My nine-year-old daughter threw me a curve ball last spring when [seemingly out of nowhere] she began to experience anxiety over the simplest of things, such as going to school. Mia had always been an eager learner, an outgoing and friendly child who appeared to take life in stride. The kind of kid who, once she learned how to skip, preferred that method of getting from point A to point B…usually accompanied by a whistle or a song from her lips.
When I began to notice my daughter’s shift in attitude and demeanor, my own anxiety kicked in. I had never experienced my daughter this way before, so I had no idea how to “handle” it. I tried many different tactics which seemed natural to me, such as listening and affirming her feelings (while making it clear attending school was non-negotiable), at times I ignored her behavior or minimized the situation and pushed her through the feeling. Another approach I found myself taking (in response to my own growing anxiety) was to ask her if she could tell me what was wrong so I could help her (“If you can just tell mommy what is wrong I can find a way to help you. I can’t help you if I don’t know what is going on inside your head.”)
One of the biggest obstacles, hindsight being 20/20, was learning my daughter didn’t know exactly why she was feeling so much anxiety. If she didn’t know, how did I expect her to tell me?!
The situation escalated to a point where I felt we needed some outside, professional help. We began to see a wonderful family counselor who, over time, was able to unravel my daughter’s anxiety. The counselor also taught Mia some concrete ways to cope with challenging thoughts and emotions (such as identifying/understanding her feelings, journal writing, and deep breathing exercises). The counselor helped her dad and I understand how sensitive Mia was to the mood and energy in our home. Even when, on the surface, she didn’t appear to even be paying attention to our discussions.
During one of Mia’s sessions my daughter spoke, at length, about a young man (a family friend) who passed away a few years earlier (when my daughter was six). I had no idea Mia ever thought about this person after his death, we hadn’t dwelled on the details, or even spoke much about the incident. My daughter did not attend the funeral…yet, she carried this grief and worry about the unknown for three years.
I learned a great deal in going through this experience with my child. The most important being sometimes the best way to handle her feelings is to simply allow them to happen, to acknowledge the feeling and be with her in that moment knowing we[moms and dads] cannot fix or change every emotion or problem our children will face. However, by acknowledging and sitting with them and the feeling it begins to become less powerful.
The point of my story is threefold: (a) our children pick up on, and are more sensitive than we give them credit for, (b) when one of your children has a mental health issue (such as severe anxiety) the entire family has an issue because the family is an interdependent system, and (c) there is no shame in asking for help, professional or otherwise, when the waters get deep and murky as they often do when raising children.