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  • Mary Smith

Anxiety and Active Listening

I woke up this morning more anxious than normal. Who knows why - it comes in waves. I’ve re-instituted my 6 am Bikram (Hot) Yoga - virtually - which has become Roll Out of Bed, Feed

Dogs, Drink Coffee and Do Warm Yoga in My Modified Windowless Basement Room but it seems to help!


Practicing something routine, connecting with people who I respect and adore, breathing and more breathing. All prescribed stuff. But maybe your kids don’t do yoga and they’re connections tend to be more social media than anything else, and you really can only hear their breathing when they are sitting in front of Netflix. I’m sure that helps but I’m not sure it addresses the anxiety piece.

With younger kids, the six to twelve years-old group, this is a really confusing time: it should be amazing since school’s out so why all the anxiety and angst? And a straightforward discussion about anxiety is not the easiest or most efficient way to help our children to navigate it. When my kids were younger and they were upset, I sometimes missed the opportunity to connect. I wanted to make their anxiety go away. I’d hijack the conversation fulfilling my need to assuage my own anxiety.

When my Charlotte came home with a B in fourth grade and was distraught, it made me distraught - so I reacted: “It’s OK; Don’t worry about it. It’s just one ‘B. Look at all of your other great grades.” In hindsight, it was obviously dismissive. Her sadness and disappointment was real. My message was a verbal bullet: rather than meeting her state, I simply reflected my own. Inadvertently, this knee-jerk reaction to whisk away the problem doesn’t take into consideration her real needs or the opportunity presented to genuinely connect.

The point about feelings is that they don’t have to make sense, don’t need to be justified, and don’t require our approval. Because we are so oriented to intellectualizing, we want to explain feelings away instead of allowing our children to simply experience them. The issue is our own discomfort, which we need to learn to tolerate. (Shefali Tsabary)

COVID-19, despite its awfulness, might give you just that opportunity to work on something that will help your kids develop skills today that will enable them to navigate the epidemic of depression and anxiety in their teens and young 20s. Recognizing what they are feeling. But let’s not jump into expectations of a deep discussion of anxiety with your 8 year old or learning how to help your 10 year old label her emotions. Rather, let’s start with simple listening. ‘Active’ listening.

There are lots of rules for actively listening but we’ll make it simple. Set off 3-5 minutes. If they are already talking about something, great. If not, casually use an open ended question: What’s it like not being able to see your friends at school? What would you be doing if you were in school today? Actively listening to your kid also means asking questions to help her feel safe: Do you want me to think through how you’ll plan your day?" "How can we make it better?"

Simply telling your kid, "I'm here" can help create an environment in which she feels safe. And then, instead of commenting on their thoughts, mirror them back. When they say ‘I miss John’, your reply ‘Oh, you miss John?’ ‘I hate school anyway.’ ‘Oh, you hate school?’ And wait. You’ll be surprised how they will fill the space if you don’t. Full presence does not demand that much from us.

"A five-minute conversation can be a perfectly meaningful human moment,” an article in the Harvard Business Review notes. "To make it work, you have to set aside what you are doing”: put down the email you are writing, disengage from your phone, abandon your fears of COVID-19 (even just for 3 minutes), and focus on what your child is saying. It’s just a start, but let’s start today. I commit to doing it with each of my children. And then, take a moment to congratulate yourself and savor the experience when you finish.