Anxiety, we all deal with it to some degree. People can become understandably anxious when dealing with huge changes in their lives or even when handling small tasks. It’s different for everyone. There is no right or wrong when it comes to feeling anxious. Some handle their anxiety well with a smile on their face fooling everyone. Others can feel like they’re falling apart and it’s obvious that they are needing some help. As adults, we often figure out early on which category we fall into when dealing with our anxiety and I find that it is usually very reflective upon our childhood, at least it was for me. But what do you do when your child is having anxiety? How do you handle episodes of tears, panic, irrational worry and overthinking when it comes to your own children?
As parents, we will do everything in our power to help our children be happy. We want to keep them safe. We want them to feel loved and secure. But what do you do when their minds become overwhelming to them? Or when they are upset over things out of their control?
When I was younger, I would always feel panicky in places where I didn’t know where the exits were. I didn’t like large crowds and hated when I couldn’t get up and leave if I felt nervous. I especially hated small spaces. I never understood why I’d have these panicky feelings. My friends didn’t seem to have them and if they did they weren’t talking about them. If I tried to talk to my parents about my feelings, I usually got a “You’re fine!” response. In all fairness, they probably didn’t realize I was having mini panic attacks during the school day. I didn’t even realize it myself until I reached my twenties. I would be sitting in class and my stomach would start hurting and I would get dizzy. My heart would start pounding out of my chest. I’d ask to go to the nurse every time and when I did she’d ask if I was okay and I’d say that I didn’t feel well but could never elaborate. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I instantly felt better when I left the classroom. I started attributing these feelings to just being part of my quirky personality. I figured that I would just have to manage whatever was happening by myself. I didn’t even think to ask for help beyond my parents. If they said I was fine, I was fine. I had no idea that there were other people that feared an elevator like I also did. I didn’t know that “intrusive thoughts” were what was causing my fear of being trapped in an elevator while it went plummeting down. I believed that everyone got into an elevator and enjoyed the ride.
One thing I was certain of at least was knowing when and where my claustrophobia started. Small spaces…shudder. I can remember the day like it was yesterday. The year was probably the early nineties and I was at a birthday party at The Discovery Zone. If you aren’t familiar with this fun filled place of germs and screaming kids, well consider yourself lucky. Think of Chuck e Cheese, but less creepy, but more sensory overload. I’m pretty sure there were disgusting bandaids and lost dirty socks in the ball pit. To this day ball pits skeeve me out. When my kids ask to jump in them, I get chills and have to take a breath before murmuring “Yes, go have fun.” I always tell them, “Don’t forget, it’s bath time as soon as we get home!” They usually finish the sentence before I do as they roll their eyes and shake their heads. On this particular day, I decided I wanted to crawl through one of the tunnels. This bright yellow tunnel suspended in the air was not threatening to me at the time. I made my way through the germy ball pit, swung on the rings, and climbed my way up the pretend rock wall until I reached the tunnel. I was having fun! I was a kid living my best life. As I crawled through the tunnel, I stopped in the middle where there was a clear plastic circle and I looked down at all the kids happily playing below me. I hung out there for a few minutes and then decided I had had enough and would go find my friends who were getting ready for cake. I went to crawl out one way but there was a boy blocking my exit. So, I turned around and went to the other side to make my escape. Another boy was also sitting there, staring at me, blocking my way to freedom. I crawled up to him and asked him to please crawl out so I could get out. He straight up said no. Being a shy kid, I looked back at the first boy and asked him to please move. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Nope!” Well, cue panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I was trapped. I still don’t remember how I got out that day, but I obviously came out unscathed physically, with the exception of acquiring an anxiety disorder. No big deal, right?
My children can be fairly anxious. They all have separation anxiety in a big, big way. Ranging from ages ten to three, none of them do well from being away from me. They are very happy, polite, and friendly children, but they get nervous easily and are extremely sensitive. Had I projected my anxieties on them? Is it something I passed onto them by being a sometimes nervous mom? Okay, maybe a 60/40 anxious mom?
As I got older, I often talked to my mother about my own anxiety. I told her about my intrusive thoughts that really became a serious issue while I was pregnant with Johnny. I always had irrational fears that something horrible would happen at the end of my pregnancy or during delivery. After he was born, I would stay up late at night researching all kinds of newborn topics to make sure I was doing everything right. I realized afterwards that I had postpartum anxiety. My mother eventually told me that she too had intrusive thoughts and always worried that the worst things would happen to my brothers and I when we were little. She admitted that she couldn’t stop her brain from thinking this way. There was a time that someone stopped her on the street to tell her how adorable me and my brother were. The woman then went on to say that we were so cute that she should watch out because someone would steal us if she wasn’t careful. This lady wrecked my mother. She never forgot that comment and was scarred for life. After that, she never let us out of her sight. Cue anxiety.
My daughter recently told me that she feels worried. A lot. She feels worried about the future and she is scared to grow up. These are things she can’t control and it makes her nervous. I really dug deep on how to handle these new found feelings of hers. I hated seeing her tormented by things that didn’t have to be scary. I decided my approach would be to tell her how I felt growing up and how I in fact went through the same things as she did. I started from the beginning and told her how I felt in some very anxious situations and how I felt very alone. I reminded her that she will never be alone and that she can talk to me about anything. I told her that chances are I have been in the same situations as she has and that I will have helpful advice from using my own experiences. I even told her about my trauma in the tunnel. We had a good laugh about that one. She was so relieved that what she was feeling was normal and that I had gone through it too. We came up with lots of strategies when dealing with anxious feelings that can help whether you’re in public or at home with your thoughts. She still has her moments, but it’s getting better each day.
One of her favorite ideas of mine is to sing Lizzo in her head when she gets overwhelmed. I told her to close her eyes, breathe in and out and then sing these lyrics:
I do my hair toss
Check my nails
Baby how you feelin’?
Feeling good as hell
Remember, whatever your kids are dealing with, you got this. And if it becomes too much, there is help. Help is available in so many different ways that will work best for you and your family. I always try first myself and if it’s not working, I seek help and I also sometimes call on Lizzo. I never said I was the most responsible parent on the planet, but I’ll take relatable any day. Baby how you feelin?