I have two sons. They are both well-loved, healthy and have been raised in a secure and nurturing family unit.
They are both smart, happy and fit boys. They were birthed the same way, breastfed for the same amount of time and parented as similarly as a first born and second born can be.
When people meet them they often comment on how outrageously handsome they are [mother bias] and how confident they both present. But one of them has a secret. One of them has anxiety.
You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t know him. He masks it well when we are out and he is with people he’s not entirely comfortable with [ie, his family]. But the boy I have at home is often a very, very different child to the one our friends, our extended family and even his teachers see.
Parenting a child with anxiety can be exhausting because anxiety is one of those ‘invisible’ conditions. Even after living with him full-time for his entire life and therefore knowing most of his triggers, it can still take me by surprise. And believe me when I say one of his anxiety-fueled outbursts can shut our whole family down in a matter of minutes… usually when we are just about to leave the house.
Having a child with anxiety means you’re on alert even more than usual as a parent. It means you moderate what you do, and don’t, communicate to them. It means you sub-consciously and ever so subtly adjust your behaviour and family dynamics to protect them. It means you’re constantly working to help them develop the resilience they need to become a functioning and emotionally successful grown-up.
It’s not all doom and gloom though and we work very hard together to build his emotional ‘muscle’. Because even though I can see what’s going on he doesn’t quite get it. Yet. My son does not know that he has ‘anxiety’. I’ve chosen to not use the word ‘anxious’ around him or label him as an ‘anxiety sufferer’ to his face. Instead I refer to his feelings and moods and fears as just that and so treat each occurrence on its own merits. There is no shame in having anxiety at all and that is not the reason that I have chosen not to talk to him about it. Sometimes the broad stroke of labeling kids, in any way, can be a slippery slope of expectation… and justification, which I’d prefer to avoid. For now.
Anxiety manifests itself in many different ways with kids and the term itself can apply to many different types. In most cases anxiety is reasonably short-lived and often related to a developmental stage of childhood. As a parent you will hear terms like separation anxiety and social anxiety and performance anxiety. You may recognise symptoms in your child that places them in one or all of these groups. You may also remember symptoms that they have long since grown out of. Worries and anxieties are all healthy emotions for human beings. It keeps us safe and helps us survive.
In the case of my son it shows itself in the following ways:
The worst place for a kid [or grown-up!] with anxiety is inside their own head. When my son gets caught in a cycle of overthinking any scenario it takes quite a bit of work to get him out … especially because he’s not a talker. By the time we are discussing something, he’s usually been alone with it for days. So wherever I can, I try to head it off by tricking him into talking.
TIP: Some methods I use to open up a dialogue are 1. talking while he’s distracted, usually with a ball of some sort and 2. pretending I’m talking about something or someone else.
His most intense time for overthinking is at bedtime. OF COURSE IT IS. There have been nights that he has still been awake past 11pm simply thinking obsessing over something that probably hasn’t even happened yet.
TIP: Our best weapon against these times is for him to listen to a meditation album specifically for boys called SADA – MEDITATION FOR BOYS. That usually works within a couple of tracks and he’s sound asleep in about fifteen minutes.
The first time I realised the extent of his anxiety was when he was in reception [the first year of primary school]. There was a school mass that evening and his teacher had selected him to carry the bible in – quite the honour apparently. He was so proud to have been chosen and very excited to tell me all about it when I picked him from school. However, somewhere between school pick up and needing to leave home he had worked himself into a state of absolute and extreme panic. It was so bad that I had to physically force him into the car and then into the chapel but only after I promised to let his teacher know that he didn’t want to do it. His behaviour was a complete shock to me and until that time, I had no idea just how extreme his anxiety was. He has progressed quite a bit since then and has even performed in two school productions [one time as the lead!] but I’m always very aware of how he is tracking in the lead up.
TIP: I find one way to help him manage these times is to NOT discuss it in the lead up. Instead I help him distract himself so that he doesn’t have an opportunity to obsess himself into panic.
This is a really big one but I’ve pretty much worked out a way around most scenarios. Firstly, I rarely tell him if any social event is going to involve other children. The fear of having to meet and befriend them is too much for him to bear, even though he ALWAYS has a great time once he’s warmed up and realises they’re just like him!
TIP: When he asks if there are going to be any other kids [that he doesn’t know] there I often answer “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” or flat out lie and say “no.”
Fear of Being Late
He HATES being late. It’s basically his social fear and performance fear wrapped into one. It fills him with terror to think that he will ‘make an entrance’ when he arrives at any event where people are already settled in. Unsolicited attention is terrifying for him.
TIP: We avoid most freak-outs simply by being among the first to turn up anywhere. Yep, it’s that easy.
My son is a really capable kid and can master most new things easily. Unfortunately, his anxious mind tells him something quite different though. So taking risks is not his idea of a good time. Risks that he will avoid include – trying new foods, going to new parks, picking up a new sport and meeting new people.
TIP: I purposely don’t draw attention to or emphasise any ‘risks’. So if I want him to try a new food, it will simply just appear on his plate. If we’re going to a new park, he won’t know that until we get there.
Being introverted is totally wrapped up with his terror of all of his anxieties at once. Which is not to say all introverts suffer from anxiety or vice versa, but it’s certainly the way things are around here. I can tell when he needs to retreat and, to his credit, so can he. If he’s had a particularly busy time stretching the boundaries of his anxiety he will counter that with some time in his comfort zone. This can look like zoning out watching a movie or tv or playing a game on the PS4. Sometimes he might just need some alone practicing his forehand and backhand against the tennis return.
TIP: I factor in down-time for him regularly. In fact, we all need it but I’m more deliberate about it for him. Sometimes down-time for him has simply been a ‘mental-health’ day off school.
So what does all this mean?
Well, sadly I don’t have all the answers. I’m literally learning as I go. It’s not always easy parenting a kid with anxiety but it’s not the hardest thing in the world either! Sure, things can get a bit prickly but the trick really is in managing the meltdowns and the freak-outs because when he’s not having an attack/tantrum he’s all sorts of awesome. He’s funny and kind and confident and loving and cocky and smart. I adore him… every bit of him. Even the prickly bits.
Do you have a child who suffers from anxiety? What are some tips you can share?
Disclaimer: This was written by a mum in our community. She has asked that she remain anonymous, in the best interests of her children.