Thursday, January 8, 2015

Living With An Anxious Child

I just looked at the clock and realized why I am fielding tons of questions right now.  Molly starts cheerleading tonight, and while she is excited, she is also anxious.  I have already been asked 20 times what she should wear, how does she need to do her hair, will the other girls be wearing the same thing, who is going to be there, what will the cheers be like, and so on, and so on.  I know anxiety in children is normal, and actually anxiety isn't always a bad thing.  It's good to look forward to something, and to get excited about a new opportunity.  But when you have a child who suffers daily with anxiety you often feel like you are alone on an island or about to slam your head against the wall.

This topic has been heavy on my heart lately, so I wanted to share with you all how we try to deal with Molly's anxious tendencies.  And I am writing this not as a clinical counselor (since I am one), but as a mom who gets tired of answering 901 questions, and wondering if I am the only one.

It all started this past Spring, Molly's anxiousness had grown.  For a very long time Molly was a happy go-lucky, extrovert, never met a stranger, leader of the pack type of kid.  Then we moved from WI to OH, and that part of Molly seemed to stay in WI.  Once we got to Ohio Molly changed.  And some of it we understand being the new kid, knowing not a single sole, we were living with grandparents until we knew what we were doing and where.  I totally understand that her environment and circumstances that she could not control affected her, a lot.  And I still carry A LOT of guilt for all of that.  However, her anxiousness didn't ramp up until we had been here for a couple of months.  It started with her tummy hurting, she felt sick, she didn't want to go to school, she didn't want to wear the style of clothes she had been wearing for the last 6 years of her life.  She just wanted to blend in and not stick out.  Then we started getting calls from the school to come pick her because she felt like she was going to get sick.  We did this song and dance for about a month.

We finally broke down and took her to the doctor, since not one time did she ever really get sick.  Our doctor confirmed what we figured- her anxiety was causing acid reflux, and that's what made her feel like she was going to get sick.  So we decided to start her on reflux medication instead of anxiety medicine.

I remember crying and crying because my 6 year was a dealing with what 30, 40, 50 year olds deal with.  We had the guidance counselor at her school chat with her because we couldn't "fix her."  I never felt like a more ill-equipped parent and counselor.  The counselor couldn't find anything, there were no red flags we were missing.  Her teacher was great and tried to help any way she could.  But in the end we had to teach Molly coping skills and pray she made it through the day.

Here is what we try to do with Molly to help curb her anxiety...

1. Answer questions to the best of your ability- This one can be hard because sometimes I don't have the answers.  For instance, cheerleading tonight, I have zero clue what it will be like or who will be there.  So when I don't have the answers, I am just honest with Molly and say I don't know.  Which sometimes upsets her more, but usually what we do is make a plan of attack.  We talk about what could happen, who we might see, and how it's okay to try new things.

2. Validate their feelings- I often have to tell Molly it's okay to feel this way, it's what you do with that feeling that counts.  I struggle with anxiety and I know how paralyzing it can be.  I share my struggles with Molly, and tell her how I was nervous and scared to do something but I did it, and survived.  We might not like everything we try, and we certainly don't have to keep doing something we don't like, but at least we tried.

3. Have a secret signal- When I was younger my dad and I would always motion "I Love You" to each other with the hand motions of pointing our eyes, then our hearts, then to each other.  My dad taught Molly that when she was about 18 months old.  Whenever Molly would get scared or anxious from that point on we would motion back and forth "I Love You."  That's my way of telling her I see you, I am here, and you will be okay.

4. Push your anxious child past their comfort zone- As a parent it's our job to help our children not just survive in life but thrive.  Sometimes I have to push Molly a little bit to do something new, or talk with someone.  Typically she does great with this.  And she has no clue that I am encouraging her to do something out of her zone.  I signed Molly up for soccer camp last summer because she needed the extra help of the coach and also because it would challenge her to get out of her box.  The first day she was so nervous to go, she knew no one there.  I felt terrible driving away, thinking I had made a mistake, but by the end of the week she had a great time and even earned the most improved player award.

5. Don't mistake their anxiousness for vanity- I am not sure if boys struggle with this or not, but Molly is obsessed with looking in the mirror, like all the time.  She is constantly checking herself out.  But truthfully, she's not vain.  I don't even think she knows what being vain means, I think she is so nervous and anxious about what others may think of her, she needs to make sure she is put together.  I know that sounds like she is being vain, but if you knew her heart, you would know she's not.

6. An anxious child's imagination is often their reality- Molly plays the worst case scenario game a lot, and eventually it becomes her reality.  Last year in school she was terrified to answer questions in class because what if she got it wrong and kids made fun of her.  So her fear paralyzed her.  Molly sometimes gets worried she won't be able to finish all of her lunch in time at school, so she often doesn't eat lunch.  We are constantly going through the what ifs, coming up with game plans, and working out the "okay so this happens, what's so terrible about that"'s exhausting.

7. Be open and honest about your child's anxiety- I don't tell every single person we meet that Molly suffers with anxiety, but the people who spend the most time with her I absolutely open up to them.  Molly's principal knows that Molly has anxiety issues, and her teacher probably had anxiety after my first meeting with her.  What being honest about your child does is it allows those around them to see them for who they really are and not some weirdo that has issues.  Molly's teacher this year has pulled things out of Molly that no one has ever been able to do before.  Her teacher understands the anxiety Molly has so instead of ignoring her or babying her, she gives her responsibilities and makes her feel important.  She has tapped into something inside of Molly and it has made a huge difference.  Molly is a more active participant in class this year and isn't afraid to try new things at school.

8. Pray for your child- Whether your child struggles with anxiety or not, you should pray for them, and with them.  I am often praying with Molly when she is anxious about something.  It might not "fix it" but it shows Molly that our strength and comfort comes from God alone.  Molly's faith has been tested, and I am sure she has no clue, but I want her to begin to know and rely on God to calm her nerves.  I can teach her coping skills and they may help, but ultimately her peace needs to come from God.

Having an anxious child sometimes feels burdensome.  I look at our happy, care free little neighbor girl and wish Molly could be more like her.  But I also know some of the anxiousness Molly has experienced has helped her become more empathetic towards others.

If your child struggles with anxiety, more than normal, please know you are not alone.  There are a lot of parents who are exhausted from answering multitudes of questions and reassuring their child that they will indeed be okay and survive.  Hang in there, we are in this fight together, and we will survive.       

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