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How to Help your Anxious Child When you Yourself are Anxious

Had you walked past our house earlier last week, say sometime between the hours of around seven and eight a.m., you would have been forgiven for wondering if you were witnessing some sort of suburban crime scene. Beyond the gently tossing heads of flowers that the kids planted with their father, Dr M, only weeks earlier, through the friendly painted blue door, and down the stretch of newly carpeted stairs, came a sound so harrowing it was enough to startle the heavy fronds of the palm trees. Perhaps it was a reenactment of some sort, a rehearsal for a Shakespearean tragedy?

In fact, it was something far more ordinary, but no less dramatic for those involved. It was the sound of one or more of our children protesting the inevitable and that which they wished by sheer force of lung and feet to make avoidable. The return to school after an extended holidays.

That’s right, second term has returned to our part of the world, and believe me we are grateful. Our schools are open! In this day and age its a gift not to be shirked. For us as parents, it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately not so for our kids. Not when the stem-source of their rebellion is not apathy or distaste, but something far more intractable and strong, something far more complex and claw-gripped. Our children in the last week weren’t just annoyed about holidays ending, sad about the tap being turned off on seemingly endless iPad sessions and icecream serves. They were terrified. About change. About unknowns. About life beyond our blue front door.

They were, in a word, anxious.

Fight, flight and freeze. These are anxiety’s henchmen, making daily raids on bodies big and small. All three can happen at once, or just one. This week it seems it’s been all about fight.

And its exasperating, infuriating, exhausting, and all the ‘ings’ but it is also something else, at least for veterans like their parents. It is totally understandable. But this doesn’t make it any less tricky or necessary to deal with.

When struggles are shared

It’s no news to anyone around here that I struggle with anxiety. Perhaps then, its not particularly novel or surprising that it is something of a family affair. It runs in our blood like kryptonite. Before me, my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather. And now our kids too. So, in one way then, it is genetic, like freckles, or the funny set apart toes that each of our children inherited from my husband’s side of the family. But in another way, it makes it even more important that we help them with it, to cope, to grow, to accept. But how? Just what do you do when the thing you need to help your kids with is the very thing you need to learn yourself?

As my six year-old son was worrying in frenetic circles about the tasks of the day ahead, a day spent in his prep classroom (kindergarten for those outside Queensland) I could easily peek in from my elevated height, from the outside, and see that his worries weren’t just overly inflated and unfounded, they were, on one level downright laughable. What did he have to worry about, really? But then, wasn’t I myself also internally spinning frantic stories of my own day ahead. Of the class I had to teach at university later that morning. Would I be prepared enough? Would my students turn up? Would I …..would they…..the questions rising and rising. So.many. questions.

We all have our things, and sometimes, oftentimes, our thing and our kid’s thing collides. I suppose it’s hardly surprising. Nor does it mean we have to blame ourselves. If this is something you do, please stop now. I spent many years doing this. My kid’s crap must be my fault, right? I might not have physically handed it to them, in a package, but I passed it on nonetheless, in a far more insidious and powerful way. Inside them. And now they had to live with it.

But thankfully, as with most things, there is usually another way to look at it.As my ever-wise, ever-gentle friend Katelyn has told me on numerous occassions.

‘Why not think of it like this. Isn’t it good that they got you as their parent, and not someone else. You are uniquely placed to understand them. To help.’

I’m not a therapist (like my friend Katelyn!) I’m a co-liver. A co-learner. But what I want to share below are some thoughts that have helped us on our journey of parenting kids that share similar sensitivites to you.

Recognize what you are: A parent, but also a fellow human.

While it would seem, on the surface, to be so much simpler if we only had to parent in areas where we ourselves had already “succeeded” or were “fixed”, perhaps this isn’t necessarily better. As my friend Katelyn said, sometimes acknowledging our own struggles makes us uniquely positioned to help others. While as parents we are the ones to protect, nurture, and, as much as we can, direct our kids, at no point does this job description require us to be either unfeeling robots or superheroes. Yes, we are adults, and they are children, but we are still made of the same substance as them, we are still human. Comprised of flesh and blood, capable of weakness, and tears, and pain. But also of hope, and, if we are believers, of reliance on one greater than ourselves. Our heavenly parent. One we share with our children, and the one we ultimately direct them to.

When it comes to our kids, we have found that when we can share a story about our own experience of a similar struggle as our kids are going through, they really sit up and listen and relate. Many times of a morning, our van becomes a place of recollection, where Dr. Mike or I reach back into our pasts and pull out a story from our own childhoods of when we faced X,Y, Z. Anyone, child or adult or in between, loves to hear that they are not alone.

While we can help our kids, we cannot ultimately ‘save’ or ‘fix’ them. But we can walk alongside them, as fellow sojourners, a little ahead on the road. From my experience, at least, it has been the moments of humility, of recognizing my own limitations, that have paradoxically lightened the weight on my frame, and correspondingly sent out a message of light to my children. Which leads me to my next point.

Getting help helps you help them

It’s been a message that I’ve seen a lot lately, but one which cannot be reiterated enough; when we reach out for help, it helps our kids too. This can come in many forms. Seeking professional counselling is always, in my opinion, a key step. Also, reaching out to a supportive friend, family member or colleague. Sometimes just speaking about something that is burdening us is a huge boost.

Where you can, use humour

Humour is a great leveller and tension breaker, and should never be underestimated. It helps if you have an animal to help you with this one. We conscript our puppy, Pippi, on almost a daily basis to help us puncture tension in the air, with her wide doggy smile and wagging tail (do dogs experience anxiety ever? Maybe. Not this one!) When one of our kids is worried about a particular teacher or event, we do a mock reenactment of class where Pippi is the teacher. Anxiety works in images. The anxious brain is highly visual. While I don’t have any research to back me up on this, I’d posit that the more sensitive a person is, the more internally visual. Which is why creating new images can help. ‘Imagine Pippi,’ we say, ‘teaching Japances.’ We all laugh. There’s just something about communal laughter that makes a space warmer.

Celebrate Small Growths

I used to think growth had to be big to be measured. The sort of thing that could be marked on a scorecard and obvious for all. I’m beginning to believe that real growth is a much quieter, far more idiosyncratic thing. Just because it isn’t visible to everyone, or doesn’t fit a particular scale, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. We now celebrate small growth around here: the morning a kid walks in independently through the gate; the time they say hi to a new friend, the extra page of a book they found initially daunting read before bed. These are the ripples that will change a life, gentle and deep.

Get yourself as Mrs W.

Where you can, find yourself people who understand, and accept you and your kids for who you are and where you are. These people are gold. Thank God for them. We have one in our lives right now. Her name is Mrs W., and she has some potent special power that knows how to simultaneously speak to children and parents in a way that makes them feel both understood and soothed. When our six year-old arrived at the classroom door on his least favourite day (Tuesday) his teacher did not seek to jolly him along, or tell him to get over it, she just reached out her hand as she came towards him and with a small smile said, ‘Hi there, it’s Tuesday isn’t it.’ And she walked alongside him into the new day.

Perhaps this says it all then. Parenting/teaching/helping another human being is done well when we do not seek to change the person, or to shame them, or jolly them along, but simply to gently welcome them into taking the next step, knowing we are beside them.

Find your Book Friends.

‘I feel cosy when you read to us at night,’ my seven year old tells me from his bed. I know what he means. When I was a child some of my warmest memories (literally) are of sitting downstairs in front of our oil heater in winter as my mum read aloud. Books are slow friends who lend us their voices, their ears and their empathy simultaneously.

They are also great levellers. When we have a message we’d love to share with our children, a book often speaks for us. We are positioned on an equal plane, alongside one another, listening.

Over the years I have found many books and stories that have helped our sensitive, anxious children (and myself equally). I’m sharing a list of these and a brief review of each in the latest edition of my monthly letter to subscribers, ‘The Anxie-tea Leaves’. If you’d like access to these, and any other resources and words of hope and comfort I’m sharing, you can sign up here.

As always, walk gently,

Nikki

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Impacted by these words in some way? I’d love to hear you’re thoughts.