Excerpt from Chapter Four: The Role of the Family
Intuitively we know that our happiness and distress levels are affected by those around us; the sound of a crying baby, an angry spouse or anxious child all trigger an emotional response. Without it we wouldn’t be able to ‘feel for others’ or, conversely, to ‘feel felt’. We’re hard wired to tune in to signals from our social world and devote attention to the needs of others. For family members of a child struggling with anxiety, trying to help without falling out of balance themselves can be a slippery slope.
Interpersonal Neurobiologist (IPNB) Dan Siegel describes it best; he explains that how well we navigate through our “river of well being” is largely affected by the complex dynamics surrounding our relationships and the brain. In other words, the common sense assumption that we influence each other’s emotional states is grounded in neuroscience.
Interpersonal neurobiology has taught us that what happens between individuals has a great deal to do with what happens within the brains of each person. The ability to relate to another person’s brain is called interpersonal integration and without it humanity would be in peril. In fact, scientists have discovered the existence of “mirror neurons” that allow us to respond to the intentions or purposeful behaviors of others. At the simplest level, mirror neurons cause us to yawn when others yawn, and at the most complex level they are responsible for the attachment of parent to child.
It’s the mirror response that affects us so deeply when a child is in distress. The work of IPNB tells us that special neural cells named “sponge neurons” are activated, leading us to soak into their emotional state, resonating with it and internalizing it ourselves.
So what does this mean for parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members of a child with anxiety? Every time that child laughs, cries, hugs, tantrums or lashes out, every family member is altered on a neurological level. They soak into the child’s anxiety, which lights up their own latent distress levels.
How each person responds to this activation has much to do with their temperament, developmental level, coping style and relationship with the child. Some may seem to lack empathy, feel helpless or become impatient and frustrated with the anxious child’s behaviours and lack of ability to control their fears. Others will over empathize with an anxious child, attempt to solve the problem or move into protection mode. Just as anxiety is often misunderstood, so too is the child it affects, and this can been terribly frustrating for parents as they try to fight stigma and help others understand the complex reasons for their child’s behaviour.
On the flip-side, your child’s brain system is also affected by the emotional reality of those around them, so the more informed and supported your family is the better able they’ll be in responding calmly. This is easier said than done, and I’m not suggesting we try to be perfect human beings (whatever that is). But it may help to know that, armed with understanding, you can take big steps towards improving the dynamic of the whole family, intentionally creating connected and balanced relationships. Here we’ll explore the deeper impact we have on one another and the ways we can work towards greater connectedness.
Effects of a child’s anxiety on siblings
How a child reacts to having a sibling with anxiety varies depending on his or her age and developmental level. And just when you think you understand where they’re at emotionally, something new often pops up; the feelings of a child toward their sibling aren’t static. It’s hard enough for adults to know how to cope with a child’s anxiety — imagine how confusing or downright distressing it must be for a sibling.
For a preschooler this can be particularly confusing. The younger the child, the more difficult it is for him or her to understand the situation and to interpret events realistically. Young kids may resent the attention parents give to the anxious sibling and perceive it as personal rejection. And if the anxiety isn’t talked about, children are left with a deep sense that something is very wrong, but they can’t put words to it. When you’re four years old it’s hard to let your mom or dad know just how distressing it is to see your sibling screaming in terror at the sight of a bee or sobbing at the thought of going to school, or to witness your father’s anger that your brother or sister is in your parents’ bed yet again. The internalization of all this un-metabolized emotional material can create all kinds of personal patterning that has very real consequences.
Younger siblings may find that roles can become reversed. Suddenly a six year old may find they’re caring for and trying to protect a nine year old, wondering how to feel safe in the world when their much older sibling doesn’t. This was the case with Sarah, who came to see me after a series of angry outbursts with her parents and a sudden defiance appeared seemingly out of the blue.
“The kids at school are mean to Jenny – they always leave her out,” she confided. “At recess I saw them running away from her. I told them that wasn’t nice and they should include everyone but they don’t listen.”
I reflected that it must have been hard to see the kids treating her sister like that, and asked her: “What’s it like when other kids don’t listen?”
“It makes me mad, but Jenny and me just forget about it. We just play together.”
“You really care about Jenny and when you see she’s not being included you try to protect her. That might feel like a lot of pressure sometimes.”
“I’m fine,” she answered stoically. “We just do our own thing – I don’t care about them.”
Sarah was working so hard to “be strong” that she learned to deny her deeper feelings of fear, anger and shame about having to look out for her much bigger sister. When I asked her about her feelings she’d often answer in the we rather than me; her responsibility towards her sister was causing her to lose self and she was often unable to separate out her sisters’ feelings and needs from her own. The amount of psychological energy and attention it requires to be constantly tuned in to another human being is massive, and children can become less personally integrated in order to accomplish the task.
Elementary school-aged kids are socially minded and tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed as they recognize differences between their anxious sibling and someone else’s brother or sister. They may worry about “catching” or developing the problem, and they may feel guilt because their sibling is suffering while they are not (at least not to the same degree). While some will react much like Sarah, trying to protect or guide their sibling through the anxiety, others will push them away in attempt to separate from the discomfort it causes them.
Teens too can disengage from the problem, but are more likely to try to “parent” their sibling regardless of the age gap. They may feel frustrated that their mom or dad hasn’t been able to fix the problem, so they step in. The stepping in doesn’t just mean helping them with their anxiety though; look for a tendency to be even more “bossy” than the average teen as they may try to coerce their sibling into more confident behaviour.
In essence, a child’s anxiety reverberates throughout a sibling’s entire world; it may place limitations on them, as when they’re not able to enjoy outings or certain activities due to their brother or sister’s fears. It absorbs their parents’ attention and may activate their own fear response. And while the effects are undeniable, there are many ways in which parents can help alleviate a sibling’s discomfort. In chapter five we discuss ways to talk about the problem – a conversation that should be had with siblings too. And, as you incorporate the tools and exercises in chapter six into your family life, all children within the family should be better able to express and explore their inner world in a way that helps them to differentiate between their own distress and the distress of others.
Parenting your anxious child
One of your highest goals as a parent is to help your child find emotional equilibrium, that tender balance that exists somewhere between emotional rigidity and emotional chaos. There are the times when the flow and connection between you and your child is so seamless and in tune it literally feels magical. Your child is happy, engaged and there’s ease between you that lets you know their attachment is secure. Making your way toward that state largely depends on how well you navigate your own “river of well being”, a feat that may seem impossible as you see your child struggling.
In the most difficult of times you may find there’s a parenting disconnect putting everything out of sync and making equilibrium difficult to find. During these times you may find yourself responding to your child through rigidity, becoming inflexible and unwilling to compromise. I like to call this “stuck in the mud parenting” – you’ve become paralyzed and together you and your child aren’t going anywhere. When you’re in “stuck in the mud parenting” mode, you’ve entered into left-brain thinking in an attempt to regain a sense of control (albeit unsuccessfully).
At other times you might move to the other extreme; a right-brain mode of emotional chaos where you become reactive and upset, and logic is lost somewhere in the cosmos. My best description for this is “parenting without a parachute” You are in emotional free-fall, with no parachute to help you navigate through the winds of emotion.
When our parenting is out of sync because we’re “parenting without a parachute” we’re inadvertently exacerbating our child’s anxiety levels by modeling fear, anxious behaviours and poor coping skills. We don’t mean to do this and it’s natural to lose your cool once in awhile. I’m not suggesting this will harm your child, as it can actually be helpful for children to see we have our emotional limits. At the same time, losing our cool on a regular basis interferes with our deepest parenting desire – to raise well attached, emotionally trusting children.
When you’re in emotional equilibrium your brain system is most integrated, supporting you in responding to your child’s needs with access to emotional information as well as logic. You know those moments well – it’s like hitting a parenting home run. You’re calm, able to empathize and at the same time you’re helping your child to access understanding and solutions. These are the moments you thrive on as you feel your child’s tension melt away in your care.
Calming your own emotional waters through integration
We now know about “mirror neurons” and the core reasons why separating your own anxiety from your child’s isn’t easy. Uniting all of the states within you is a complex process that involves paying close attention to our own thoughts, emotions and even sensations in our body. By “tuning in” to self we can access key information, allowing us to find clarity and insight – even in the midst of a parenting crisis. Most importantly, integrating our own history is the central key to remaining separate as self and able to coordinate our own reactions as we attempt to be mindful and resilient in our parenting.
“I have no idea what to do anymore. I’m exhausted and I know I’m doing a terrible job – the other day Jesse didn’t want to leave the park and after all kinds of warnings I finally just walked away. I knew he wouldn’t stay behind. I felt terrible; he was so panicked that I’d just leave him. He followed me crying and screaming; he was hysterical. It was heartbreaking, but I was at my limit.”
“It sounds like you were at the point where you felt you had to follow through,” I said. “You told him it was time to go and you were showing him you meant it.”
“With most kids that would make sense,” she replied. “You’d just tell them, ‘It’s time to go, I’m starting the walk home’ and they’d switch gears knowing you meant business. But Jesse gets so stressed I don’t have that option. Then it was a full evening of ‘you don’t love me, you just left me at the park and didn’t care’. The last thing he needs is to feel abandoned, so there are days I end up giving in to whatever he wants and I know that isn’t helping.”
Kendra was the kind of woman whose openness was palpable – she was so generous of heart that I couldn’t help but want to endlessly reassure her of her strength and capability. But I knew all the reassurance I could offer wouldn’t soothe her for long; she was carrying with her unbearable burdens of loss and a lifetime of attempts to be everything to everyone; her own needs faded easily.
“You’re son’s anxiety is terribly painful for both of you, and you’re working really hard to soothe him – even giving in to your good parenting boundaries.”
“I’m trying so hard to stay consistent, but his negativity wears me down,” she explained. “I sometimes wonder if I’m the right mother for him. I have so much anxiety myself, I don’t know where his anxiety stops and mine begins – it’s like our whole household is in distress and I’m failing my family.”
Kendra began to share about her own upbringing; her mother was unpredictable, angered easily, and berated her father over seemingly minor things. Kendra had recently picked up a book, Stop Walking On Eggshells, by Paul Mason; it was written for those trying to survive life with Borderline Personality Disorder, and she was astonished by the similarities between composites in the book and her own experience.
“It’s like the author is writing specifically to me. I’ve never had this named – only now have I realized there’s something really wrong with my mom and I wish there was something I could do. If my dad was still alive I’d want to tell him that mom’s rages weren’t his fault. If he’d known this and had support just maybe he’d still be here. It’s awful – I really believe the stress of living with her ended up killing him.”
Kendra’s dad died from liver cancer three years earlier. He was a great support to her and without his stable love and attachment it’s unlikely she would have emerged from her childhood with the degree of strength and tenacity she held. He was a safe haven for her when her mother collapsed in fits of tears and rage or withdrew for days complaining of migraines or endometriosis he’d take her to work – a distraction she came to rely on.
Her mother resented the bond between Kendra and her father – a connection built out of survival mechanisms as much as affinity. It fed her paranoia and only further reinforced her tendency to see Kendra as a conniving child, selfish and playing on her fathers’ emotional side. In other moments she’d appear charming and fun, but it never lasted.
“I never knew what version of my mother I’d be dealing with; the exciting, charismatic mom who my friends loved, or the emotional and paranoid side that scared me and made me feel trapped. As I got older I promised myself that I’d never be like my mother – I’d do everything I could to keep some semblance of control, care for others and pay attention to what my family needed.”
It was clear to me why Kendra was so dedicated to being attuned to her children – she wanted so much to give them the nurturing and unconditional support she herself had lacked.
“I’ve watched you with your children, and your warmth with them is beautiful to see. Are there times, though, when your fear of becoming like your mother interferes?”
“That’s it exactly!” she exclaimed. “I spend so much time trying to not be her that I’m not able to just be myself – I’m this stressed out, held back version of myself. I’m so afraid that the kids will see me lose it, or God forbid, see me cry. But isn’t it my job to be the parent? It shouldn’t be their responsibility to console me – that’s way too much for a child to carry.”
Kendra was working so hard to contain her feelings, she was allowing her past to deeply impact her present reality. “What would it be like to give yourself room in those tough moments, to ask, ‘what does this remind me of?’”
Most parents struggle at times to find a healthy balance between their children’s needs and their own – in Kendra’s case her needs rarely came to the forefront. Her early childhood left her denying her own desires and in a continual state of learned helplessness – and her children felt her sense of powerlessness in her parenting. Without consistency, and a sense that ‘my mom will say no and stick to it’ her children’s anxiety only grew. It’s hard to feel safe in the world when your parent doesn’t.
A path towards mindful parenting
Kendra’s memories from her own experience of being mothered were affecting her reactions, emotions and perceptions. Her unexamined feelings about her mother’s erratic, emotional parenting style were preventing her from becoming integrated and healthy in all aspects of her life, and her son was acutely aware of her distress. From a young age he picked up on her feelings of self-blame, dread and panic. Her buried fear of the powerful emotional reactions of others triggered her to respond in ways that were too strong for the situation. This essentially reinforced her son’s belief that emotion is scary.
By looking deeper and asking herself, “what is this reminding me of?” Kendra began to shine a light on how her difficult experiences of the past were affecting her relationship with her child. She worked hard to integrate her own history, retelling it in parent-focused therapy, and in so doing, she learned to focus on her resilience and use coping tools that would help her to more confidently manage the distress in her children.
By bringing the past into her present and re-processing old reactions, she better understood where she stopped and her child began; she could more sensitively respond to her children’s emotions and needs.