What You Need to Know If Your Child Is Diagnosed With Anxiety
Dear parents of kids with anxiety,
Anxiety is a terribly confusing concept. In spite of being an extremely common mental illness, it’s almost impossible to find one agreed-upon definition that sufficiently describes all aspects of the disorder. What you will find are a lot of B+ definitions that fall just short of that coveted “A” grade. This is partly due to the various ways in which anxiety presents in different people of all ages: panic, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) etc. It is also because people experience and explain their own anxiety in many different ways. We can only imagine how scary it must be for a child to face it when adults are confused by the mere notion of anxiety.
To be clear, I am not an expert in the field and I’m not a medical professional. I’m a 52-year-old survivor of lifetime anxiety accompanied by depressive episodes over the years. I am also a father of five kids, most of whom have shown some anxious tendencies at one time or another. My middle daughter has struggled more than the others, diagnosed with anxiety disorder after her first panic attack at the age of about five, which kind of blew my mind when it happened because she was so young. But it was real. It happened. I was there. And it took me a minute, but I quickly realized what it was.
I thought being a lifetime student of the disorder might have prepared me for what was to come, but I could not have been more wrong. Thankfully, my wife was a rock and we weathered the storm as a family — we still do — so I’m hoping that by sharing a small part of our story, the journey for some parents might be a little less painful and frightening. In turn, it might be a little less painful and scary for our kids.
For those with no understanding of the disorder, here is my attempt at a simple definition — more like a description — of anxiety. Imagine being faced with a real and immediate crisis. You’ve just lost your small child in a crowded shopping mall. You are afraid to fly and your flight is being rocked by heavy turbulence. You hear a downstairs window smash in the middle of the night and you are home alone. It can be anything like this. Think about your emotional and physical reactions. Your pulse quickens and you begin to sweat. Blood vessels dilate and you experience tunnel vision. Your mind races uncontrollably. Adrenaline rushes through your bloodstream as your body prepares to meet a perceived threat. This is known as the fight or flight response. It is how the body has helped humankind survive different dangers since the beginning of time.
Now, imagine every one of those reactions happening simultaneously while you are simply seated at your desk, or in the car, or at church. There is no real threat. There is no perceived threat. There is only the unwarranted reaction. And now imagine being a fourth-grade elementary kid with all of these scary things happening in your mind and your body while you sit in a classroom, or on the bus or in the cafeteria.
My kids and I simply call it “scary thoughts,” and in the simplest of reality, that’s really all it is. But anxiety doesn’t exist in only its simplest form. For my daughter, it began in a Chinese food restaurant. One minute, we sat as a family eating dinner together. The next minute, my typically shy and reserved little girl was pounding her fist on the table, demanding we immediately leave. When fight or flight kicked in, she ran for the door. She realized we weren’t following and she came back toward us, only to turn and run again. And I know exactly what her brain was screaming at her: “Get out. Get out of here, now.” Nothing else mattered. I know this because I’ve experienced the same terrifying thought process a thousand times over. “Here” can be anywhere: work, school, church, a restaurant or a mall. You just have to get out.
A few minutes later we were driving home and the adrenaline dump in my little girl stopped. She began to yawn and sink into her seat. She became tired and limp. My daughter was worn out. But a seed had been planted and the anxiety switch in her brain had been flipped. You can’t unplant the seed and you can’t just unswitch the switch. A truly traumatic event had occurred and it scared my little girl to the core. Fear is a powerful motivator at any age. She became fearful it would happen again and ironically, it was that very fear that pretty much guaranteed a repeat performance.
Anxiety did return and unfortunately, it grew roots. Over the next few years, my daughter’s world became smaller and smaller. She became uncomfortable anytime we left the house. She wouldn’t go to parties or visit friends. No shopping malls, or movie theaters and certainly no restaurants. She began to withdraw and she only felt safe at home. Throughout all this, we worked with her pediatrician and a counselor. But it was getting to the point where it was really having a negative effect on her schoolwork and her social life.
By sixth grade, we were faced with a child who was just short of refusing to go to school. Every morning was a battle trying to get her out the door and onto the bus. Not an unruly child-type battle — she’s never been a behavioral problem — but a battle of convincing her through all the tears and fears that she had to go to school and everything was OK. It was truly awful. It happened every single day for a good part of the school year.
Eventually, we agreed to try an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant medication. It works on the neurotransmitters in the brain. In short, it is supposed to smooth out the pathways that brain signals travel along to make brain activity more efficient. I compare it to snowplows in a snowstorm. We were afraid (even though I’d been on an SSRI for over 10 years). She was afraid. But we were willing to try anything at this point. After a few weeks, we began to see a positive change that steadily progressed with time.
Sure, there have been periods of turbulent waters but considering where we were before the medication, the improvement has been nothing short of amazing. At 13, my beautiful daughter is now a social and happy teenager. She is a good student. She eats in restaurants and travels with friends. She is no longer consumed by self-doubt and worry. Anxiety still creeps up on her from time to time, but the medication allows her the brain space to exercise her coping skills. She makes it work.
So, here is my list of what seems like some of the more important bullet points. It is just one father’s personal collection of thoughts. Most importantly, always work with a professional.
1. Remember anxiety really is just an overactive worrying brain.
It can look frightening. It will likely scare you, too. Remain calm and supportive. It will pass. It always does.
2. Work with a professional to learn coping techniques for your child.
Slow, counting breaths can reset the thinking brain. Distraction techniques help. Even something as simple as a mantra. My daughter and I would slowly breathe together and repeat, “All is well. All is well.” A huge part of coping is stopping the fear reaction. Do not be afraid of it. Do not fight it. Accept it for what it is and let it pass on by. Fighting and fear go hand-in-hand.
3. Aggressively do your homework.
There are tons of books and articles on both adult and childhood anxiety. Do your research and you’ll gain a better understanding of what is happening and you’ll know what to expect. But be very careful with what information you share with your kids. Worry can be contagious for any anxious person, especially children. Be careful not to give your child new things to fear.
4. Don’t forget your other kids.
It will be trying on them and be confusing as well. Make them part of the learning and healing process.
5. Seek professional help sooner rather than later.
Anxiety is treatable and there is no need for extended struggling. And there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is as real as physical illnesses, even though we can’t see any of them on the surface.
6. Be strong.
It’s hard to do, I promise you, but don’t let your child withdraw too much. Don’t let them always retreat to their “safe place,” which is typically at home or in their bedroom, because before long that will be the only place they’ll want to be. Try to teach them that their safe place is wherever they want it to be. It is within them. They have to go to school (we told our daughter it was the law). They need to get out of the house. Staying active and involved with other kids are important parts of the healing process.
7. Work with your child’s school.
They will likely be aware of the problem as soon as you are, if not before. There will be frequent visits to the nurse and requests to come home. Tell the school that calls home by your child should only be allowed in emergency situations. Trust me on this one. Otherwise, you will be getting frequent, heart-wrenching calls from a crying child, begging to come home. School nurses and guidance departments should be able to handle these situations without providing an escape route for the child. If the escape route is established, they will seek it every time.
8. If your doctor or therapist suggests medication, resist the urge to immediately say, “No.”
Again, think snowplow in a snowstorm. It clears the path for brain activity. It will not change their personality. It won’t make them a zombie. It’s not a miracle, overnight solution either. It often takes a few weeks to show improvement but it just might be very beneficial.
9. Try to remain positive and calm.
It is frustrating. You may begin to experience your own anxieties. Seek help if it feels like it’s getting to be too much. Allow yourself the room to be human, too. The more knowledge you acquire on the subject, the better equipped you’ll be to help your child (and yourself).
10. And almost lastly this: People with anxiety are thinkers.
We’re over-thinkers, actually. It makes us creative and compassionate, sensitive and caring. As odd as it is to say, it makes us good people.
11. And lastly:
Even amid all the chaos, all is well. All is well. If you say it enough, you’ll believe it. And if you believe it, it will be so.
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
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Thinkstock photo via shironosov