What about Anxiety and Dark Spaces? 5 Practices for Working with Children

Over the past months and years, I’ve often found myself in over my head as a parent. One of my boys has been recently struggling with separation anxiety – and learning how to respond and offer support has been an ongoing, often stressful journey. I’ve often felt like I’ve been wading through dark spaces, at a loss as to what to do with the big feelings being expressed. At the bottom, navigating transitions has been difficult. And – no matter what is unfolding, I believe my son is trying to tell me about his broader experience, even if I can’t yet entirely understand.

So what to do? After months of limping along and struggling, I decided to reach out for help. Since the spring, I’ve been having ongoing coaching sessions with a professional counselor who focuses on a psychodynamic approach, with an emphasis on development, attachment and neurobiology. I’ve also been exploring my own strategies – trying new things and seeing what works. Here are a few take-aways from this process.

When the going gets rough, model your own ways of coping. One of the things I often found myself doing in rough moments with all of my children was to offer verbal advice. And yet, there are times when words alone don’t help. All the chatter and suggestions and reassurances were seeming to get us nowhere. Instead, I began to describe my own feelings and experiences and share what helps me during difficult moments. What if I could intentionally model staying with my own hard feelings and give voice to what I do to stay grounded and resourced when facing challenges? “I feel anxious right now too. Goodbyes are so hard. Sometimes it helps if I move my body. Want to march with me?”

My coach reminded me that during difficult moments, our systems are often trying to find balance. When we are in balance, we are regulated and our emotions aren’t bigger than ourselves. When we aren’t in balance, we might be hyperactive or we might shut down or ‘collapse.’ We can serve our children by showing how we face difficulties from a place of regulation. “I’m feeling anxious. I’m going to shake my hands or rub my legs. Want to join me?” We can share our own challenges and how we work with them. I wanted to model staying with hard things. I began to do more describing of my own experiences and what helps. “I’m starting to feel sad and worried too about saying goodbye. It helps me when I feel my feet on the ground and take a deep breath.”

Bring it back to the body. Bringing awareness in each moment to what is going on in our bodies is not only grounding and resourcing, but also can help to cultivate a greater sense of balance. It also helps to decrease any mental anxiety or churning. During the hard moments, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in my own body, while also getting curious about what was going on for my children. Getting to know what the body is feeling is a skill and takes practice. I began to model paying attention to my own experience in this way, and also ask questions that bring that awareness to my kids. “This moment is feeling really hard. I feel it in my chest. And, my stomach is starting to hurt. I wonder what you feel right now in your body?” Checking in with myself can also help my kids check in with themselves. I began to name my own experiences more, inviting them to join me in noticing and paying closer attention to what was going on in their own bodies.

Just breathe together. One of the main reminders from talking with my coach was around the importance of just breathing together. She would often say, “Use fewer words. Do more holding and breathing.” Just breathing together and having more physical interaction helped me to slow down and connect more. “Let’s take a few minutes to just breathe together,” I would say. These moments of breathing together didn’t always assuage the underlying difficulties, but it did offer up important moments to pause and connect, and bring us back to the simplicity of feeling our bodies and taking a deep breath together. Even for a moment, it provided a brief respite – and a reminder of how a deep breath is always available as a way to calm down.

Make concrete observations. I wanted to find ways to say “I hear you. I see you. It is hard, and you can do this.” So I started paying closer attention to the tangible things happening in any moment, and began naming those things. “I see you walking in circles right now. Are you getting nervous about school?” I wanted my kids to know I was paying close attention to them. Beyond listening to them when they were trying to communicate something verbally, I could also let them know I was really seeing them too. It helped me to connect more to what was going on in the present moment – and to also bring awareness to the concrete things that were happening. It was also a way to bring me out of my complex mental churnings about what was going on – and trying to assign stories to those things. Instead I could stay more focused on each present moment and what was arising. I could use observation statements to let my kids know “I’m with you. I’m paying attention. I see you.”

Express empathy. Connect heart to heart. My coach calls this “joining and affirming.” I can say, “you’re really hurting. That’s hard.” Or, “Wow, this feels big.” At first I was trying to connect during difficult moments by saying “I love you no matter what…I’m right here…” Then I realized that expressing empathy and connecting heart to heart is so much more than expressing only our love and appreciation. When a fellow adult comes to me with a trouble, I never respond simply by saying “But I love you!” No. I listen. I mirror back what I see and hear. All of the sudden it seemed ridiculous that I was trying to patch up the moments of anxiety with my kids by saying “I love you.” Perhaps I wanted a simple fix. Perhaps I didn’t know what else to say. I wished that love would be enough to assuage the hard spaces.

Those words of love are of course important – but more so in moments of smoothness. During moments of separation anxiety, confusion, anger or frustration, expressing empathy is better shown when I name what I see and try to join and affirm. I began to try to see the struggles wanting to shine through. “You feel scared. You feel stupid. That must feel icky.” I could say, “I hear you. I want you to know though that I don’t see you that way.”

At the heart of all of my efforts to meet my children during their difficult moments was a simple reminder. I must take the time to really listen deeply. I can revisit the tough moments to debrief and connect. I can learn from my own mistakes and fumbles (which have been many during this particular season of parenting!). In this way, we connect and reflect. We learn and grow, together. Resilience is slowly cultivated. Over time, we come to accept more gracefully that things happen that aren’t comfortable – and, we find ways to get through them. As Naomi Wolf says, “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary. They teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, reslience and resourcefulness.” We could now at least face our obstacles together with a deep breath.


Not Knowing, Bearing Witness: Adjusting to a Family of Four

The month since birth has been a blur of healing body, discomfort and perseverance, sore muscles, feeling my part in a lifetime moving at a pace beyond my control. Time passes quickly and all of the sudden I’m in a flow I can’t slow down again. I grieve this daily as I watch my sons grow and grapple with the difficulties of being human.

There is almost too much to assimilate this month: the joys and awe of bonding with a precious new life coupled with the pain and heartbreak of watching my oldest son suffer from a world turned upside down. There are snaps of losing my patience mixed with ongoing pangs of compassion. Reactivity merges with exhaustion to form a cocktail best described as a mess. Most things feel unresolved in my experience as I search for what to lean into when things feel beyond my capacity. Like a rubber band right before it snaps, I find myself on the edge daily. Just when I think I’m resourced and taking care of myself, something knocks me so far off track I lose my center of gravity.

All of this feels all too familiar from the first time I gave birth. Yet this time the complexity is greater as I juggle multiple needs that simply cannot be resolved in the same moment. My husband recently listened to a podcast from attachment parenting guide Naomi Aldort where someone asked, “What do I do when each of us in my family has a competing need?” With bated breath I wait for the nugget that might offer a clue as to how to handle moments when my newborn needs milk, and my oldest son is struggling (and likely needs attention or reassurance) and is begging for help with a toy, his shoes to be put on or a book to be read (not to mention my needs or my partner’s needs). Naomi answers something to the effect of ‘I can’t answer this question because it is a lifeboat question. You want to be rescued. But I can say that I don’t believe in the nuclear family…’ Meaning: perhaps multiple needs getting met in a nuclear family context may not work at times. And: There is no simple answer and no rescue boat. The only way out is in.

These days I’m not sure I believe in the nuclear family either, whatever that means. And I certainly see the limitations of the nuclear family while trying to attend to the very intensive and specific needs of a newborn coupled with the tumultuous currents of a resistant older sibling. I need help and I need a lot of it. Not only do I need help with the practical and the logistical details of attending to two children (thanks to all who have offered and given so much help!), but perhaps more poignantly I need help in the moments when my son is throwing a new-found tantrum and choosing new behaviors (*albeit rare thankfully) like hitting, eye-poking, pinching, biting, kicking and screaming. I need help when I’m repeatedly woken up in the 4 or 5 o’clock hour by an anxious almost 3-year-old undergoing some form of sleep regression (I know so much of this is normal, but it doesn’t make it easier). I need help resolving the strange feelings of guilt for disrupting the previous family balance by daring to give birth again! And I need help figuring out how to hold my seat when my oldest is pushing every button and testing every limit known to humankind.

How to attend to each situation with compassion for the underlying emotions while also holding a line as to what is acceptable? How to respond with kindness and patience while also ensuring he’s not becoming ‘king of the hill’ in a way that doesn’t serve him or any of us? How to offer a longer leash than usual given his sadness and confusion while also figuring out where to draw the appropriate line in the sand about when enough is enough? I sneak a read of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication pamphlet on raising children. I try to craft a response strategy to the difficult moments when Rowan’s anger at having to share his mother surfaces. How not to punish? Instead, how to meet and greet his difficult emotions and normalize them while also trying to maintain some semblance of balance and boundaries and keep my newborn safe? Certainly the boundaries are drawn clearly when these painful moments of violence emerge; We do our best to redirect the energy (validating the emotions and yet offering other options for release: “It is okay to feel frustrated and angry! But it isn’t okay to hit a person. If you need to hit something, hit this pillow…”)

And yet it isn’t so black and white. If only we were only attending to the behavior and not all the underlying emotions! And if only the underlying emotions were simple and simply resolvable! But each day unfolds another layer of an onion of complexity. Intense swings of love, anger, affection, grief, loss and frustration mix with the normal ebbs and flows of adjusting to a new situation. It is a periodic triage scene mixed in with the normal, lovely everyday reality: books are read, bikes are ridden, naps are taken and play dates maintained. There are even the moments of big brother help and affection towards his new brother, and the sweet glimpses of whole family bonding.

Today I don’t hold many, if any, answers per how to navigate these times. I just keep asking the questions with the simple intention of holding my seat and trying to embody equanimity. I don’t succeed at times and this is painful. I try to bear witness to Rowan’s growing pains (and mine), and meet him (any myself) from a place of compassion. This seems to be the key: bearing witness and compassion. I’m reminded of the Zen Peacemaking Principles: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Loving, Skillful Action. According to the Zen Peacemaking Order, peacemaking requires these principles. As I grapple with how to restore peace to my household I’m called to remember the following insights:

  • Not knowing the answers is acceptable. As parents, we do not have to be perfect. We do well however to do our best in each moment, even when we don’t know what to do.
  • Not knowing allows us to tap into trusting the mysterious processes at work, even when these processes are painful.
  • If we allow ourselves the space to be confused, we can open up avenues for new and different responses to any given situation. Confusion and disorientation bring us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown. Sometimes the comfort zone doesn’t allow for growth.
  • If we come into relationship with our children from a place of not knowing, we can listen with careful ears and perhaps meet them with greater respect and a sense of more openness and curiosity. If we don’t assume anything, we can perhaps respond to each situation with greater skill.
  • Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply to slow down and witness our children, ourselves, our reactions and our children’s reactions. Bearing witness is a deeper form of seeing; We can try to look beneath and beyond each difficult situation as it arises.
  • Bearing witness helps us to access our capacity for compassion. If we look deeper into a situation, we often see that angry behavior originates from a place of pain and hurt.
  • Loving, skillful action may not look clean and clear. It might be full of edges. A raised voice is perhaps not the solution AND if we can speak from a place of love, we may be able to cut through to a new layer of mutual understanding. How to be firm yet also full of love simultaneously?
  • Loving, skillful action requires us to embody humility. We must be able to say when we have acted in a way that has missed the mark. We can apologize to our children when we don’t live up to our own standards.
  • Loving, skillful action likely looks different in each situation. However, equanimity can be a constant ballast and reference point to lean into.

Finally, a deep breath can be an immediate tool to recall any and all intentions set as we navigate the often fast paced waters of parenting. When in doubt, I take root and refuge right here in this moment of inhale and exhale. Again and again, the breath is always there to remind me to slow down and simply witness the unfolding of a moment. With a clearer head and more space in my lungs, I can try to respond with grace.


Individualism, Attachment and the Aspen Tree

The changing colors of leaves makes for moments of charged awareness as the beauty of reds and oranges remind me of transition, transformation, shedding and the coming quiet bareness of branches.  As the trees let go of their leaves so gracefully I muse about how difficult it is to let go as  parent.  Rowan at 15 months strides farther and farther away from me, even as he still clings close in the moments when I have to leave him.  I muse on my attachments – and attachment in general (from a psychological perspective) – that force of attraction at work everywhere in the universe, and especially crucial between parent and child.  As psychologist Gordon Neufel says in Hold Onto Your Kids, “Attachment is a force of attraction pulling two bodies toward each other.  Whether in physical, electrical or chemical form, it is the most powerful force in the universe.  It holds us to the Earth and keeps our bodies in one piece… It gives the universe its shape…”

Just as the falling leaves vacillate between holding on and letting go, I walk the delicate balance between staying close and letting go, separateness and relationship (which ultimately never ends), and letting myself fall back into life as a “separate” being free of the body of my son in every moment.  I feel the pull of gravity towards Rowan and home, as well as gravity towards creative inner space, solitude and venturing outwards ‘alone.’  So too Rowan must feel the gravity of staying close contrasted with the gravity of venturing outwards in the never-ending circles of learning and individuation.

The backdrop of this dance for both of us is the closeness of attachment parenting – one of the most beautiful dynamics I’ve ever lived into.  While my culture tends towards calling it ‘difficult’ (co-sleeping, child-led breastfeeding, baby-wearing – all hallmarks of attachment parenting), I find it the most natural, instinctual relational process (and gravitational force) I’ve ever entered.  Within its tenets I feel into the millions of years of human evolution, and feel a part of the 90% of the world’s parents who sleep next to their children and carry them in slings.  Regardless of other pulls, the force of attraction between myself and my child is strong beyond measure and requires my undivided heeding.  Our babies need us close in a world that separates most of us at birth and then again and again through the routines of work and life in an industrialized society.  So many contraptions and systems meant to make life ‘easier’ actually pull us apart from one another.  In many ways, relating closely (and ‘attaching’) with our children (and one another?) has never been more difficult.

The whole cultural notion of ‘independence’ boggles my mind – and I often wonder whether my bubbling inclinations towards my own ‘space’ is a culturally created construct.  From a spiritual perspective, motherhood has expanded my understanding of ‘self’ to include ‘other’ in a way that blows the whole western industrial complex’s fallacy of ‘individual’ so far out of the water I marvel at the multiple cultural strategies in place to hold on to the revered status of Self, Alone. (And isn’t it interesting how we move our babies in the direction of Self, Alone as early as a newborn?)  I dance on the edge of a loosening of the required 100% (literal) Presence with my child – the felt melting of our edges moving from one to two back to one to two and back again.  There he goes, there he comes.  Here we are.  Where I end and he begins (began?) calls me to the mystery of what the Mystics have pointed to for millenia – the One versus the many, interconnectedness v. individuality, the Sacred dimensions of Breath and Life.  At the heart of this dance I am called to not let the habits of culture whittle away at the strong gravitational pulls of Love.  I am called to take the time needed to transition mindfully and gracefully between togetherness and separateness, all the while acknowledging and honoring each of our needs for close connection mixed with sacred wanderings apart.

Our children are born from an experience of profound interdependence and thus need closeness in a way that rubs the edges of our sharply individualistic and independence oriented society.  From the womb to birth to early months and years – they need more than our help; they are absolutely dependent on us to live.  Their needs call us to set the more self-oriented parts of ourselves aside in honor of embodying nurturing, ever-present abiding.  Feeling a tangible part of a web of relationship with Rowan, he teaches me the palpable pull of heart strings and connectivity that I am ultimately rooted in not only with him but with everything.  After all, I exchange breath with the trees I gaze at – the changing colors not only mixing with eyes and mind, but the dance of oxygen and carbon happening in every moment – an intimate dance of life transcending any false notions of I and you.

How quickly we are taught that we can supposedly stand alone, disconnected somehow from all that supports us into sustaining Life.  Instead, I choose to re-learn relaxation into mutually arising needs that never end, even when we grow into adulthood.  I choose to abide closely with my child – mirroring relationship like the aspen trees that learn to stand side by side but with roots deeply connected and mutually supportive of growth – all the while one vast organism in the forest of Life.