It can be so difficult watching your child struggle. We have been going through a pretty intense journey over the last several months, watching one of our children wrestle with some pretty huge anxious thoughts. This anxiety has brought with it too many sleepless nights to count as well as BIG, messy emotions (and not just from the children!). As a parent, my natural instinct has been wanting to protect my child, so without thinking phrases like, “it will be fine” or “you’re going to be okay” have slipped out. These phrases are coming from good place and a deep desire to reassure my child (and perhaps to reassure myself) however, are they really what my child needs to hear?
It really hit me (yet again) when I was in a conversation with another adult as I was sharing my fears about my child’s fears. They “reassured me” in all their kindness and with good intent that “it will all be fine”. I heard that sentence and I actually think my brain (a fully developed adults brain) hit “fight/flight mode” and I burst into tears. In my head I was thinking, “But you just don’t get it! It’s not fine! How can it be fine?? You’re not listening to me!”. As a mature adult with a fully developed thinking brain, I of course refrained from saying any of this. However, I felt myself instantly retreat emotionally from the conversation and it was as if I felt myself put up a wall. I gathered some tissues, wiped my red, tear stained cheeks, pulled myself together and changed the conversation.
As I reflected on this later and thought about the instinctual barrier I put up to the simple phrase of “it will be fine”, I couldn’t help but think, perhaps that phrase (although it was true to a degree) actually caused my anxious brain to feel misunderstood or unheard. All of a sudden it was as if I didn’t feel safe to be vulnerable with my feelings because in some ways (though well intentioned), that phrase felt as though my anxieties were being dismissed and I actually felt “silly” for feeling the way I did.
In my experience as a parent and educator of young children, I am so guilty of often using these simple phrases in attempts to reassure the child (and myself) that things will surely be fine. And yet, in stating this simple phrase, the person who is experiencing a genuine sense of anxiety or sadness has most likely not felt reassured and rather, felt unheard or even embarrassed about feeling that way.
We talk a lot about the importance of vulnerability and authenticity as an organisation and the important role these two skills play in developing resilience as adults. So it got me thinking – if we want to support the wellbeing of our children, our partners, our colleagues and our friends, WE need to practice being people who invite vulnerability and authenticity.
So what does vulnerability and authenticity as a parent look like?
Encouraging vulnerability and authenticity might look/sound like:
- Listening instead of jumping in with “advice” on how to fix the problem.
- Genuinely acknowledging feelings (“I’m so sorry that this is upsetting for you”).
- Empathising without comparing (“I struggle with anxiety as well. It’s so hard…”).
- Openly encouraging vulnerability (“Nothing you can say will cause me to think badly of you. I value you for who you are. You are safe with me and I am with you in this. Your value and worth doesn’t change no matter how badly you may feel…”).
As a person (child, teen or adult) feels a sense of security to truly be seen for who they are, even if it’s not that pretty, we will invite vulnerability. And when we are able to be vulnerable just as we are, that’s when healing of fears, anxieties and processing of big emotions truly begins.
Let’s be people who engage with our children and the world around us in a way that invites vulnerability and authenticity, so that we can all help each other build resilience and a genuine sense of wellbeing.