What Color Is Your Anxiety? How Learning About My Own Anxiety Made Me A Better Parent
I have a secret to share. I often have anxious thoughts and feelings.
I’m the mother of three awesome teenagers, all of whom are very bright and some of whom have been diagnosed with a mix of general anxiety, social anxiety, autism, and sensory processing challenges. They’re a fun bunch and I thank the universe that I get to be their mom. But, truthfully, some days, weeks, and months are really tough.
While it's natural to feel anxiety as a parent, I suspect and research indicates that parents with neurodivergent and twice-exceptional children (like mine) experience anxiety more frequently (Enav et al., 2019; Llinares-Insa et al., 2020). (In case you’re not familiar, twice-exceptional children are both extremely bright, creative, and/or “gifted” as well as have a learning challenge such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and/or anxiety.) This was all brought home to me as a student in Dr. Matt Zakreski’s “Social and Emotional Diversity” class this summer as part of my doctoral studies at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. He assigned the task to outline a research-based “intervention strategy” to address a social/emotional learning challenge for the twice-exceptional. As I grappled with this task, I reflected on what had made the biggest difference in my parenting. I want to show up as the best mom I can, but I’ve needed to learn a lot of new skills and forgive myself for many mistakes along the way. What I realized is that managing my own emotional responses and reactions to life’s difficulties, parenting challenges, and my children’s emotional experiences is essential.
Why is it important to regulate my own emotions?
Because my children struggle with anxiety, I learned pretty early on in my parenting journey from a wide variety of experts and therapists that attending to my own emotional regulation would benefit my own and my children’s well-being, for several reasons. First, doing so creates a stable space for my kids to move through their own emotional experiences safely. Second, proactively tending to my anxiety serves as a role model to them for healthy living. Lastly, co-regulating emotions is a human experience, perhaps even more so between parent and child, and contributes to children’s long-term development; co-regulation helps us signal to one another a range of emotions that impact our body’s fight, flight, or freeze response as well as our ability for social engagement (Porges, 2018).
Managing my own emotional response to my child’s feelings of anxiety is complicated. When I respond to my child’s anxiety with a similar or even higher level of anxiety, I may be unconsciously indicating to them that their “distress is unmanageable, terrifying, and potentially dangerous” (Borelli et al., 2015, p. 3132). Children may “look to parents for signs about how to interpret their feelings….when a parent experiences intense negative emotion in response to the child’s fear, the child may perceive the parent’s negative emotions and become more fearful….[though] if a parent is completely non-reactive emotionally to the child’s fear, this could convey apathy….” (Borelli et al., 2015, p. 3131-3132). Research signals that establishing a mindfulness-based practice, such as meditation, can heighten parents’ self-awareness about their and their children’s emotions (Aarzoo et al., 2021; Cowling & Van Gordon, 2022) and that mothers who are emotionally well regulated experience positive emotions, reduced stress, satisfaction, and happiness (Cowling & Van Gordon, 2022; Llinares-Insa et al., 2020, p. 5; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2022).
How mindfulness helped me tend to my own anxiety
My personal experience learning about and practicing mindful strategies stands as testament to the research. Tending to my own anxiety has been critical the last few years. As our family has navigated increasingly complex challenges, our collective anxiety has often amped up. I have needed to explore new ways (“intervention strategies”) to be a mindful parent. A friend of mine recommended the app Insight Timer as a resource. It’s a phone-based app that offers many mindfulness-based activities. While I’d taken meditation classes before, the thought of sitting still and clearing all thoughts from my head had just never resonated with me. My brain is abuzz with ideas all the time and, for the most part, I really enjoy having such an active mind. I was skeptical of Insight Timer, so I started with the free version and explored meditation tracks that my friend suggested. However, the more I discovered about Insight Timer, the more essential it became to me as I realized that meditation doesn’t always mean extinguishing my thoughts, but rather provides healthier ways to interact with my thoughts.
This past year, my anxiety morphed into sleep deprivation and rumination. I knew I needed to tackle it head on. In addition to individual meditations and talks, teachers on the platform offer what I call “mini-courses”, which are designed as short, multi-day sessions focused more in-depth on a specific topic. I searched for “anxiety courses” and discovered Andrea Wachter’s “Practical Tools for Anxiety Relief” and “Your Anxiety Relief Toolkit.” These courses are chock full of insights and Andrea is particularly compassionate. I learned explicit strategies for approaching my anxious thoughts and feelings, with the opportunity to practice using them, and encouragement to adopt the ones that were most helpful to me. Here are some of my favorites:
Separating anxious thoughts from anxious physical sensations: Noticing physical sensations of anxiety without judgment by assigning them shapes, colors, temperatures, and more. For instance, sometimes I think of my anxiety as an orange bubble that I can pop or a black cloud becoming a vortex. This helps me separate the anxious thoughts from the rest of my thinking patterns and decreases my rumination.
Experimenting with responses: I can respond to my anxious thoughts by being strong, soft, silly, or silent. For a “soft” response, I might sing my anxiety a lullaby. When I decide to be “silly”, I sometimes tell my anxiety a joke! Practicing each of these techniques gives me options when anxious thoughts enter my mind.
Engaging in heart-to-heart dialogue with anxiety: Picturing what my anxiety looks like, observing it with deep compassion and curiosity, asking it what it needs, and offering it comfort and wisdom helps to soften my experience of anxiety.
Practicing soothing statements: Imagining my anxiety as a young child and repeating calming phrases (“In this moment, you are safe. This feeling will pass. If that happens, we’ll deal with it then, but it’s not happening right now. I’m right here with you.”) changes my relationship with the anxious thought and resets my thinking in the present moment.
Completing what is called “The Work” (drawn from Byron Katie’s work): Pick a thought and ask “Is it true with absolute certainty? How do I feel when I believe the thought? Who would I be without it? If I turn it around and see it from a different angle, is it possible that the opposite version of the thought could be true?” Seeing the anxious thought from a different perspective helps reframe its importance and weight.
Bonus! None of these strategies asks me to suppress, ignore, or extinguish my thoughts, which, honestly, would likely be an impossible task.
Would this work for you? Explore and see!
I can’t begin to give enough detail about the strategies in this short blog post. I encourage you to check them out yourself to see if they can help you regulate your own emotional responses to life’s inevitable ebbs and flows. Andrea’s two mini-courses* each include ten, 15-minute sessions, which made them easy to fit into even my most hectic day. Because they didn’t require me to sit in a set place with my eyes closed, I listened to them and tried the practices in various locations and convenient times for my schedule. I’ve returned to them again and again as needed. If you’re concerned that a mini-course is too much of a commitment, Andrea also offers standalone tracks such as “Decrease Anxiety & Increase Peace,” “Soothing Anxiety,” “Panic and Anxiety Relief,” or “Letting Go & Living in the Flow.”.
Not sure that a meditation app is for you? Or that the courses I’ve suggested here fit the bill for your situation? The good news about Insight Timer and other mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm is that they offer a wide selection of teachers and practices. Want to become more mindful while you walk or jog? Need more daily affirmations? Or maybe you really do want to learn to clear your mind of thoughts? These apps have options for all of those things and more.
Does this really work?
Participating in these courses helped me with my own anxiety. They also gave me new strategies to suggest to my own children. I’ll admit my kids sometimes roll their eyes at my advice, but what teen doesn’t? I know they see me making Insight Timer a priority in my life. And every now and then I hear their self-talk or see them try a new strategy when they think I’m not looking. Let’s face it. Some of parenting is actually accomplished by osmosis. Kids, especially teens, don’t want to admit they’re trying the things we suggest. But, we have to trust that our role modeling is making a difference, even if our kids don’t want to admit the usefulness in the short-term.
Even better, research backs up that working on our own anxiety and emotional regulation will benefit our children. (Warning: Putting my doctoral student hat back on now.) While researchers don’t yet understand all the mechanisms of how this works, they do know that parents are a central influence in their children’s emotional development (Cowling & Van Gordon, 2022; Llinares-Insa et al., 2020; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2022). Parents play a critical role in helping their gifted and twice-exceptional children thrive, whether in school, at home, or in their social-emotional wellbeing (Barber & Mueller, 2011; Pfeiffer, 2020). It’s widely thought that parents’ ability to regulate their own emotions contributes to their children’s ability to do so as well, even for neurodivergent children such as those who are autistic and/or gifted (Ahçi et al., 2022; Chan et al., 2018; Enav et al., 2019; Llinares-Insa et al., 2020; Moffitt et al., 2021; Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2022). On the flip side, some studies indicate that parents’ anxiety can increase the risk for their children developing anxiety or depression (Borelli et al., 2015; Choi, 2022; Shenaar-Golan et al., 2021). Because parents serve as important role models in their children’s lives, it’s important for parents to understand their own emotional regulation and its impacts on their children’s emotional wellbeing (Llinares-Insa et al., 2020).
I’ll let you in on another secret. My anxiety still takes control sometimes. I can’t always regulate my responses to my kids or to new challenges as they arise. That’s okay. It gives me the chance to talk to my kids about the realities of life, self-compassion, and why we build a toolkit to help address anxiety in the first place. The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety entirely. Actually, anxiety can serve a functional role in our lives and having a small bit of it may be helpful in some situations. (But, that’s a story for another blog post.) Having strategies to manage my anxiety, to increase my own emotional regulation when I’m supporting my children, helps me be more present and grounded as a person and as a parent.
Interested in the research cited in this blog post? Check out this reference list.
*While most of the Insight Timer resources are free, the mini-courses that I’ve recommended require membership, which is $59.99 per year as of July 2022. Note that the app offers a 30-day free trial so you can check out the 10-session courses I recommended and decide if you want to pay for an ongoing subscription.