if they react by avoiding whatever they were anxious about, then the anxiety will get worse.
It’s a dilemma for parents, because anxiety is not a nice feeling, and as parents we want to help our children feel better. So parents, particularly those who are responsive to their children’s emotions, can start helping their children avoid things, and before you know it, the whole family spends their time avoiding things rather than exploring them.
Adrian and the dangerous dogs
I knew a child, Adrian, who was afraid of dogs. His parents decided to help him avoid dogs so that he wouldn’t feel afraid. This turned out to be more difficult than they first thought. It meant that they couldn’t go to the park, for example, or to the beach. Walks in town were also risky, everyone had to keep an eye out at all times in case a dog appeared and then they would all turn around and walk in the opposite direction. One of them would act as a look out, and would shout out if they saw a dog in the distance so that Adrian could turn around before he even caught a glimpse of it. There were dogs in places that they had never noticed them before, outside shops, in cafés, even guide dogs on the buses and trains. Very quickly, avoiding dogs became the focus of the whole family whenever they went out, and had to be taken into account whenever a plan was made.
Over time, Adrian became more afraid of dogs, rather than less. He started to feel panicky at even the idea of seeing a dog. And the rest of his family also started to feel anxious about dogs, because his reaction was so extreme. They were all thoroughly in a ‘dogs are dangerous and we need to avoid them’ way of thinking about the world.
If anxiety is normal, then what can we do?
So what’s the answer? How can parents who care about their children’s feelings help them with their anxiety? It’s a puzzle for parents who do not force their children to learn, and who trust that they will learn in their own time.
Well I can tell you what we did. When I realised my part in keeping my son’s anxiety alive, I decided that I personally was going to make an effort to stop making decisions based on avoiding anxiety. First up, I said I would no longer sit in the sports session which we had been attending for a year. Instead I would sit just outside the hall and if the children needed me they could come and get me. We knew the sports coach and she was not scary. When I told the children this my son cried and cried. He said there was no way he could manage alone in the sports session, that I was being horrible and forcing him.
I realised that by my always being with him, he had formed the belief that he couldn’t manage without me – and he was never getting any experiences which helped him learn him otherwise.
I stayed firm. I said that I knew he could cope. He wavered between totally refusing to go and saying that he would force me to stay in. I said that we would go anyway because my daughter wanted to, but that I would not stay in. He could stay out with me if he wanted, but I had work to do and it would be boring.
It sounds easy but it was awful. I felt terrible. What was I doing to him, refusing to stay by his side? Was I going to break his trust in me forever?
Still, I could see that the present situation wasn’t helping. We’d been going to this class for a year and he loved it, but he was never ready to let me leave – he even accompanied me to the toilet if I had to go.
I knew that I needed to make a shift from helping my children to avoid anxiety, to helping children tolerate anxiety and live life whether they feel anxious or not. And the first step was that I needed to tolerate my own anxiety about leaving him and trust that he would cope.
The sports session went fine. He cried at the start but then relaxed. He started to be happy to go and I was able to swim whilst he was in the session. But it didn’t extend to him feeling able to be left in other situations, even familiar ones.
We then took the very big decision to find a democratic school for him to attend. We had been unschooling since the start and were committed to self-directed learning. However, I felt that in order for him to feel relaxed enough to be himself and to explore life, he needed the opportunity be regularly separate from me in a environment where he could interact with other people on his own terms. We talked about this openly in the family. He was very anxious and very upset about it – as I predicted. Anxiety is very upsetting. But it doesn’t mean that avoiding it makes it better. It just squashes it down, waiting to pop out in another situation.
So we moved to Paris and in May both my children started at a democratic school. Without me. And here we are, eight months later, and many of the fears which preoccupied his and my life have gone. I can leave the house and no one bars the door in case of murderers. We can all go out, without constant checking for muggers. We can go to the toilet alone, even in new places. He can talk to other adults without me.
He’s still anxious. That’s normal. There are still things he doesn’t feel able to do. But he knows that this will change, just as his anxiety about the sports session and the school did. And so do I, because I now have faith in his ability to cope.
Recognising our own part and making the decision to change
Anxious children want to stop feeling anxious, and they recruit their parents to help them with this aim. But not feeling the full range of emotions isn’t possible without limiting your life.
Many people do limit their lives to avoid anxiety. There are people who never leave the house. There are people who wash their hands hundreds of times a day to avoid their fear of dirt. There are people who never get the bus so they can avoid their fear of public transport. There are people who never talk about anything important to them for fear of upsetting others. I’ve met lots of these people, the focus of their life is on avoiding anxiety, rather than on doing the things they love and enjoy.
I think this is particularly dangerous for self-directed learners, because avoiding anxiety limits a person’s capacity to explore the world. Put bluntly, your capacity for learning and having new experiences will be damaged if your priority is avoiding anxiety. Every time Adrian’s family didn’t go to the beach or park or refused an invitation in order to avoid dogs, they all missed out. Every time I stayed in the sports session, my son missed out on a chance to learn that he could be safe without me.
Children don’t know this because they trust their parents to know what is safe and what isn’t. So if parents behave as if anxiety is harmful and best avoided, their children will believe them.
This means that the change has to start with us. We cannot wait for our children to take the lead in facing their anxiety, whilst showing them through our behaviour that we believe they are not capable of doing so.
We need to tolerate our own anxiety about our children, and acknowledge to our children that we also have difficult feelings. Recently I hired a car in Paris for the first time, and had to drive it through rush hour in the dark. I was terrified, traffic was very busy, I had to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and the car was unfamiliar. I said to the children ‘I’m feeling that my heart is beating fast, my hands are sweaty. My brain thinks I’m in danger but I know it’s just because I haven’t driven in France for a while. It will get better as I get used to it.’.
And it did.
Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents – Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons
Things Might Go Terribly Horribly Wrong – Kelly Wilson
Parenting Your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance – Christopher McCurry