As a child, I struggled with stomach aches. They would come and go without a clear cause. Then when I started college, I had moments where I couldn’t catch my breath, my heart pounded, and my hands shook. I was deemed uptight and controlling. I desperately wanted to be carefree, but something was holding me back.
That something, I finally figured out, was anxiety.
I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t a bad person. And in the years that would follow, I’d come to learn that what I was experiencing was incredibly common. But without a name to my struggle, I spent far too many years feeling lost, isolated, and incapable of overcoming the issues that plagued me.
Years later, my own experiences with anxiety would allow me to spot it right away in one of my children. Her symptoms were similar to mine — mainly unexplained stomach aches, mood shifts, and the intense desire for control. But thankfully, I was better prepared to help her. And since then, I have come to see anxiety from a different perspective — through the eyes of a parent.
I’ve also come to understand these five truths all too well …
1. You have to slow down.
Rushing out the door rarely works. You will have to pause and assure your child, answering their questions. For example, getting ready to leave the house and head to an activity or run an errand in the pouring rain might have a child with anxiety asking, “But what if lightning strikes the car?” and “What if Daddy doesn’t get home safely from work?”
Reassurance doesn’t eradicate anxiety, but addressing their concerns is way healthier than brushing them aside. And rushing around? That is certainly anxiety-inducing (or anxiety-increasing) for many kids!
2. You have to recognize what lies beneath.
Kids with anxiety sometimes shy away from goodbyes (too sad) or act seemingly disrespectful (self-preservation and a cry for attention), all with one root cause: anxiety. Parents need to treat the underlying issue, not the symptoms. What is it about goodbyes that are so hard? Perhaps the child is afraid the goodbye is forever. If that’s the case, you can talk through the issue with your child, read books about hellos and goodbyes, and practice what saying goodbye looks like for future visits.
3. You have to adjust your words.
Telling a child to “chill out” or “calm down” or simply that “it’s fine” when they’re experiencing anxiety simply doesn’t work. Think about when you’re angry about a car cutting you off in traffic, and maybe your passenger says to you, “Oh, it’s really not that big of a deal!” Does that actually make you feel less angry? Nope! Your anger likely increases due to the way your experience and feelings were totally dismissed. Instead, I try and say things like, “How does your body feel right now?”, “What can I do to help you?”, and “Let’s do something relaxing together.”
4. You realize that not everyone gets it.
Kids with anxiety, much like adults, can be negatively labeled and dismissed as “Nervous Nellies” or even”Worry Warts.” But we need to call it what it is: anxiety. There continues to be a disconnect between society and an accurate understanding of mental health, and it can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting to educate others on anxiety and your child’s needs.
Try explaining that a child who appears to be defiant — perhaps after leaving a group setting to spend 10 minutes playing around in the restroom — is actually drowning under a wave of anxiety and desperately needs some alone time to regroup. I’ve found that being proactive about things, by giving the adult leaders in my child’s life a heads up about her anxiety, leads to less stress and misunderstandings in the long run.
5. You have to do what works for your kid.
The parenting wars of today often imply there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to raising kids. But the truth is, our children are unique individuals who need to be treated as such. Children with anxiety often need more time, space, and attention. They need more opportunities to recalibrate and regulate. They may need more cuddles than another kids their age. For my daughter, it means giving her a special chewy necklace (in lieu of finger-nail biting). If that’s what your child needs, so be it. Whatever is healthy and works for your kid is what is right. Parenting rules be damned.
Anxiety isn’t something that can necessarily be cured, but it can be managed. When a parent has an accurate understanding and acceptance of their child’s anxiety, they can help the child navigate choppy waters with empathy and grace. And by taking your child’s hand and walking with them, the’ll know that they’re not alone.