I decided I wanted to be a child therapist long before I ever had children. I finished graduate school before I even began motherhood. I knew all the signs and symptoms of every childhood mental health disorder before my first child entered the world.
You would think I was well prepared. You would think if anyone could handle anxious kids – it would be me. Apparently the universe shared the same sentiment – as it dutifully delivered me child after child with some form of anxiety in their DNA.
At first I was in denial. I quickly rebuked my education and my profession and thought, “Come on! These things seem normal to me. My kids do all of those things. What’s the big deal?”
Eventually the reality started to sink in. No, not every kid does that. No, not every parent has to worry about going on the highway – because their three year old goes into a panic. No, not every parent has to talk to their five year old about what will happen when they die.
After twelve years and three children later – I have embraced anxiety as much as I embrace my children. My children have taught me more about life than any textbook ever did. I have realized that anxious kids have much to teach us.
They teach us…
That we need to believe in them – not in their fear.
Early on I found myself accommodating my child’s fear. She doesn’t like highways – I should find an alternative route. She doesn’t like elevators – let’s find the stairs. Over time – she would surprise me with her tenacity and her ability to dig deep and face her fears.
I realized that she was more of a fighter than I was allowing her to be. That she was tired of her worries and she wanted them to go away. Instead of turning away from her fears – I began to hold her hand and we faced them together. One small step at a time.
That our fears aren’t always their fears.
Time and time again my children have awed and inspired me. I have inadvertently put them and their worries into tiny, predictable boxes. I play out scenarios in my head and anticipate how situations will unfold. Luckily I have often been wrong.
I have realized – I can’t underestimate my children.
I think I was more nervous about kindergarten than my son. I walked him to the gate on the first day – waiting for the meltdown. Waiting for the battle to start. Wondering if the school counselor was in on the first day. He turned to me and said, “You can go. I’m good.” And – he didn’t look back. Not once.
That our words can tear them down and lift them up.
Anxious children tend to be much more sensitive in general. My kids are no exception. They love hard and hurt hard. Sensitive children often have the biggest hearts. My three year old is the first to notice when I am having a bad day. She is also the first one to sulk in a corner for hours when I correct her behavior. She is the one who frequently asks, “Are you proud of me?” five zillion times a day.
I realize that my words have weight.
They are actively shaping the way she views herself. I have learned to be cautious with my words – as they can tear my little girl down in a heart beat or they can lift her up. I am in the process of helping her develop her own inner dialogue. That could be good or that could be bad – it was up to me.
That our children are watching.
They are watching our reaction. They are watching our emotions. They are watching our choices. Anxious children are observant. My kids notice my subtle tone change. They hear the high pitch of my nerves.
Emotions are contagious. Especially when your children look for you to be their anchor.
When I am nervous – they are nervous. Sometimes sadly when they wouldn’t have been otherwise. I have had to develop a good poker face. Sometimes I can do this – and sometimes I fail. But, I always try my best.
I have learned to stop worrying about their worries – as much. I take one day at a time. One fear, phobia, struggle – at a time.
I remember when my oldest daughter couldn’t sleep unless she was holding my hand. I thought she’d sleep next to me forever. She is now twelve and would deny that ever happened. Oh, it happened.
I remember not too long ago when I thought my youngest would never go poop in the potty. Her fear was palpable – as she walked around holding her bottom saying, “I no poop. I no poop!” That too has passed.
We are on to the next challenges life inevitably brings – but with a new belief. A belief in my children. In anxious children. A belief in their strength. In our strength. A knowledge that we can get through whatever life wants to throw at us – one day at a time.
Do you know an anxious teen? Give them the only self-help book teens are likely to read:
Natasha Daniels is a child therapist and author of How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler. A book that offers concrete approaches to empower toddlers and pre-schoolers who have issues with anxiety.