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Children can be anxious, too: Tips for consciously parenting little worriers

Forget the qualities you wish to fix. Focus on the qualities you wish to strengthen.

Children can be anxious, too: Tips for consciously parenting little worriers

I recently had the honor of sitting down for a chat with Dr. Shefali Tsabary, pioneer of the conscious parenting movement. Conscious parenting is based on the idea that children have the power to spark a transformation so deep within a parent that we begin to learn and grow alongside them. In other words, raising children is also very much about raising ourselves as parents.


I asked for her insight on raising anxious children through the lens of conscious parenting.

Below are Dr. Shefali’s beautifully articulated words on how to consciously parent anxious children along with three powerful tools:

When our children suffer, it is like 10 thousand arrows pierce our heart.

When we watch them anguish, it is like being buried underground with no hope for air.

When we watch them obsess over details, worrying about every cloud, bump or twist on this journey of life, it is like our own skin burns with fear as we wonder, “Will they ever just be happy and carefree?”

Raising a happy child is the holy grail of parenting. Well this… and raising them to be successful. If there is one thing that derails both these goals it is anxiety.

In all my years as a clinical psychologist, if there is one element of parenting that brings despair, confusion and torment, it is this: witnessing your child’s anxiety.

While some kids are wired to be highly sensitive and fragile in the face of life’s twists and turns—giving the impression there is nothing we can really do as parents—I am here to offer you three powerful tools that you can use when helping your child cope with their anxiety. These tools may not dissolve the anxiety altogether, but will help ease it’s sharp stings a bit.

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But first, a caveat: All my work is focused on the transformation within the parent.

My mandate? Raise the parent before you raise the child.

What does this mean? It means that unless we parents undertake the task of parenting our own selves and becoming aware of our own unconscious emotional baggage, we will be unable to raise our children to be who it is they are meant to be. I firmly believe that if we don’t first change ourselves as parents, we will be unable to set our children free. (More details available in my book, The Awakened Family.)

1. Be conscious of your own anxiety around anxiety

Most parents have huge unconscious reactions to their children’s anxiety. Without realizing, they react in ways that are more unproductive than helpful.

DO NOT:

-Lecture, sermonize, rationalize, dictate and control

-Instruct, micromanage, question or shame

All of these instincts arise because of the parent’s own anxiety and have nothing to do with the actual anxiety the child is facing.

It is key to understand how our own anxious energy perpetuates our children’s anxieties.

DO:

-Be aware: Notice when your own body get anxious. Pay attention to your heart rate, your shoulders, jaw and stomach. If you feel any anxiety, it is time to turn inward and soothe yourself either through deep breaths, a walk outside or talking to a trusted confidante. Trying to help your child when you yourself are anxious is a complete waste of time.

-Ask yourself: A key process in conscious parenting is to become aware of our own energy in the moment, especially our anxious energy. Ask questions like: What is this triggering within me right now? What does this remind me of in my own life? How can I best help them if I myself am unraveling?

-Make a clear choice: Once you are aware of your own anxiety, you can make a choice: Should I deal with this anxiety myself or get help? If the anxiety is too much for you to bear then you may need to seek outside help with a therapist or life coach. This choice can only be made—in the child’s best interest—once you are willing to face your own demons and look in the mirror

-Take action: Once you have chosen a particular path—either to deal with the anxiety yourself or with outside guidance—it is time to start implementing new strategies. Unless the daily routine at home doesn’t change and the interactions between yourself and your child do not change—in actual DNA—then nothing will change within your child. For this to occur, you need to be heavily involved as a parent. You need to be present, attuned and available. You may need to help your kid become more mindful, slow down, and be more present. None of these can occur unless these muscles are strengthened within yourself.

-Break the cycle: Remember the pieces of this equation and seek to break the pattern. Every small break creates seismic shifts within your child.

Anxiety results in parent’s helplessness... which results in a desire to control... which results in a reaction like yelling or shaming... which results in more anxiety in the child.

The only way to break the cycle is for the parent to become conscious of their own anxiety around anxiety.

2. Do not resist anxiety; accept it

In our desire to rid ourselves of the helplessness of having to deal with an anxious child, we seek to rid our children of the anxiety right away. We don’t want the anxiety to exist. Period. Little do we realize that what we resist, persists.

DO NOT:

-Force the anxiety to disappear by either over-indulging or over-controlling your child

-Shame your child for being anxious

-Pretend it doesn’t exist

-Not allow it to be expressed

DO

-Accept the as-is of your child: This may sound like passive acquiescence or as if you are being a push-over. This is not the case. The first step to any change is to undergo an honest appraisal of the as-is of any situation. Acceptance looks like: My child is sensitive and this is who they are in this moment. My child over-thinks things and this is who they are in this moment. My child obsesses over details and this is who they are in this moment... This acceptance releases the need to judge or control the as-is. This releases a floodgate of positive energy to cope with the issues at hand.

-Honor the vital role of anxiety: Anxiety is a normal part of life, especially for highly-sensitive and naturally fragile children. It is not a “bad” thing. It just is. When we accept that anxiety is here to help our children grow in how it is they are meant to, we are more willing to cope with it as opposed to if we saw it as an “evil” thing.

-Empathize: Parents tend to operate out of extreme ends of the spectrum. Either they judge or they collude. Both of these only perpetuate the issues and are vastly different from true empathy. When our children are judged or overly-coddled (collusion) for their anxieties, we transmit the message that they are not capable or resilient to manage the anxiety on their own. However, when we empathize with them, we allow them to have their experience, with our presence-filled support while also knowing that they are fully capable of surviving this anxiety.

-Ride the wave: This means we help our children ride the waves of their feelings by being present, available and attuned. This is not easy to do with an anxious child. It triggers all our own latent fears and worries. However, were parents to train themselves to be a holding container of their child’s tears and fears, they would be better able to help their child through the storms of their feelings. In this way, their children learn to wade through the waters of their anxiety as well. Helping our child FEEL THEIR FEELINGS is a key component of helping them with their anxiety.

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3. Strengthen the antidote

Our natural instinct is to focus on the problem that created the anxiety or the anxious response itself.

DO NOT:

-Harp on the problem behaviors

-Pre-empt the problem before the problem has occurred

-Create barriers so that the anxiety doesn’t arise

-Tailor your entire life around the anxiety

DO:

-Create a WHOLE picture of your child: Where before your child’s anxiety may have been the focus of your attention, it is imperative that you now create a more rounded, holistic perspective of your child—one where both strengths and limitations are honestly appraised. With equal if not more focus on all of your child’s many parts, you will be able to communicate a sense of self-acceptance and self-worth to them, so that their anxiety becomes only a piece of the larger pie, and not the entire pie itself.

-Focus on helpful assets: I encourage parents to focus on the antidotal qualities they wish to see in their children. For example, I encourage parents to hone in on those times their child is having a positive reaction to their stressors, or displaying qualities of spontaneity, courage and risk-taking. When we shine the spotlight on the qualities we wish them to strengthen, they automatically reinforce these. Just like a flower naturally turns their gaze toward the sun, so too our children organically begin to strengthen those muscles that we focus on.

However, if all we do is focus on their anxiety and keep reinforcing it through lectures and dialogue, then this is who they come to believe they are.

“Forget the qualities you wish to fix” I always tell parents. “Instead focus on the qualities you wish to strengthen.” In this way children feel as if they are ahead of the curve instead of constantly behind it.

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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