Teaching Our Children to Have Courage: I am a Superhero – Derek Leung

By Derek Leung, a Clinical CCAA member in private practice in Chatswood, Sydney

Dealing with our children’s emotions can be a difficult task, especially teaching our children how to conquer their fear in a nurturing manner. But it is something that we have to do in order for them to have the courage to tackle their future head on.

A few months my 6yr old daughter started going to special reading classes before school ….at 8:15am…very early as you can imagine.

All was going well on the morning of the first class, she got up on her own (6:15am.. that is quite an effort for a little person), we got breakfast, washed her and got her into her uniform. All was going unexpectedly smooth until she put on her shoes. It was as if a switch had flicked on at that nano-second. I saw fear overtake my 6yr old , the panic set in her eyes, I heard the quiver in her voice as she sat slumped on the steps and she whimpered,  “I am scared….. I don’t want to go….”

My reaction was “uh oh!!!!!! How am I going to get her moving?”. My heart broke as I saw her in such a distress state and at the same time my performance oriented Asian-ness kicked in and thought, “she has got to go!!!”. What do I do now???? I have a distressed kid in front of me and my heart was conflicted?

If I was to follow my stereotypical Asian upbringing I would have threatened the poor child with punishment. If I followed the typical performance oriented script I would have threatened her into getting up and demanded her to be quiet and get on with it!!!

My father heart said “Stop, slow down….see your child…. Help her conquer her fear as a father should”.…. what do I need to do?

What does an anxious child need from her parent?

IN THEORY …….An anxious child needs to know that I am there for her and that I see her and acknowledge her distress and at the same time she needs me to help her contain her fear. Hopefully this scary experience will become a learning exercise to overcome future challenges.

That is all well and good in theory but how was I supposed to do all that in the next 5 minutes to get to school on time??? How was I supposed do that in a way that a 6yr old can comprehend?

A thought flashed into my head.

I got up and stood in front of her like superman, I put my fists on my hips, puffed my chest, lifted my chin in confidence…… I said gently, “Missy… look at me.. I know you’re scared… do what I do, repeat after me….”. She looked at me perplexed.

I continued in my best super confident superhero voice, “ I am a super hero. I can do anything with Jesus by my side”.

I urged her to repeat after me… she repeated it in the most mousy voice, shaken and broken. I repeated my superhero mantra.

I asked her to stand up next to me and repeated the line, “I am a super hero. I can do anything with Jesus by my side”

I asked her to repeat once more. My little girl adjusted herself, she put her fists on her hips, and repeated her line. I could hear the confidence in her voice rising. She did it again and became more confident. The whimper had gone. I gave her a high-five and we headed off to school. She repeated the line a few more times in the car and on our walk towards the school. I could see that she wasn’t completely confident but the paralyzing fear had gone.

My 6 year old girl had conquered her fear knowing she is going to be ok because Jesus is with her.

The questions you might be asking are why and how did that work?

Here is why I think the strategy worked: 

  1. Validation: I saw and validated her fear- I didn’t dismiss her , badger her , threaten her or ridicule her. I validated her feelings and offered support therefore modeling secure attachment for her
  2. Create safe space for communication – validation is important because it creates a safe space for the child to raise their concerns and you can nip it in the butt before things accumulate and become a seemingly insurmountable mountain.
  3. Self-awareness:It takes self-awareness to not repeat the maladaptive cultural patterns of our own childhood and the parenting that we experienced
  4. Power pose :I remembered a study that showed a change to open power postures can increase testosterone and lower cortisol (stress hormone) (Carney, Codd, & Uap, 2010) .
  5. Know Jesus’ presence :I reminded my child and reaffirmed in her the belief system that Jesus is with her always. It is not just a mantra or affirmation , but it helps her foster a real sense of Jesus’ presence in her life.

Let’s unpack these 3 things further.

Validation:

Validating someone’s feelings is very important. We are attuning to someone’s feelings. It conveys the message , “I see you…I get you”. Children feel secured when they know their caregivers “get” how they feel. It conveys the message to the child that “I know how you feel” and “I know what you need from me to help you feel safe”.

Validating is not necessarily agreeing with someone. It is simply a statement conveying that you see how someone feels , eg. “ I see that you are angry because….” , “I see that you are scared because………”. By doing this, the child becomes less defensive and more willing to listen when he/she is anxious or upset. It is a very good tool to help someone regulate their emotions. It also tells them they you are not judging them and they become less defensive and more willing to talk about what is troubling them.

I will hopefully write a blog in the future and explain how this works neurologically in our brains……

Despite the common misconception that validating someone’s feelings would encourage certain undesirable behaviours and attitudes, it is certainly not true.

Self awareness : Know your automatic response

Being self aware of what you as the parent are feeling is a very important aspect of how we interact with our children. As parents we would never want to deliberately harm our children in anyway. However, our own upbringing and mental state can unconsciously influence how we behave towards our children.

For example , a parent with depression can be impaired in their ability to attune or see what is emotionally going with their child ; or in my case in that split second where my Asian performance-oriented upbringing that is so ingrained in my thinking and behaviour took over. Some of you might know that this performance oriented behaviour is more about obsession over how you think other people are thinking about you. For Asian if you don’t perform you will look bad , you lose “face”. This is never a good thing in Asian culture.

If I had not done some work on myself in the past to identify this behaviour I would have been more concerned about how I would have looked or how my child would have looked to her school. I would have missed the most important thing which is my child’s feelings and her struggles.

Create safe space for communications: allow your child to express themselves and support them 

Children need to know that it is safe for them to raise their concerns with their parents. They need to know they are not going be ridiculed, or made to feel ashamed, guilty or pathetic.

I have witnessed over the years how some parents badger their children verbally and even smack their children when the children express their feelings. If these experiences keep occurring we would soon condition our children to know that expressing themselves is not safe. They will eventually learn to keep their mouth shut and attempt to cope with their fears on their own. The problem with this is that not only does it NOT engender independence but it will actually create ineffective and harmful ways to cope with fear. It may lead to mental conditions such as anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders , depression , future relationship issues just to name a few.

How do I know this?

I know this not just because of my own childhood experience, but it is the same theme that I hear from my clients.

As an example, I remember a number of very similar situations in my own childhood.

I don’t remember my parents ever helping me walk through my own fears. I remember being scared before swimming competitions and going into exams in Hong Kong and in Australia, but I never spoke to my parents about it, I never raised my concerns. The reason I was afraid to raise it with my dad was because I was afraid of his disapproval. I learnt to grit my teeth and bear it. Confronting my fear on my own was the safer choice than experiencing the humiliation of disapproval from my father.

In general I was a very good student at school. I was good at maths and the sciences… as you would expect from any Asian student. But my Achilles heel was practical exams.

I remember during practical exams in science my anxiety got so bad that I could not even think. I would just stare at my exam paper and could hardly comprehend the questions. My mind would just go blank. I would just freeze. Now that I have the theory I knew I was experiencing extreme anxiety and was experiencing flight/fight/freeze response.

I remember the room would spin and felt like I was not even there in the room. It was by chance that when I got to 3rdyear uni that I somehow learnt to concentrate on my breathing and slowed it down and eventually learnt how to get a handle on my anxiety.

The point of the story is not to tell you a sob story but it highlights detrimental effects on children who don’t having a safe space to talk things over with their parents.

If I had a space to talk things over with my parents they could have helped me nip things in the butt when I was at school rather than it dragging out for years.

Power pose :

Although I used this technique with my 6 yr old I don’t think it was the only reason she felt more confident. Nevertheless, I think it is worth a short discussion.

A clinical study showed that our posture can cause neuroendocrinological changes (Carney, Codd, & Uap, 2010). This study showed that those who displayed high power poses resulted in higher level of testosterone and lower level of cortisol (stress hormone). It also showed that those who practiced low power pose resulted in lower level of testosterone and higher level of cortisol. This means that those who stands in more open and upright posture would more likely feel more powerful and cope with stress better. The reverse would be true for those who slouch , hunch and droop their heads.

There is something true in the old saying , “keep your chin up”.

Learn to know Jesus’ presence :

I think this can be huge topic. Depending on which tradition of Christianity you might come from, sensing the presence of God is with you may not always be an easy thing to do. But if we can encourage our children to know that Jesus is with them day and night it will help them feel more secure to tackle life’s challenges. If we do this early enough in life then our children can carry this sense with them through their life span.

The sense of Jesus being with you is not just a spiritual issue. We actually carry significant people in our hearts and minds everyday. Think of how many times you have said words similar to the effect of , “this is exactly what mum (or dad or whoever) would have said…”.

Some clients even report back to me that they thought “I think Derek would have said this or that..” at certain moments. We tend to internalize our parental figures and carry their “presence” with us. Sometimes it is a very helpful thing. When the parental figure has been nurturing and encouraging, then it is engenders safety ,security and confidence.

But sometimes the voices you hear are from angry and disapproving parents. Again, this can contribute to developing future anxiety disorders , depression and other emotional challenges (perhaps I will write about this in another blog).

As Christian parents we want to help our children internalize a sense of who God is and that He is with them no matter what. In my own experience and in my clients’ stories , so often we can have a distorted image of God because of our parents modelled for us.

If we model for our children that we are emotionally distant. It is likely that they will grow to have an image of God who is emotionally distant.

If we model for our children that they have to perform in order to have our attention , love and attention. It is likely that they will grow to have an image of God who will only pay them attention and love them if they were to perform.

It is our job to model the tangible presence of God through our behavior by being there for our children, listening to them and helping them regulate their emotions. It is only then can they start to construct an image of God who is safe, available when they need Him and accepts them for who they are.

For our children to grow and know that God is with them is the best gift that we as parents can give them to help them launch into the world.

So next time when your child is distressed , just a second to think what is really going on, see it as a great opportunity for you to deposit a precious gift of courage into their lives.

To sum up :

  • Be aware of and evaluate our own emotional response to your child’s distress
  • Create a safe emotional space for our children to express themselves
  • Make it fun and encourage our children throw superhero pose
  • Help our children profess confidence
  • Help them gain a sense that Jesus is with them by us modelling for them the tangible presence of a loving and available God.

I hope this helps , thanks for reading.

Parenting is not easy , there is so much going on , and there is so much that we have to do.

All we can ask of ourselves is to try our best…

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