I was trying to rush out the door one morning, only to be held hostage by a fit throwing one year old. Crouching down to eye level, knees bent and thighs burning, I jerked up the zipper of his coat, completely out of breath from my pregnant belly encroaching in on my lungs. I stared into his eyes, welled with tears, and his finger kept pointing to the bedroom down the hallway. My body giving way to gravity and exhaustion, I plopped on the floor with defeat and said, “Please, please, show me what you are so upset about”.
He ran to his bedroom and I followed behind, waddling and out of breath. He stopped at the red rug laying in front of his dresser/changing table in his bedroom. Bending over he took the corner that was flipped up, and set it right, smoothing it over with his hand. His eyes met mine, and the relief he felt in his being was nearly audible. Sucking in a deep sigh of relief, he lifted his hands for me to pick him up and carry him to his carseat, because NOW he was ready to leave. The rug was as it was supposed to be.
I buckled him in, and drove off to our destination, which is now long forgotten. My hands fixed on the steering wheel tightly, and my eyes glued to the rearview, looking at this little person in my backseat, who was mine, and who I couldn’t figure out.
It was 6 years later that we finally accepted the fact that our son has anxiety.
Anxiety has a tendency to wax and wane, ebb and flow, come and go… so just as I would begin to lose my mind with Daxx, the tide would roll out and the waters were calm once again. I would get my parenting legs back and I would assume the “season” was over but eventually the waters would rise once again and I’d find myself waist deep in frustration. We sat in the carpool line one rainy morning, waiting for his turn to bound out of the sliding van door and into the majestic walls of his kindergarten class, when my adventurous, typically brave little boy was cowering in the floor board of the van refusing to budge. The door slid open, and there stood the principal with her hand extended to help Daxx out of the car. No coaxing, threatening or bribing would move him. He stayed put, tears streaming, shoulders shaking. I pulled up, parked the car and after several embarrassing minutes, I had to carry him, kicking and screaming into the building. His principal, who is a season veteran in early childhood education, took him and was able to calm him down. Later, I called to check on him, and his day had progressed as normal, and all was good.
Moments like this one became more and more frequent, and suddenly my confusion and frustration turned into anger. The anxiety was paralyzing, crippling, and debilitating, which meant life halted for all of us. I suddenly had to turn into a master manipulator, trying to manipulate the anxiety away, but it never worked. I found myself using punishment as a tactic, believing and acting as if he could control his attacks. Finally, I was at the end of my parenting rope. I had exhausted all tricks of the trade, I was weary, I was angry and I was parenting this issue out of unhealthy reserves. So, I sought help.
Why is it the last thing we do as parents; as women… this seeking help thing. As if overcoming it alone will give us a gold star on some imaginary chart of “do-goods”. We grin and bear, teeth gritted, and smile plastered, until finally our insides are crumbling enough to give way to the facade of strength we have so tediously conjured. We ended up seeking cognitive therapy, for Daxx…and for us too, as “family” sessions were part of our “package” provided by our insurance company, since they were free, we took advantage. (thanks BCBS!) In hindsight it was the best thing we have done. We needed new tools to handle such big emotions. I did not suffer with anxiety and neither did my husband, so knowing the right and healthy way to handle such a deep-rooted issue was beyond our pay-grade.
I want to pause and give permission to anyone reading this to seek therapy for their children if you think it is necessary. There is such stigma when dealing with mental health (and anxiety is a mental health issue). It’s time we stand up and say, it’s okay to seek some guidance, for both the parents and the child. Sometimes our children come with issues that are greater than our capacity, and we find ourselves a bit “in over our head”. If I want to equip my children with the best tools to handle life, oftentimes I have to go out and search for new ones, because I don’t have access to the ones they need. And in search of new tools, I’d like an expert to teach me how to use them… hence a real bona-fide psychologist. And, if I am honest with you, it was a big shot to the ego to admit we needed help. (which confirms we initially had a seeded stigma still attached to mental health issues) If my child was dealing with blood sugar issues, would it be frowned upon to seek help from a pediatric endocrinologist… no. When we allow stigma and denial to interfere with the best choice for our child, we are not acting in our full capacity as parents.
–RANT OVER– 🙂
I wanted to also pass on some of the strategies that the counselor taught us:
MAGIC TRICK #1: Don’t dismiss the anxiety, but challenge it.
When Daxx would wake up repeating, “This is going to be the worst day ever…”, I would respond with phrases like: “No way, it’s a great day.”, “This is the day the Lord has made, it will be fun!” or “That’s silly and ridiculous.”. Our therapist suggested accepting and then challenging the anxious thought. For an example:
“Hmm, You think it’s going to be a bad day? (I show that I accepted the thought) Can you tell me why you think that?”
And then as the child responds you simply keep challenging those answers with the same method. Eventually you kid will talk him/herself out of the negative projection. IT WORKED!!
MAGIC TRICK #2: Encourage “together time” even if your child prefers to be alone.
Daxx likes to play by himself. He likes LEGOs particularly. The therapist suggested that we move his Legos into the family room, so he cannot be alone with his thoughts. He seemed to perseverate on issues while alone, so this eliminated that potential. AND, again… IT WORKED!
MAGIC TRCIK #3: Set small goals with monitory rewards and natural consequences.
Daxx’s issue was separation anxiety. When we left him anywhere, it triggered an attack. So we decided to make small goals of him being somewhere alone, like a friend’s house, church, karate or the grandparents. His karate class had a parent’s night out, Ninja Night, and he really wanted to go, but I never allowed it because I knew he couldn’t handle the drop off. So, we worked up to it. We decided it would be a good idea, and he invited a friend. We talked about it for several weeks and we challenged all possible negative thoughts. When the time came he WENT! It was a break through moment for him, something he had wanted to do for so long, but couldn’t because of his anxiety.
These “Magic Tricks” have completely changed our families dialog when Daxx wakes up with anxiety. Instead of dismissing, ignoring or mocking the fears, instead we confront them, taking their power away.
The reason I am writing this is not to show how far we’ve come, because we are still working it all out (if you only knew). I am writing to those who might be walking the road alone, and the emotions of it all are just too much. I want to lift the lid on mental health, and give us all a space to peak inside together and talk about it. As parents, as friends, as the church, is it possible for us to find comfort in the “not knowing what to do” and courage in the surrender of control, as we seek help from those who might know a little more than we do?! It’s brave to reach out and find a hand to grab ahold of when you can’t stand on your own.
Like I said in the beginning, anxiety is an ebb and flow. We are currently embarking on a new dimension of anxiety with Daxx as we have noticed the last 2 months the presence of both a physical tic (head jerking) and a vocal tic (throat clearing). We have seen the pediatrician and will be visiting with a pediatric neurologist in May, but the strange thing is (after my initial fall apart) I am okay with it. The Lord had filled my mommy heart with a peace that passes understanding and all that flows through my mind concerning this issue is Jeremiah 1:9, as the Lord reminds me:
“Heather, before I formed Daxx in your womb, I knew HIM. Before he was born, I set HIM apart.”
The Lord is good to meet us right where we are, when we need him. He is close to the broken-hearted (Ps 34:18), and many parenting moments can be that; hearts confused… because when your heart walks around outside of your body in the form of a 7 year old boy, it gets beat up and bruised pretty easily. It’s okay to feel inadequate or ill-equipped…. because we all are. What we truly need is the Lord’s grace, our “village” and Google… (haha!)
Each child is uniquely layered, and as the years sift away, more layers are exposed, leaving us in wonder of the little lives that we are entrusted with. What a breath-taking task. * (Fist bump) *More power to you Mommies, of all types of kids!! And thanks to you, God.