I texted a cover photo of my new book to my siblings. “Congratulations,” my older brother, the single parent of two teens wrote. “My kids could use some crisis management, so this is good timing.”
“The book is actually for managing you — the parent. Because if they’re in crisis, you are too,” I wrote back.
Anxious Parents Make Anxious Kids
We will all have that moment, when we’re called to the hospital room, school office, or bedside, to stand beside a beloved partner, pet, parent, client, or our child. Someone we love will be in physical or mental distress and it will affect us.
The mother of a child hospitalized for six months with bacterial meningitis told me, “When your child suffers, it’s the worst pain in the world. You’re helpless to take it away. I would gladly suffer instead. It’s the worst pain in my life.” Functional MRI imaging has shown that when someone we love is in pain, we automatically run the same pain circuitry in our brain, minus the specific locator site. This means that witnessing our beloved in pain, we’re also in pain. And it’s not a choice we consciously make.
When those we love are sick or struggling, it’s easy to focus on how we can get them through this situation. It’s natural to panic and react with fear or anger when faced with something that feels so difficult. We can abandon ourselves in this rush to fix someone’s pain.
This pain circuitry runs both ways, and when parents are stressed their kids feel it. Studies over time show that “anxious parents make anxious kids.” Especially when children are suffering, our anxiety heightens their perception of pain and discomfort. One of the best things we can do when our children are in pain is to take care of our feelings, of our own anxiety.
Our presence matters. How we are is felt. Am I contributing to peace and care in this moment, or contributing to the helplessness, chaos, and despair?
What I’ve learned through my experience with suffering in my kids is that I can’t fix their pain for them or heal what is happening in them. The best gift I can give them is my emotional regulation and balance, so my discomfort doesn’t spill over to them and intensify the pain.
In Buddhism we learn that our thoughts are actions — they are the foundations for all our words and the energy we bring to situations. Our thoughts create our experience. When we set our intention to be a presence of care or connection in this interaction, we are already doing something.
Living in alignment with our intention means we’ve already taken action. Moving into the awareness of what we are doing rather than what we can’t control keeps us from experiencing helplessness or falling into despair and depression.
This shift is what in psychology is called agency, the ability to see that our actions affect our lives and make a difference.
This return to agency can shift the activation of the brain from a shared painful experience to one of soft joy at being a presence of care and support. I can be present with my child in a way that aligns with my highest intentions and doesn’t spill my suffering onto them.
Intention setting supports agency by creating clarity around how we want to contribute to the world. I think of intention setting as a profound gift I am committed to offering during my lifetime, to my children, and to everyone I come into contact with.
Use these steps to connect to your intention:
- Stop and notice your body – How are you? The body is always in the present moment and brings us into self-connection.
- Soothe yourself – Place your hand on your heart or cheek. Come back to the breath and rest with the inhale and exhale. Focus on the exhale. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and starts to calm the nervous system as we accompany ourselves.
- Ask what you are longing for right now, and then offer it to yourself – For example: “May I be calm and patient.” “May I be solid and strong, even in this.” “May I care for my pain.” “May I risk opening to grief.” “May I live without fear.” “May I recognize what’s good in my life.” “May I see kindness in the world.” This acknowledges your feelings and needs in this moment and cares for your experience.
- Ask what you want for yourself and your child or the one in pain, and then offer it to both of you – What is the best thing I can offer to myself and them in this moment? For example: “May I be a presence of care for you and me.” “May I know what is yours and what is mine to carry.” “May I keep my heart open to you and to me.” “May I be calm, even in this.”
- Write down your intention – To remember my intention, I’ve written it on my arm, on my sneaker, and on a note I taped to my computer. It can be helpful to write your intention and have it in your pocket.
These simple practices can help give back a sense of power about what I do have jurisdiction over and help me know that I’m doing something, even if I can’t take away the pain of someone else. Returning to intention reminds me that although I may not have a choice about feeling pain, I have a choice about how I show up for myself and my child.
Celia Landman, MA, is a mindfulness educator offering support to teens and adults. She draws from experiences working with those impacted by trauma, addiction, and anxiety, and creates customized meditation, visualizations, and trainings to reconnect them to their wholeness. She was ordained by Thich Nhat Hahn as a member of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. She is also a certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
Her new book, When the Whole World Tips: Parenting through Crisis with Mindfulness and Balance (Parallax Press, Nov. 21, 2023), describes how to find balance while navigating seemingly impossible parenting situations. Learn more at celialandman.com.