Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

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Adults are the cabin crew for young people’s anxiety

I talk about this often in my talks for parents and teachers but I realised recently that I haven’t written about it. Time to put this right.

You are the “cabin crew” and you make a huge difference to the mental state of the young people around you. This concept, which is my original idea although I can’t imagine no one else has ever thought of it, is quite simple to explain.

Think about when you’re passenger in a plane and there’s some turbulence. You probably – because I don’t believe this is just me – look at the cabin crew to see how they react. If they are carrying on their jobs and looking quite happy and unfazed, your anxiety drops. If they look anxious, you feel more anxious.

We rely on their expertise to reassure us that this turbulence is not something to worry about, that it’s unpleasant but we’re going to get through it. They are the experts in this and we trust them.

In your homes, classrooms, places where you are the adult (expert) in a position of trust over young people, you are the cabin crew. They trust your judgement, even though they might pretend not to. Your anxiety increases their anxiety. How you act and therefore seem to feel is their cue to their own feelings and therefore actions. You make a difference, for better or worse.

This is not just that mood is contagious, although it also is. It’s that children and teenagers are wired to be dependent on the adults around them, to be protected by them, to feel that to a great extent those adults know more and can do more and have valid wisdom. Of course, teenagers are quite likely not to say that or even to consciously feel it, but deep down they do. They have not yet broken away to complete independence, though they are on their way.

How do we act as good cabin crew?

  • Avoid catastrophising in front of young people – the end of the world is not nigh. I realise this is difficult when you, your community, country or wider are facing immense challenges such as war, terrorism, climate emergencies or a cost of living crisis, or more personal problems such as illness, job loss or relationship breakdown. But how you describe and talk about these things (and how often) makes a difference. There are other things in our lives, good things, hopeful things, happy moments. Even in our darkest moments we do ourselves no service only focusing on the dark. And most of the time, we are not in darkest moments and this thing that feels like a catastrophe can be put in a lighter context and be survived with hope and strength. I am not diminishing those truly dreadful things some of you might be going through but most of us are not going through truly dreadful things most of the time.
  • When something bad is happening, whether in your family life or more widely, help everyone in your household focus on what you can do to get through it. Agency is empowering and we need to seek opportunities for agency and focus our efforts on them.
  • Listen to fears and hear them properly. Good cabin crew would say “I understand that you’re scared of this turbulence but actually what is happening is this and we can get through it.”
  • When necessary, provide true information. You might put risks in context, investigate together online, listen to wise people who have lived through similar or who have good and broad information.
  • After listening and hearing, distract with activities that will occupy attention and lift mood.
  • Teach (and model) strategies for reducing anxiety symptoms. Obviously No Worries has them all, with detailed explanations of why they work.
  • Show how YOU deal with challenges or fears: you might feel distressed at first but then you take control by working out what you can do something about, rather than focusing on what you can’t. You can talk them through how you went from fear to action and courage. And model your anxiety-reducing strategies, such as breathing exercises. They need to see this. Just like seeing the cabin crew during turbulence.

In short, be the adult but be the calm, strong, caring, wise adult. You can’t solve every problem but you can solve many of them. And, in doing so, you teach your young people how to be resilient, strong and courageous themselves and how to face whatever challenges and excitements life throws at them.

Would you like me to talk to your school’s parents or do a staff training session? Online or in person? Do check my Speaking page and get in touch! Two online slots available in 2023 but more online and in person in 2024. Book soon – availability disappears fast.

Don’t forget you can pre-order No Worries from any online or physical bookshop or you can order the Gift for a Teenager NOW.

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