My Double Life as a Child Therapist and Mother to Anxious Kids
Parenting can be hard when you know all the signs and symptoms of every childhood mental health disorder. Every behavioral hiccup can be over evaluated and scrutinized. Every developmental struggle can be cause for serious alarm.
My introduction to my own child’s issues came as I sat in a post-graduate class on infant and toddler mental health. I listened as the instructor rattled off signs and symptoms that should trigger a cause for concern. I looked around the room and asked, “Isn’t that normal? Don’t all toddlers do that?” Eventually I stopped asking questions and quietly took notes. I realized that I was not just a student, I was a worried mom.
TABLES ARE TURNED
I quickly found myself on the opposite end of services. I entered the world of early intervention and in-home services. At times I felt judged. At times I felt demeaned. I vowed to never make any parents feel that way. I stopped services and decided to wing it myself – after all, I was supposed to be a professional.
My oldest child’s issues were predominantly sensory in nature. She had her anxieties, but it was her sensory struggles that controlled our life. Luckily with some patience and time – she learned how to adapt and grew out of her debilitating issues. She still buys clothes based on how soft they feel – but shoes are not being flung at me anymore, so I’ll take it.
It seemed just as my oldest grew out of some of her more debilitating issues, my middle and youngest children stepped in to take her place. Anxiety is rampant in my family genetics and my kids did not win the genetic lottery.
New struggles popped up before I could catch my breath. One was afraid of the potty and was holding her poop in for days. The other one was crying at night that there are bees in his room. No, it doesn’t make sense, but either does anxiety. I deal with what anxiety wants to dish out – stomach pains, sleepless nights, fear and avoidance.
I have practiced what I preach and preach what I practice. It has been eye opening. Sometimes I forget to take my own advice and make mistakes. My husband will ask, “What would you tell your clients?” Duh, I think. I wouldn’t tell them to do this! Sometimes when you are so close to a problem, you are blind.
I often feel like the universe is playing a cruel joke on me – making me earn the title of child therapist. Making me live what I teach.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
Just like any parent, I have good days and I have bad days. I have days when I am paralyzed with fear (the apple doesn’t fall far from the genetic tree)! I have nights where I toss and turn wondering if this latest issue is going to debilitate my child forever. If he will have issues as severe as the thousands of anxious kids I have seen in my practice. I quietly make mental notes in my head about how other kid’s struggles mirror his own. A scary checklist starts to pop up in my head. He does that too. Check. Check. Check.
Lately, I have been talking myself off the ledge. Partly because my kids are teaching me how strong and resilient they can be. Not in those moments when they are up late into the night calling out my name, but in those brave moments when they walk off the cliff and don’t look back.
My son recently started first grade. I saw the usual signs revving up. A few days before school was about to begin he started to say, “My stomach hurts” all the time. I have taught him to recognize a worried stomach and so he was able to articulate his fears. “I think I am worried about school because my tummy is nervous.”
Knowing that my child has already shown signs of OCD and debilitating anxiety, My mental dictator took advantage of my concerns and flashed scenarios of the hundreds of kids I have treated for anxiety.
He won’t be able to go to school. He will throw up and be sent home. He will cling to me and won’t be able to let go. He will get stomach aches every morning. He will start missing school. He will beg to stay home. He will miss so much school he’ll have to repeat 1st grade. He’ll want to be homeschooled.
This is not my paranoia (okay maybe a little), but these are true stories being played out in my head. These are real life scenarios that have unfolded in my office hundreds of times before. Will he be one of those children? Will his anxiety get as bad as the other kids I see?
Sometimes I wish I did not have this inside view. Sometimes I wish I did not have the gift of knowing the significance of every small fear, phobia and ritual and what beast it can morph into.
This year (so far) my son has surprised me – again. Just as my daughter started to poop and did not need to wear a pull-up at age eight (like other kids I have worked with) – my son’s anxiety did not get the best of him.
Yes, he clung to me the first day. But, then he acted like he didn’t know me as he self-consciously sat himself down. In the afternoon I held my breath as he got into the car. How bad was it going to be?
“I had a good day.” He said nonchalantly.
And then I exhale, for now.
LIFE GOES ON
We are still battling a slew of irrational fears and thoughts. I have become part mother, part philosopher as my anxious children ask me about their death, my death and all the many dangers that can bring us both there quicker.
Like I teach others, I am taking this whole parenting thing one day at a time. I am no longer going to entertain What if thoughts that want to dominate my mind. I am going to soak up my children as they are and not worry about what’s to come. At least for today.
Do you have anxious kids at home? What’s your story? Share in the comments.
Do you know someone who can benefit from hearing this story? Share this article with them.
If you know a teen struggling with anxiety, give them the only self-help book teens are likely to read – written by someone who gets anxiety a bit too well: