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How I Came to Understand My Wonderful, Anxious Daughter

As a preschooler, people would always comment about how caring and concerned with others my daughter was. She was constantly praised and applauded for her care, for how well she shared, waited her turn and never got angry with anyone. At first, we (naively) prided ourselves for raising her to be so well behaved and kind, as if we were some sort of parenting rock stars. As she got older, there began to be signs that there was more going on than just an expertly raised child. By second grade she was laying in bed night after night for hours, unable to stop the spin of worries for other people: what did they think or feel, did they like her or not, did she upset someone that day, how could she get through the day without hurting anyone’s feelings. The thought of navigating the next school day sent her into a panic. Some nights she would pass out at 1 a.m. from sheer exhaustion, and other nights the worries would become so enormous that she would be physically ill.

My husband was the first one brave enough to say it out loud: maybe it was time to take her to a therapist. I was floored by his ludicrous suggestion. I was her mother, I knew how to take care of her, she did not need to talk to a stranger, he was being irrational for suggesting it. What would that look like for her? Would it make her feel weird or broken or sick? My husband felt very strongly about it, as he struggled with pretty debilitating anxiety, but when I looked at him and her they were so different there was no way she had anxiety. However, the more I watched what she was going through, the more I realized I could not relate to her. I was in over my head. I did not know how to fix her.

She began therapy, and so did I. I needed to face the insecurity that I did not know how to help my baby, and she needed to learn how to manage her worries and cope with the overwhelming feelings she has. Between my therapist and hers, we began a pretty in-depth education on anxiety, what it is and what it isn’t, what to say and how to react, when to engage and disengage. At first, it felt like every single thing I was doing intuitively was dead wrong — the very first one being the phrase, “Don’t be silly.” I had never considered the gravity of what that statement communicates to a very scared, very anxious 9-year-old. When I finally thought it through, my heart sank; how could I essentially tell her that she is silly for how she feels, that something is wrong with her, that she’s the odd one out. No wonder she was making herself sick! Here I was thinking I was doing everything right by my kids and I was constantly putting her down, without even realizing it.

So, I began to examine all of the things we tell our children when they seek our support and validation, and I learned to choose my words very wisely. At this point, it has become ingrained in me to make sure that before I say anything, I validate that her feelings are OK, then I begin to tiptoe through the maze of guiding her to think about what she is worried about and decide for herself what worries are real and what worries are not. It is way too often the opposite when we speak to children; as fixers, we rush to decide for them what is worthy of their concern. But in fact learning how to sort through that on their own is a vital life skill for every man, woman and child on this planet — not just the anxious ones.

The hardest tool I had to learn is when to disengage from the conversation because as a parent you don’t ever want to shut down a child who is hurting and desperate for you to fix it. The thing is this: you cannot fix it. No matter how hard you try, this is in them — the only option is to learn how to manage it and be a source of unwavering support. With my daughter, there is usually something that starts the spin. As it progresses, the fears get bigger and bigger and spiral out of control, leaving her desperate for me to make promises I could never possibly fulfill. There is a lot of “Promise me you will never die.” Obviously, as much as I wish I could, I cannot in good faith promise her that, so I try to bring her back into the present, and focus on enjoying life as it is right now because the future is not in our control.

In the moments when she falls deep into despair and hopelessness, we have had a lot of success by making her write down three things she was grateful for that day. She keeps them in a jar so we can go back and remember that no matter how scary things feel, there is always good to be found. This is a tool I now use with all of my kids and myself too, because really, who can’t benefit from what we call “grateful notes?”

There are so many lessons I have learned so far on this very emotional, very humbling journey. A big one for me was that there is no shame in asking for help, that there is always something you can learn to do better and its important to be grateful for all the amazing things around you. But by far the biggest takeaway is that the words and reactions we give to our children are more important than the clothes we buy them, than the play dates we set up, than the homework we prioritize. Just listen closely to what they are actually asking — the real need isn’t always on the surface. Sometimes its a plea for validation, for you to affirm that they are “normal,” that things will be OK and that they have your support when they need it.

I look at the tremendous progress my daughter is making; she is learning to embrace her uniqueness and to see her extreme empathy as a superpower in making other people feel comfortable to be themselves. I know there will be peaks and valleys and her anxiety will never fully go away, but I am finally prepared to be a light in the darkness for her, forever willing to remind her how perfectly wonderful and enough she is.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s daughter.

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Thinkstock photo via Martinan