The 4 Words I Tell Myself as the Mother of a Child With an Anxiety Disorder
As an illness, I think anxiety walks a fine line between a condition one may deal with forever and one that can conceivably be “fixed,” or at least that’s what was stuck in my mind after we learned my daughter had an anxiety condition known as selective mutism.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, here’s the lowdown: Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder that manifests in certain social settings where a child is completely unable to speak or communicate. Children with this condition generally speak comfortably in familiar settings and with familiar people, but then completely “freeze” and experience intense anxiety in settings outside their comfort zone.
In the case of my daughter, she’s able to speak (and act) freely in our home and in the homes of several friends and family members, but she hasn’t spoken in school in more than a year. Of course, this presents all sorts of challenges for her, including not being able to ask to go to the bathroom (this has led to bladder issues), not being able to participate in any activity requiring speech and subsequent social struggles.
She has made small improvements, but her biggest challenge continues to be talking to adults, particularly in the school environment. This is fairly typical of her condition, but every case will present slightly differently.
My daughter’s condition first came to our attention when she started preschool, and my notion was that she was just shy and would speak “normally” once she had had a few weeks to warm up to the school thing.
I’ll spare you the details, but we tried all sorts of things to coax her into speaking at school, particularly to her teachers. However, everything we did just seemed to make it worse. As a parent, I grew more and more desperate for her to just speak so she could just get on and enjoy school as I had envisioned she would. I became quietly obsessed with “fixing” the situation, drawing her out of her shyness, thinking if I just said or did or bribed or encouraged or coaxed her in just the right way that I would draw her out of her funk.
This time wasn’t a highlight in our relationship, and that’s why I’m exceedingly thankful for a phone call I got from a school counselor who would forever change how I approached this issue with my daughter.
She called from school one Monday afternoon to discuss selective mutism and the best strategies to deal with it (specifically not bribing, coaxing or pressuring my daughter). The conversation was strictly professional, but then it strayed and she ended up tearfully telling me about her own daughter who had struggled with anxiety. “I wish we had just enjoyed her more,” she said. These words stuck with me.
I remember one time going to a birthday party with my daughter — one of those ad nauseum princess-themed parties with princess cupcakes, princess decorations, princess music, princess costumes. In short, a 5-year-old version of paradise! At one point, real live Princesses Anna and Elsa showed up for a photo op that I would never forget. The group of girls swooned while my daughter froze and turned beet red while tears welled up in her wide eyes. I all but dragged her into the group shot with the princesses.
Later, I tearfully relayed this story to my husband as I showed him the picture I had dutifully taken “It was like she was watching her dream come true, but she couldn’t participate,” I said. To me, her face was the very picture of her anxiety condition.
Later at bedtime, as is our family custom, I asked my kids what the highlight of their day was. “Meeting the princesses!” she said without a moment’s hesitation and with every ounce of enthusiasm you’d expect from a little girl who’d just met their childhood idol.
Just enjoy her more, I had to remind myself.
Later that week, my daughter ran into the house after school, pulled a princes envelope out of her backpack and ripped it open in excited haste. “Look mommy! Me and the princesses!” she said. In her hands, she proudly held the picture, the same picture I actually shed tears over just a few days earlier.
“How cool is that Genevieve!” I said as I proudly stuck the picture front and center on our fridge. Just enjoy her more, the words came back to me. As is often the case, my daughter was way ahead of me on that one.
I’m thankful to be past the point on this journey where I’m waiting on some “fix” so I can start enjoying my daughter. To that end, one might always be waiting on something or other. There is joy every single day in that little girl’s life, and no one knows that better than her.
It seems ridiculous to me now I was missing out and sobering to consider my attitude may have been influencing her otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, not a day goes by that I don’t wish her challenges would just vaporize, but in the meantime, there is no shortage of things to celebrate. So, wherever this finds you on your parenting journey, let this be your reminder to just enjoy your little people more.
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