Addressing Anxiety

My daughter recently turned eight, just weeks before her brother reached his sixteenth year. Their grandparents gave them a gift everyone would enjoy – two plane tickets to come spend time with them. For weeks my daughter looked forward to this adventure with her beloved big brother. But as the weeks turned into days, the excitement mutated into anxiety, and  “Mommy I can’t wait to go.” and  “How many more days?” turned into “Mommy I am scared.” and “Mommy I am not sure I want to go.” I knew my daughter longed to go on this trip, and I felt confident she could handle the separation and would be in good hands with her brother and grandparents. Yet this adventure was stretching her attachment umbilical cord a bit more than was comfortable for her.

Before my immersion in Dr. Neufeld’s paradigm, I would have responded to her anxiety just as I see many of my clients responding to troubling feelings their children experience – resist them and try to make them go away. I would have distracted her from her fear and tried to convince her there was nothing to worry about, just as we try to convince our 4 year olds that there are no monsters under the bed.

We all know monsters aren’t real, but this obvious fact blinds us to the truth that the anxiety, which is giving birth to monsters, is very real. Rather than fight the external manifestation with logic that is ineffective because it doesn’t address the underlying emotional experience, we must instead make room for their feelings, no matter how challenging this may be for them, or for us.

In my daughter’s case, I first took time to engage her attachment to me, something Dr. Neufeld calls collecting a child. Then I put warmth and acceptance in my voice and helped name the fears; that her big brother wouldn’t look after her, that she wouldn’t be able to sleep without me nearby, that she was going to miss me, that very simply, she felt scared. In the context of safety that our relationship provides for her, those anxieties melted into tears.

Supporting her to feel these fears, rather than fight against them, made the feelings less threatening and ultimately helped her face the dragons that stood in the way of her treasure. My daughter did go visit her grandparents, and her experience was authentic, ambivalent, and successful; she had a wonderful time, her heart stayed soft, and each night at bedtime the monsters still came, and I was called upon to help her find her tears and her courage.

What I did for my daughter is similar to something I aim to provide for my adult clients: a safe space to feel the vulnerable feelings that are an inevitable part of being human. When we have what we need to experience life fully, we discover that even though it is difficult and uncomfortable to bear vulnerable feelings, we can indeed survive the experience. In so doing, we become changed by that which we cannot change, a deeply transformative process Dr. Neufeld calls Adaptation; one of three processes of maturation he discusses in depth in his DVD Helping Children Grow Up. This process is what delivers a resilient and resourceful human being, one who is not determined by her fears but rather grows in facing them.

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12 Responses to Addressing Anxiety

  1. Robert Wilson says:

    thanks for the post

    • You are most welcome Robert. I am glad you are visiting us here at the editorial corner. There are new posts every week and my colleagues have a great deal to offer, so I encourage you to come back.


  2. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this insight. It seems so natural to handle fears in this matter and yet it’s not what I choose to do, distraction has been my norm.

    • Dear Stephanie,

      Before I met Gordon, distraction was my norm as well. I made the error of making everything work for my oldest child and frequently received compliments about what a good mother I was because my child never cried. Little did I know what I was creating; a child who couldn’t handle not getting his way. Everything was a big deal, he was frustrated and alarmed, and so was I. What a relief it was to all of us for me to grow to the place where I was no longer spooked by upset and could make room for it in the life of my children, and subsequently in my heart as well.

      One of the most significant turning points I have noticed when people begin to “get” this paradigm is that their relationship to sadness and tears takes a 180 degree turn from today’s conventional perspective; rather than seeing it as a sign of some kind of failure on the part of the parent, they begin to appreciate how precious a soft heart which feels these feelings are to the realization of human potential. Drawing a few tears from the sadness in a child’s life becomes a cause for celebration.

      I wish you all the best on your parenting journey.


  3. Stephanie says:

    Cindi, can,t tell you how much this changes my view on allowing my children to feel sadness. While it’s a new idea to me, somehow I feel like I’ve known it all along, it ring true. I can’t wait to try tomorrow out with my three little ones. They are 3, 4, and 6 yrs old and I have one on the way.

    I read thru hold on to your kids in about 3 days, pretty record for me and I can’t get enough information. It seems to go against the grain of what I was taught in university as well as parenting in general and yet seems so natural like some where deep down ive always known these were the right ways to be with my children. Now, I’m finding my greatest worry is how can I build and maintain such deep attachments with so many children? I feel spread thin already and there willbe a new addition in febuary, do any of the parents you know have 4 or 5 or more kids?

    • A Mazing Mum says:

      Dear Stephanie, Wow are you lucky to have found Hold On To Your Kids when your children are so young – mine were adults. I have read the book, purchased and watched and listened to a few of the downloadable lectures and reread the posts. When things seem overwhelming I remember the two points of what children need most: Right relationship (parent taking the lead, working the attachments); Soft hearts (make room for their tears, watch for signs of defenses against vulnerability).
      I collect my children (and husband!) as much as I can, trying to demonstrate delight in their presence, enjoyment and warmth. I remind myself constantly that the family nest is the source of the greatest wounding if we are not careful.
      I have been seeing how powerful this approach is. One mother told me that after taking Power to Parent 1 and 2, and making sense of her child’s behaviour, she would collect her super sensitive very alarmed two year old as many times a day as she could manage, and lowered her expectations of what her small but very bright child “should” be doing. In a very short time, things have really changed a lot.
      Children in right relationship who have soft hearts are much easier to parent, and much easier to be with – your growing family will always be a challenge but with your new insights about how children develop, you will find much joy too.
      P.S. my pen name means that I travel the maze of parenting and make lots of mistakes, by which I gradually find my way to what does work, with not a few tears shed.

      • Dear A Mazing Mum,

        It is great to hear about the difference this material has made for you and the way in which you are helping others become the parent their children need.

        Thank you for jumping in and offering your experience and insights here in the editorial section. One of the ways Dr. Neufeld describes his intention in creating places of connection like this editorial, is his belief that when we join the many sparks of individuals who yearn for the conditions children truly need to thrive, we will create a flame that can help light the way in what often feels like very dark times.

        Clearly your spark is burning brightly! Thanks for offering it up to all of us here.


    • Dear Stephanie,

      First I want to apologize for taking so long to respond to you. My middle child is going through a very challenging time and thus my own need to step into mom more fully and provide him with what he needs has trumped everything else for now. Like you, I am in the trenches of parenting young children and like many of the other faculty members of the Neufeld Institute, one of the primary reasons I am so immersed and passionate about Dr. Nuefeld’s material is because of the daily difference it makes in my own life.

      There are many things you touch on in your response that cut right to the heart of things. It seems that one of the most profound initial shifts that occurs for parents when encountering this material is in our understanding of and relationship to sadness. Our culture is so very spooked by sadness and we do everything in our power to run from it. When my children were young, I often got comments from people about what a good mother I must be because my children never cried. Little did I know what I was creating, and the ways in which I was impeding in their development by making everything work for them so that the tears never came. After overcoming my initial fears and cultural conditioning, what a relief it was to invite and embrace the tears, and find the place inside of me where I was no longer threatened by them. Now, rather than avoid them at all costs, my husband and I often silently celebrate with each other across the room when one of our children finally hits this place of futility, knowing that on the other side they will come to rest more deeply in our relationship and be a much easier child to parent.

      Your comment about feeling like you have known this material all along also touches on something Dr. Neufeld often speaks to, which is his desire to return parents to their own natural intuition. He often comments that we were never meant to be conscious of the dynamics he teaches about, as it was the role of culture to provide the conditions for a child to be deeply attached and in right relationship to the adults responsible for them. Because culture has broken down and is no longer doing its job, we now must bring what is meant to be deeply intuitive into consciousness so that we can make up for where culture is failing. While we are endowed with the instincts necessary to parent a child who is in right relationship with us, those instincts no longer work when dealing with the stuckness that has become so prevalent in the face of the breakdown of culture. It is when our instincts fail us in this way, that we must turn to the insight this paradigm offers to help us find our way through.

      In addressing your concern about how to build and maintain deep attachments with so many children, the first key is in your believing that you are big enough for all of them. So much of parenting is in finding the right posture, that of being the big mamma who is absolutely convinced that she is her child’s answer. If you can find the place where you believe you are big enough, you will naturally convey this to your children and it will provide them with some rest even when you can’t give them the kind of personal attention and time you wish for. I don’t mean to diminish the challenge you face parenting so many young children in the absence of the attachment village that was always meant to be there to support mom, it is immense. All of you must feel the futility and have your tears about how hard it is at times to have to share mommy.

      I encourage you to find little ways to resource yourself so that you can be who your children need. Often 20 minutes in a bath or on a walk by myself can make a huge difference for me when I am feeling empty. Finally, in preparation for your new arrival in February, putting some time and attention into building your attachment village could make a huge difference for all of you. We were never meant to do this alone.

      Please feel free to use this editorial as a place to grow your village. There is a wealth of resources here on the Faculty of the Neufeld Institute and within the growing community of people who are passionate about this work, that know what it is like to stand in your shoes and are more than willing to walk alongside with you and offer their support for the sacred task your are doing.


  4. Stephanie says:

    Can you tell how tired I am? Sorry that emails missing a few words. :)

  5. Vicki says:

    Loved this essay. Thanks Cindy! I am wondering about what to do with a young alpha child (4 years old) that even though I sense her anxiety/fear/worry, denies it to me verbally. I am guessing she is defended against the vulnerability of feeling and sharing those big feelings. How to draw them out? I waffle between offering empathy for feelings I think she might feel, or sharing how I might feel in the moment or have felt before. Just curious what your thoughts are when the kiddos deny the feeling even though you suspect it’s there.

    • Liz says:

      Dear Vicki,
      I can imagine your frustration in trying to reach this little child in order to take care of her; it reminds me of when my own children were 4.
      If this little girl is 4 years old, is alpha and says no a lot, you certainly do know quite a lot about her! If she is under 5 years old then she probably does not have her mixed feelings, so when she is afraid she cannot also remember that the monsters under the bed are not there, or anything else she was told in order to banish them. Does she ever have tears of sadness during her day? Four year olds have a lot of frustration, and being in the alpha position is a very big one. There are many ways such as providing her generously with food where you can start to take back your own alpha position with her.
      It takes patience to figure things out, as many more things will not work than will work for you, and your heart goes out to her when you see her anxiety.
      I wonder if you have read the other posts here on the website, as you may find some additional insights about what is going on? Best wishes, from another mom.

    • Dear Vikki,

      One of the keys to getting on top of an alpha child is finding the posture of the big mamma inside you from which you rest in the confidence that you know your child better than they know themselves. Rather than look to get your daughter to agree with your statements about her anxiety/fear/worry, I encourage you to act from the place in which you know this is going on for her and, at times, very matter of factly, but indirectly, say something to this affect.

      Once you find this place inside yourself, your focus shifts from getting her to acknowledge that what you see is true, which as you already said seems to be too vulnerable for her, to moving in to be her answer, assuming responsibility to help her feel safe, and looking for opportunities to prime the tears that you know are needed to drain these feelings. Remember, adaptation is not a conscious process and thus her awareness and acknowledgment is much less important than simply moving her towards the experience in whatever way you can.

      Given you see she is defended from vulnerable feelings, you will most likely need to approach these feelings indirectly at first, through stories, puppets, modeling vulnerable feelings (so long as they have nothing to do with her and you also communicate that you can handle them in yourself), and starting with the easiest places to prime these vulnerable feelings, slowly moving in to the more difficult ones once you have a sign that the tears are starting to come.

      The developmental process is a slow one and the baby steps you take in this direction will eventually add up. As Dr. Neufeld often says, it is enough to simply “Look to precipitate out of the clouds of sadness (and in this case anxiety/fear/worry) in a child’s life a few tears.” While I understand firsthand the longing for a torrential downpour when dealing with a child who you know is filled with oceans of tears, it has been my experience that little showers go a long, long way towards nurturing the soil of their growth.