Essential life skills & building tolerance for distress

How parents and teachers can empower children to work through difficulty and overwhelm.

This newsletter is the first issue of 2022 specifically written jointly for both my parent readers and teaching professionals. And the reason for this is that it feels like a rising theme – both in my coaching work, and in my work as a speaker and trainer, listening to parents, pupils, and teachers alike wrestling with patterns of anxiety and avoidance. This is sometimes in the form of school refusal, at the sharp end, or manifest in other social-anxiety-linked behaviours and performance related anxieties: procrastination – avoiding engaging with elements of day-to-day work, or perfectionism, an avoidance of being found wanting. But also, often the distress of young people can bring about conflict between parents and school professionals or even between a parenting couple – just when the adult team around the child needs to think creatively and collaboratively the most. And when the young person needs to access their own thinking around their feelings of fear and avoidance. The fact is, sometimes, we have to actively work to be grounded, still, present, confident, and calm around the distress of the young people in our care. We need to avoid merging with fears and avoidance. Not in a punitive way by overruling the avoidance, but to show trust and compassion, to help them work through, instead of defend against difficulty. It’s like standing beneath them while they navigate the climbing frame. Are we projecting additional fear, and creating more uncertainty and adding to insecurity and instability, or are we empowering them to feel their way, feel their safety, and rise up and go further? Are we anxiously holding and instructing, micromanaging asking ‘Do you need help?’ or are we saying ‘You’ve got this. Tell me when you need me.’

As a parent, I totally get it. For much of the time, as a loving parent myself, I’d rather poke my eyes out than invoke painful or distressing situations on our child. And as a teacher, I know full well that putting pupils into discomfort is one of the surest-fire ways of inviting parental complaints!

But life is not a bowl of sugar soup. As Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy so memorably says. And neither would we like it if it was. Sometimes we have to enlarge our palate to embrace the fullest flavours life has to offer, including habituating to its bitterness.

As a doting parent of our one and only child, I am also aware that parenting for pleasure alone is only a job half done. Even though it feels desirable and more comfortable. How we show up around displeasure, discomfort, and distress is an important life-skill. And one observation coming through from colleagues in the teaching world is that children and teens returning to a more consistent normal routine at school are showing up in ways that are less tolerant of difficulty. And parents bearing witness to the resistance of their children and teens are struggling more than ever with the tightrope we all have to walk between nurture and challenge. This is understandable, given the journey we’ve been on in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world where we have kept each other very close and the threat of the world and the pandemic at bay have contributed to wariness. Nonetheless, it is a truth universally acknowledged that over-protected children grow to be brittle adults. I was talking this through with our daughter yesterday when my trip to thank the neighbours for their invaluable help with manhandling our heavy storm-damaged gate back into position turned in to a cup of tea and a chat. 20 minutes of being home alone meant she couldn’t immerse as usual in the bottomless pit of Netflix joy, and came to find me, breath racing, heart pounding, needing hugs. And yes, I could have foreseen the situation and warned her I might be delayed. Or – if she actually had a phone (which she does not) texted her. Or not accepted the invitation to have the cup of tea. But the bottom line was she was safe. I was safe. She knew where I was, and vice versa. The situation, and her feelings regarding it were reminders to both of us of the way she is holding the bars of the cage of her own little pandemic legacy anxieties. And we were able to look at how she was feeling when she was feeling it, and explore with non-judgmental curiosity – the thinking in her fear-talk. And finally to see the fear-talk as exactly that. To be able to see that the feelings she felt, and the thinking she was having were – in essence – in disparity to the ACTUAL ‘danger’ at hand. Today, she initiated a discussion about how she plans to take steps to manage this fear. The truth is, life will provide experiences that freak us out. Learning new things that matter sure provides us with experiences that freak us out. We need to prepare ourselves, and our children to encounter these experiences – feel felt, have their fear talk seen and heard.

From this point of being able to have a difficult experience and move through it, we are able to create meanings that can contribute to either growth – adaptive habituation that enables a deepening and broadening of the lived experience, or inhibition and sensitisation that leads to the growth of anxious feelings and avoidance, and the shrinking of the lived experience of the world. The difficulty is, if we merge with the overwhelm and fear, and defend against it, we can end up soothing the difficulty of the moment, and preventing reality checking and edging towards mastery of the fear. Avoidance does the opposite of reducing stress. It actually raises the base level anxiety because there is no chance to face it and dissipate it. So bottom line is – avoid avoidance. In the majority of cases it is not a healthy, adaptive, coping strategy. Without exception, all teachers will come across the heavy hand of anxiety in most – if not all – of the teaching groups they work with. It is likely that in a group of 20 or 30 young people, a reasonable number of them (maybe one in 5 or 6) will have a sizeable portion of their working memory hijacked by worry and anxiety of one form or another. One of the most haunting images I have come across as a way to understand what anxiety is, is the notion that’s similar to a cage that imprisons us – only we ourselves are holding the bars. And this is very very hard to bear witness to for parents and teachers who are seeing, for instance, patterns of school refusal embedding and increasing; learning lost. One of the biggest conundrums surrounding the care of children and teens caught up in the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of anxiety, is how can we show up around this in a way that will facilitate growth. When the cost of the fear they have is so limiting and so high. 

Something I notice repeatedly in my coaching work with adults is the rising sense of frustration often leading to a desire to take a ‘disciplinarian’ and authoritarian approach. And at times, I will notice my own transference feelings within a session as I listen to parents talk about their struggles. First comes a swamping feeling of helplessness and overwhelm. Then comes the armoury – the call to action, to impose something systemic, consequential, that will, perhaps, punish them out of it. The trouble is, this rarely works. Putting someone in detention or suspending someone for school refusal is surely an own goal. Unfortunately, I probably did kick punitive own goals from time to time when a Deputy Head. Detaining a procrastinator and forcing them to perform under supervision will lead to a white-knuckle production. Forcing a child to go to a party when they are freaking out about being in a crowded situation with excitable children will make the parent feel like they’ve achieved something – but won’t quiet the inner fear-talk or make it easier for the child to feel open to future social situations. So what can parents and teachers do to approach the problem so that the young person can move towards the edge of their fears, feel the bars of the cage they are holding and be at choice about what’s going on? 

  1. A reframe: building tolerance for distress is central to mental health. If our go-to strategy is avoidance, it amplifies distress. Know that there is a fundamental link between avoidance and the inability to tolerate stress. The inability to tolerate distress often perpetuates and increases the fear of the experiences and emotions we want to avoid. Sometimes the dynamics around this can mean that parents are joining with the child in overwhelm and wanting to minimise or avoid stress-points. It is crucial for parents and professionals in schools to be able to join collaboratively and supportively in order to go for growth around tolerating what feels intolerable.
  2. Check in with the young person regularly in a supportive, non-judgmental way and raise awareness of their avoidance practice and the cost of the avoidance.
  3. There is a piece of work around psycho-emotional education here. If we are going to build ‘affect’ tolerance (tolerance of difficult or extreme emotions), then we need to help the young person learn to welcome their emotional experience. There is value in experiencing the full range of emotion. And when we cut off from the lower end of the emotional range, then that is not without consequence. It means you also cut off the higher end too – losing the ability for joy, the more vibrant and effervescent aspects of the lived experience. Some psychologists compare this to a Sine wave – a flattened, deadened experience. Without the depths, you can’t have the peaks.
  4. Peter Levine talks about the notion of orienting towards tolerance through body awareness, using the comparison of a willow in the wind, vs a dead tree. It’s a gradual process of developing the capacity for flexibility in feeling the wind, but being able to internalise experiences of rebounding, not snapping. Developing a curiosity about the feelings and sensations that attend to difficult moments, and coming to some kind of acceptance, rather than resistance to those feelings – with self-care and self-compassion is a part of the journey. This would involve parents or teachers encouraging the young person to slow down and notice what’s happening, to listen and meet the young person where they are at in their fears and feelings and linking that with courage, reminding the young person of their resourcefulness.
  5. Rather than taking a judgmental approach to the extent of the fear or aversion, coming to an observant point of choice – to be more discerning about stress and distress. Stress is activating. It’s a call to action – which can be motivating, beneficial – it is, after all, designed since they earliest days of primitive man on the savannah, to keep us safe and well. The trouble is, most of what pushes us into this state is no longer life-or-death. In fact far from it. It might be a young person having their ipad taken away. It might be getting on a crowded bus. It might be going through the school gates. Distress is beyond this. It’s when the stressors are too many. And we are not designed to manage distress over lengthy periods of time. Chronic stress compromises our immunity, and changes the hormonal balance and we are unable to perform – so it’s all about being able to manage stressors in our lives to tack back into normal stress. And about being discerning about the nature of the stress that is presenting. So, therefore, looking with more openness at which stressors we need to embrace, and which we need to act upon – and how to act on those in healthy vs maladaptive ways.
  6. Openness here is the key. It’s not about being judgmental or dismissive. Of course there is a part of all of us that might be tempted to say it’s ridiculous to have a meltdown at the point of having an ipad or smartphone taken away. But it is what it is. You aren’t going to shame anyone into growth. You can do the ‘tough love’ approach. But that’s likely to end up with a white-knuckling through the discomfort – an ability to hold on just until the next ‘fix’ – rather than really working through the feelings with understanding, moving to choice and growing into being able to self-soothe by other means. Helping the young person see the extent and the extremity of what’s happening, feel and see the consequences experiential, and gradually learn and internalise a different script other than the ‘stinking thinking’ of – if this bad thing happens, I cannot cope, is this bad thing happens, it’ll be catastrophic. To notice how this grows and develops, gradually shrinking engagement with the full range of experience, and a growth of the anxious, avoidant tendencies.

IN our modern world, we are able to enjoy pretty high expectations of a pain-free existence, thanks to advances in health care. We have been largely immunised against the realities of the fragility and uncertainty of life for a very long time, although the raw experiences of the early stages of the pandemic stripped that temporarily away. None of us would want to dial back to the pre-dental health era where most of us would be suffering almost constant toothache, and if we were well-resourced enough, we’d have had our teeth pulled out and have a set of dentures. Right now, my belief is that we are in the process of moving into an era where rather like learning to brush our teeth and care for them increasingly effectively, we are moving into an era where mental hygiene will also come to the fore, and our children’s children will wonder at how we managed. Being able to track where we are on the emotional range, and notice when our ‘window of tolerance’ (Prof Dan Siegel) is closing, is hugely helpful as a starting point. But so is having a range of strategies to use which are resonant and effective for that individual to access calm, create a fire-break between a trigger and the response. So it’s being able to scale it, or label / name it, and then to use a tried and tested technique to sense-check the intensity of the urge to avoid. It could be: Using the breath A well-chosen mantra A symbol or visualisation linked to a greater purpose A reminder of a goal A sensory grounding – feeling the feet on the floor A body scan to ‘safen’ (Graham Music – Respark)A count-down on the ‘stress-o-meter’Revisiting the sense of whether the distress is internally or externally driven (identifying and connecting with autonomy – the locus of control) Culturally we constantly receive ‘feel good’ messages. Some good, some bad. Hedonic solutions are never far away, the temptation to fix the hole in our hearts of perhaps not being good enough with yet more stuff to make us somehow better. It feels counter-intuitive to write like this and talk about the cost of trying too hard to feel too good and look at value of being able to be present to our pain. Especially where our loved children and teens are concerned. 

So here I give a digest of the costs of trying hard to feel good:

  1. It’s exhausting to be vigilant and on guard against unpleasant thoughts /feelings / circumstances. So our base level of anxiety increases.
  2. What we feel, but don’t address, we push out into the world somehow in a disregulated, uncontained way. What we resist, persists. We become increasingly easily triggered.
  3. When we constantly ward off vulnerability, it forms an obstacle to connection with others.
  4. We miss out on important information. All emotions have a purpose. They are sign-posts, not destinations. So when we defend against the feelings of discomfort that tell us that something is out of balance, we aren’t able to read the signs.
  5. It’s important to be able to stay with emotions long enough to be discerning about the message – eg that something or someone is somehow unsafe.
  6. Look at what happens in your body, and what images come into your mind with more openness and curiosity so that you can take a more nuanced approach to the approach/avoid dynamic. Unpicking some of the fixed underlying beliefs that are limiting can be hugely informative and liberating.

Exploiting catalytic moments. It’s so important that as an adult – whether a parent or a teacher – responding to a young person’s disregulated behaviour – that we’re able to step aside of the anxiety hijack. This means instead of seeking to control the behaviour, we’re seeking to work with them to understand the behaviour SO THEY CAN CONTROL the behaviour better. This often results in a legislative response, rather than a curious one. The latter enables the young person to circle back and examine what happened when they were on their experiential rollercoaster.

A scaffolded approach:

  1. What brought you to this situation at this point in time? What do you understand were the catalysts?
  2. What were you thinking when you decided not to do that / push away that feeling?
  3. What was the feeling you felt in your body (heart, chest, gut, throat, arms)? When you look back, did that physical response match the situation you were in? Why / why not?
  4. What were you hoping at that point in time?
  5. How well did that serve you? What actually did come to fruition? NB get them to verbalise their expectation, and reflect on the disparity.
  6. What are the pros and cons here? What do you get out of it?
  7. What is actually happening? What if you continue down this path? What if you do something to interrupt this path?
  8. What is your real sense of purpose? What do you really want, going forward?
  9. What might that look like? What are your choices? What can you do? what help do you need?

Resourcing young people to be able to be more observant and discerning about trigger-points, fears, and feelings, and examining their decision making processes can help hugely. When we are hijacked by anxiety, our thinking is hasty, often indiscriminate – so increasing the ability to be present to a greater emotional range, and gradually developing cognitive skills around flash points can be the key to going for growth. You can’t tell someone how to THINK when they FEEL anxious. And this is why doubling down on being present to and holding the space for distress is so very important for the young person to see more from the inside-out, the situation they are in, feel the direction of travel and the costs involved, and come to a point of choice. It’s a gradual edging towards the fear, facing it, feeling it, and reality checking it. It’s not easy bearing witness to someone floundering in distress. Managing one’s own ‘fear talk’ and time travel with respect to consequences can again enlarge the spaciousness in the adult’s mind that allows the young person to think more expansively. As I have heard Dan Siegel say often, the antidote to wrong thinking isn’t right thinking it’s more thinking. And this is one of the joys and privileges of my work as a professional coach. I hope that in reading this, you have the reframing tools and a greater range of resources that might help you go at supporting a young person in difficulty afresh. Feel free to share this article, and the sign-up details with friends, colleagues, anyone who in their personal or family life is experiencing the all too familiar stuckness of anxious avoidance. Maybe you are a teacher or school professional who supports children and families in these situations. However you come to this as a reader – I hope this has been helpful. Parent sign-up: sign-up: you’re interested in a more concentrated, bespoke look, then get in touch for a ‘Discovery’ session. As always, with love and gratitude. Emma.

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