I see fear in her eyes. Even as her mother, there is nothing I can say or do to take it away. I know the feeling that I see — it’s the feeling of hope gone.
As someone who experiences anxiety, I know the feeling of panic as the world becomes overwhelming and your internal thoughts scream and set your physical senses on high alert. I know the feeling of the irrational fear that surrounds my daughter as her chest goes tight. The dizziness becomes overwhelming and her fingers become tingly. I know how it feels when there seems to be no escape. Her eyes and words plead for help, but there’s nothing more I can do except hold her hand and wait.
During the day, my daughter is a typical 10-year-old girl with joy and life sparking in her eyes. She is an honor roll student who loves practicing tricks in the pool. She is a talented artist and a wonderful big sister.
But at bedtime, her demons come.
Out of nowhere like in a scene from Harry Potter, Dementors swoop in and steal her happiness with their kiss. A dark fog rolls into her eyes and the fear comes. “I’m scared, mommy!” she’ll say as we move into our nightly routine. Her anxiety is centered around vomiting, officially called emetophobia. It’s a vicious cycle in which any stomach pain― even simply from being hungry ―leads to the worry that she will throw up. Worrying creates more stomach pain or nausea, and the cycle continues.
Many nights, my words can stop her spiral before she’s caught in its dangerous swirl. Some nights she’s able to pull herself out using coping tricks she’s learned over the years. Other nights though, we can’t stop the spin. On these nights, when the anxiety comes on fast and hard, we are up until the wee hours having the same conversation over and over again. On the worst nights, when her anxiety thickens into a panic attack, my baby girl becomes a seemingly new person where logic and assurance do little to calm her fears.
Watching your child suffer is heartbreaking, especially when you know exactly how the pain she’s experiencing feels. I want nothing more than to be able to fix my daughter’s problems, to help her feel whole and happy. But unlike a skinned knee, I can’t kiss away the pain of her anxiety.
Over the years, we’ve reached out to several resources for help. We started with a school counselor, which helped for a short time. The school counselor assured us we were telling my daughter all the right things, but soon, her anxiety returned.
As her fears became more consuming, we sought help from a play therapist and occupational therapist, since she also was showing signs of sensory processing disorder. This was helpful for a short time as her therapist armed her with coping skills and gave us a new avenue for better understanding our daughter. Unfortunately, the underlying issue has remained. It’s been a dance of forward and backward in improvement and regression ― a juggle between hopelessness and hopefulness, depending on the day.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an astounding 1 in 8 children have an anxiety disorder. “The problem is not that your child gets anxious,” Dr. David Russ shares, who has over 30 years of experience treating children with anxiety. “The problem is that your child thinks something is way more threatening, dangerous, scary, distressing than it is in reality.”
Symptoms of anxiety in children include:
- Physical complaints such as stomachaches, muscle pain, chest pain, or tiredness
- Angry outbursts or resistance
- Strange rituals or superstitious behavior
- Persistent symptoms impairing normal life
- Needing reassurance about the same concern
When a child is experiencing anxiety, logic and reasoning won’t help them feel better. As parents, our first instinct is often to try to reason with our child, to convince them that there’s no reason to be anxious; this won’t give them the relief they need.
Dr. Russ has seen that the key is “to get your child the information and experiences that will prove something isn’t as scary as it feels.” By guiding kids to step into the experience and showing them that the terrible thing they are afraid of won’t happen, we help remove the threat. “Once that happens, the anxiety will go away because the threat is gone.”
There are several treatment options for a child with anxiety. “Depending on the symptoms, you may want to consider a visit with the pediatrician just to make sure there isn’t a medical issue involved with the anxiety,” Dr. Russ advises. This was one of the first steps we took in our quest to help our daughter and we are finding that there is a connection between what she eats and her panic levels. This realization has led to a suspicion that she may have an underlying digestion issue triggering her physical symptoms, and therefore, triggering her phobia.
The second option is to see a professional therapist or clinician. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP) are shown to be effective treatments for anxiety. “Most therapists are trained to help with anxiety generally, but you really need someone with experience and training using exposure and response prevention.”
Parents of children with anxiety might also consider independent research or at-home programs to bring relief. Through Dr. Russ’ years of research, he has partnered with Dr. McCarthy to develop an award-winning program geared towards children’s anxiety that parents can use at home ― either alone or in conjunction to other treatment options. Turnaround Anxiety: Turn Fear into Freedom is a 10-session digital program and is written for children through storytelling and an accompanying workbook. The study-approved program also includes instructional material for parents and a “chill kit” for kids.
When a child is experiencing an anxiety episode, consider following the steps to help ease its grip on your child.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings
- Stay calm
- Adjust expectations during stressful moments
- Praise small accomplishments
- Avoid punishing for lack of progress
- Maintain a routine as best as possible
- Plan ahead to make transitions easier
- Make a plan with how to manage the anxiety
Dr. Russ also encourages parents to be patient. “Prepare to be exhausted,” he says, as it takes effort to retrain thinking and it is often a long process. He also advocates for early intervention, saying, “The sooner you get help the easier it is.” You can take a test here to see if your child’s anxiety may be within a normal level or whether treatment is advised.
Additionally, Dr. Russ offers parents hope. “There is so much hope for kids with anxiety disorders. Once you get the right kind of treatment, it responds very well.”
As for my daughter and I, we will keep pressing on with the many tools we are discovering in our journey. Attacking the darkness with a fresh light will guide her out, one day at a time.