“Have I caused my child’s anxiety?” Sometimes the more we learn as parents, the more daunting our parenting job feels.
In my parenting journey, the more I’ve learned about nervous system regulation, the more I’ve realized that my own dysregulation and some of my parenting strategies actually contributed to my son’s anxiety. I’ve had moments of despair with those realizations, and I hear from a lot of parents who struggle with this.
It’s inevitable that as more information about nervous system regulation, trauma and connected parenting becomes available, we all look back and wish we could have done better, sooner. We feel understandably responsible and bad about it. No one wants to hurt their child.
However, when you realize you’ve caused some of your child’s anxiety, it’s important not to get stuck in feeling bad. It’s not only an indicator of your good conscience and desire to do right by your kids; it’s the first step of awareness that can lead to change.
You can have anxiety and not realize it
My son was about 12 years old when I started learning about trauma and nervous system regulation. For the first time in my life, I realized that many of my habits, including my ability to keep track of so many details, were linked to my own high anxiety. Those habits had inadvertently influenced my son, contributing to his anxiety as well.
I had always functioned at a high level, and saw many of my habits as “competence”. Prior to having my son, I’d been an ICU and CCU nurse and my hypervigilance helped me to operate at a fast pace and notice important details. However, my body was showing signs of wear and tear from being intensely “on” all the time–insomnia, digestive issues, adrenal fatigue and other assorted chronic health issues–many of which I couldn’t find solutions for. I hadn’t realized that anxiety was a driving factor in my high functioning and my declining health.
When I learned about nervous system regulation, I suddenly found some of the missing pieces. I was able to make sense of my health challenges and find solutions. As I started to do somatic healing work for myself, I began to learn practices to live my life differently–slowing down, more self-care, less hypervigilance. The impact has started to trickle down to my son.
You create change by creating safety
Anxiety, in a general sense, stems from a lack of felt safety. I think of it this way. For me (and your experience may differ), anxiety contains within it a fear that “everything may not turn out okay”, even though I’m probably not consciously aware of that thought. I’m hypervigilant, and may be worried, watching more carefully, tracking everything around me and my child. Occasionally this type of observation is appropriate, but when you have underlying anxiety, you do this a lot more than someone who is calm and regulated.
In the trauma literature, a felt sense of safety is what enables you to regulate yourself. Safety, for me, feels like “everything’s going to be okay”. I feel lighter inside, I feel the support of the ground (or the furniture) beneath me, (and perhaps a friend or my community around me), and I feel okay about letting go–sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. I feel some relief and more ease. A feeling of safety enables you to calm your anxiety. That’s why you can start to change this pattern between you and your child by creating more safety.
You start by creating safety for yourself first, and then for your children. Creating safety helps heal the anxiety and fear. You may wonder why you need to attend to yourself first. Parents often tend to want to put their kids first, which in some cases is appropriate, but when it comes to safety, you have to calm your own anxiety first or you’ll be too anxious or fearful to help your kids feel safe. That’s called co-regulation.
How I create safety for myself
Some of the ways I create safety for myself are:
- Avoid overbooking – leaving some unplanned space in my schedule, for both myself and my family.
- Asking for help when I need it.
- Setting boundaries – with my family members and with others.
- Daily practices that increase my interoception (awareness of my inner feelings and body sensations – more on this below) – such as yoga, and somatic practices of tracking my sensations. This has helped me to know when I need to set boundaries or when I’m anxious.
- Noticing, through my improving body awareness, what experiences tend to bring on more anxiety (stressors), and which ones bring a sense of calm (resources that I can use for soothing or giving my nervous system a break).
- Acceptance – being gentle with myself when I misstep, and also, accepting *what is* in this moment, while at the same time knowing I have choice about what to do next.
These are just a few of the habits I’ve been practicing in recent years that have helped ease my anxiety. And it is a practice; there’s no end-point where I (or anyone else) gets it “right” all the time.
In many cases, creating safety in the moment is about acceptance–of the feelings that arise inside me, or something that’s already happened and can’t be changed. Sometimes the feelings can give us clues about what we need. For example, when I’m overwhelmed (which was frequent when my son was young), I now look for a way to choose just one small action I can take, instead of trying to do everything I can see that needs doing. I narrow my focus to do one thing–that’s calming for my nervous system.
Sometimes I call it #radicalacceptance, because it’s the opposite of pushing feelings away or resisting what we can’t change. It includes the practice of getting curious about the feelings that arise and offering them our support and love. And don’t feel bad if you have a hard time with this–no one does this all the time. It’s a practice.
Also, it’s important to be 100% truthful with yourself about your feelings, rather than overriding them. Sometimes, without realizing it and with the best intentions of parenting peacefully, we repress our feelings in an attempt to stay calm with our kids–which is a step forward from yelling, but the feelings that are there usually need to be acknowledged in some way. It can be hard to know the difference between “overriding your feelings” vs “being regulated” at first. If you’ve managed to speak calmly to your child instead of yelling, but realize you have anger bubbling up inside, try taking a few moments later when you have a moment alone to allow those feelings to arise and acknowledge/process them. Your feelings are important.
Sometimes you may be able to do this on your own; other times you may need the support of a friend or therapist (somatic or otherwise) to process a stuck pattern in your nervous system. As you practice creating felt safety and staying present with your uncomfortable feelings, you begin to increase your ability to hold steady with your child’s anxiety and help them to calm and regulate with you.
Where we get off-track
When we’ve experienced trauma in the past, we often tend to automatically skip this step of acceptance. We go straight to judging our behaviour or our kids’ behaviour, and try to change the behaviour without acknowledging and trusting *what is*. When we can’t make the change, or the change doesn’t last, our shame returns and we suffer under the weight of our remorse and perceived failings, until we resolve to “try harder”, and repeat the cycle. For me, I notice that perfection is always about believing I should have been able to do better, and feeling unable to face myself when I realize I didn’t.
Compassion (which for me increased when I learned about nervous system regulation) says, “How can I practice noticing what’s going on in my body and nervous system when I have anxiety, and soothe myself or create habits that help me stay calmer? And how can I increase my capacity to be with my child’s anxiety (rather than trying to stop it)?”
- It’s not about stopping my anxiety or feelings — it’s about feeling them, getting more comfortable with them, and still being able to find enough of a “safety” feeling in my body to “tolerate” the anxiety that I’m feeling.
- As I cultivate *that*, my ability to hold steady for my kids grows.
- My child can feel that “steadiness”, and their anxiety begins to tick downward as well.
- It’s a slow evolving process that takes practice, and it can create lasting change.
Changing the pattern
The key to making real change that lasts lies within connecting to our bodies and feelings.
So, returning to the guilt or shame that parents often feel when they fear that their past parenting actions have damaged their kids irreparably–the experience becomes an opportunity to heal and change the pattern.
My experience is that changing the pattern is not without painful moments, including worry, fear, and even despair at times. It’s not a fantasy pathway to bliss, with no painful feelings. But you can practice creating “enough safety” in-the-moment to have a bit of relief or ease, so that you can stay present with your feelings and body sensations when they come up, and eventually build your capacity to stay present with your child.
As you build your capacity to stay present with your emotions, especially the painful ones (e.g., anxiety, fear, worry), you’re more able to feel what you need to do and say, in the moment, to make changes.
Often behavior starts to change–not because you’ve thought it all out ahead of time, but because your connection with your feelings guides your actions more spontaneously. As you stay present with your feelings, sometimes an unexpected shift happens and you have a new awareness or a new approach. It’s often different from anything you could have thought of or planned ahead of time. It’s transformative.
For me, it doesn’t mean I never have anxiety again, but:
- I have more lifestyle habits that support feeling calm and regulated.
- I have skills for tracking my feelings and sensations, recognizing my anxiety when it shows up, building capacity, and soothing my nervous system.
In essence, my relationship to my anxiety has changed. And the result of that is that my relationship with my son has changed, and I’m more able to support him in easing his anxiety.