How can I calm my teen’s anxiety if I can’t even calm my own?
Let’s face it, kids are tough. Being a parent is hard. Rewarding, but hard. So, what happens when your child experiences a bit of anxiety that you are all too familiar with? You try your best to help them. Sometimes it’s through listening, providing emotional or physical comfort, giving them space, or problem solving. Whether they’re quick to respond or need a full day, your child’s anxiety subsides. They feel good, you feel good, and all is good in the world. But what happens when your child’s anxiety shows itself and your anxiety is also revving? That’s when being a parent is hard. That’s when thoughts of self-doubt can rear their ugly head: “I can’t do this. I’m not prepared for a moody teenager. What was I thinking asking my child to calm down when I can’t even calm down?”
In those moments, it’s easy to be self-critical and feel like a failure. Shame, fear, and disappointment now all have a seat at the table. What to do then? Well, take that shame, fear, and disappointment to your therapist and gently pull at the thread that is holding everything together. You’ll learn something new about yourself, I promise.
In the meantime, however, disengage. Anxiety breeds anxiety. When we’re feeling anxious, our thinking brain goes offline and problem solving, rationalizing, making sense of anything is extremely difficult. It’s also challenging to feel connected and safe around others. You need your emotional brain to settle for your rational brain to come back online, feel connected with others, and help you see/feel differently. The same thing goes for your child.
So, when your child’s anxiety is ramping up and yours is as well, take some space, then comfort your child and talk about it. To quote my favorite true crime podcasters, Karen Kilgarriff and Georgia Hardstark, say gently and calmly, “Look, listen,” and in your own words, tell them “I might not know exactly what’s going on for you, but I think you should know I’m noticing my own anxiety about _________ is making it difficult for me to understand what you’re going through right now. I want you to know we are ok and I’m here for you. I’m going to take a 10-minute break to gather myself and I promise to come back to you so we can see if that’s a better time for us to connect.”
Once you have some private space, my suggestion to you is to pause, breath slowly and deeply, place a hand on the part of your body you feel anxious, and notice that you feel some sort of way. Remind that part of yourself that you won’t forget this anxiety, and you will talk about it with your therapist next session. For now, you need to be there for your child. Validating the anxious parts of us usually calms them down enough for us to reconnect with others.
After your 10 minutes have passed, go to your child (don’t tell them to come to you) and ask them if they’re in a good state to talk. If they don’t want to talk, ask them what would help them right now. If your child is unsure, offer up some options like a hug, change of scenery, reassurance, space, etc. Our nervous system can regulate on its own, but even more effectively and efficiently in the presence of someone we feel deeply connected to and safe with (especially if that other person is calm). It’s not your job to solve your child’s problems or make their anxiety disappear. A therapist can help them gain tools and skills to manage their anxiety long-term. As a parent, it is your job to provide a calm and safe environment for your child to show up as their true self. Once you can calm your own anxiety, your regulated nervous system can help calm your child’s anxiety by simply trying to connect with them. Offer any of the previously mentioned ways like listening, comforting, giving space, or problem solving. If your child doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s ok. You can ask them to listen to you instead. And tell them that you know it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant to feel that way because you feel that way sometimes too. And it’s ok to feel anxious sometimes. Let your child know you’re there to talk if they need you, and if they don’t want to talk to you, you can help them find a therapist they might feel comfortable with to explore their anxiety.
Remember, take space, breath deeply, validate the anxious parts of yourself, and provide an open space to connect and re-engage with your child. Your loving and supportive presence will allow their nervous system to feel safe so that their anxiety can subside.
You’ve got this.
Reach out to us.
We can help.