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