Archive for November, 2015

Mindful Matters: Calming the anxiety in order to build resilience

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dear families,

Every week I have opportunity to offer compassion to parents, and lately I am thinking, in particular, about moms or dads who are overflowing with anxiety. It could be generalized anxiety, expressed in a hyper vigilance and reactivity about daily management of the home. This generalized anxiety, known as GAD [Generalized Anxiety Disorder], creates a nervous feeling in the home environment. Interestingly, often one parent gets polarized into shutdown or passivity in the face of expressed anxiety. Sometimes, both parents are reactive and anxious.

No amount of worrying, checklists or cleaning eliminates the anxiety for long. Worse, if stressors hit, even mild stressors that are manageable, a parent suffering anxiety may become overly reactive in response to normal life challenges.  This kind of emotionality, when expressed to an adolescent, can be especially destructive, resulting in explosive volatile episodes.

It may help to understand that there is a part of our brain, called the amygdala, that lights up when we have emotions such as fear.  Feeling fear also catapults us into our primitive “flight of fight” brain which is all about survival. So now, an unexpected mess or a teen telling mom her last minute plans and demand for a ride to the mall, trigger outstanding upset and subsequent yelling. When we are in our SOS, flight-or-fight brains, we cannot hit the pause button, stay calm and think through a solution. We cannot be respectable authority figures managing and problem-solving.

The sad negative cycle of reacting and escalating, leaves parent and child in an irrational power struggle. There is usually nothing that can be done at this point but to get through the mutual tantrum.  The worst outcome via the parenting would be for mom or dad to appease a child or teen, thereby giving in to a plea or demand, out of guilt, fatigue or a wish to avoid further upset.

So, what to do?  First off, I ask parents to look at the amount of stress and pressure in their lives. Is there a balance of restorative behaviors and activities to recover from those activities that are depleting. Are mom and dad taking care of themselves and is the life-work balance reasonable.

Second, are mom and dad thinking and communicating effectively about all parenting systems. This would be transitional times such as morning get-ready routine, homework after school and bedtime.  Are simple age-appropriate expectations laid out, clearly and calmly?  Offering notice, prompting, cueing and reminding are necessary the entire time we parent and children live with us!  Demands that are delivered with a negative tone, are not suitable to a child’s personality or are overwhelming, may result in noncompliance and opposition.

The most common factor underlying loss of control and competence in parents, beyond stress is the need for children to be “happy.”  “Happy” is not why we raise children. While it is nice to have happiness here and there and to be generally well taken care of, we largely raise children to become resilient in the face of life’s challenges. Every day we and our children are faced with frustrations to problem-solve. Avoid jumping in to control and problem-solve for your children! Leave space for the frustration and the problem solving. That is how we grow competence and self-esteem- through mastering our frustrations.

A final word, from my heart, about anxiety. Anxiety is not pleasant nor is it rational. Find any manner to bring your nervous system to a restorative peaceful place. Enjoy quiet. Do deep breathing and meditate. No amount of chocolate, wine or working out truly calms the nervous system. Physical exercise stabilizes our mood and releases tensions.

Learning to sit quietly and find the compassion inside, to center one’s self in peace, to let go, will help anyone who is managing anyone, stay steady on the road, note the potential danger without reacting and assist in staying the course, even when it involves limit setting and even when there is not an immediate solution. Our children will feed off our calm and grow confident in their ability to sustain focus, problem-solve and accept what is not ideal.