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Like Mother, Like Son: When Anxiety Is Inherited

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When my son was born, I worried about his future. Like every parent, I worried about if he was eating enough, if he was sleeping enough, if I should let him cry it out or rock him to sleep.

Of course, since I had anxiety, I worried about a good deal more. Things like where he would go to kindergarten in five years and what he would do if someday I would have to live in a nursing home and he didn’t have a sibling to help him deal with that. You know, totally things you need to worry about when your child is six weeks old.

Ironically, the one thing I never thought to worry about was if he would have anxiety like me.

Well, he’s got it. I tried not to jump to conclusions when he was 3 and started having a hard time falling asleep or when he turned 4 and suddenly he didn’t want to leave my side anymore to go to kid’s church. I was pretty sure all kids went through those things at some point.

Then, around the age of 6, he stopped wanting to go places he normally enjoyed and started wanting to stay home all the time. Next, nightmares became so common he hated going to sleep. About six months ago, he started overreacting to even small setbacks and mistakes. Finally, at the start of this school year, he developed an intense fear of scissors, and I couldn’t ignore my concerns anymore. We went to see his pediatrician, and she confirmed he had a problem with anxiety.

The astounding thing to me is how similar his problems are to mine. I know exactly how he feels when he says he’d rather stay home than go to a friend’s birthday party. He had a meltdown a few months ago over that exact issue. All I could do was think back to when I had one that was really similar when I was 15. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. My fear-induced indecision made me miserable, and I could see that misery written all over his face.

As of lately (in fact, I had to stop working on this to go talk to him about this), he has been having some of my long-standing worries about death. They come at the same time too, right as he’s trying to fall asleep. Does anyone else have overwhelming fears right before bed? If you’re out there, then I understand your pain, and so does my son.

Last night, he had another indecision meltdown. I was busy with an online class while his daddy was putting him to bed. He wanted to come say goodnight to me, but his daddy, not knowing what he was up to, told him I was busy. My son got upset. Seeing how much it meant to him, my husband told him it was OK, that he could go say goodnight.

However, it was too late. The idea that it was wrong already entered his brain, and no matter what my husband said, he couldn’t convince him that it was OK. So he cried for a while until his daddy managed to distract him with a bedtime story.

When I was done with my class, my husband told me what had happened. I peeked into his room, but he was already asleep. As I stood there watching him, it hit me just how much he would struggle with this his entire life. I cried a little. Then, as it was that time of the night, I cried a lot.

Yet I’m 34, not 6, and along the way I’ve learned some coping mechanisms. I’ve learned to call my brain out on its BS. Instead of wallowing in misery over what my child had inherited from me, I asked myself what I could be thankful for about the situation. To my surprise, I came up with a pretty good list.

First and foremost, we have a bond because of this. No one understands his thinking like I do, and someday, he’ll be able to reciprocate that and understand me like no one else has before. We talk about our thoughts and feelings all the time, hopefully laying a foundation for a trusting relationship that will last for the rest of our lives.

Second, I can be his advocate in a way that no one ever advocated for me. My mother never even knew I had anxiety problems until after I had battled back a serious bout of postpartum anxiety. I can’t blame her. I didn’t even realize I had a problem until then because I had always had anxiety. I didn’t know life could be any different. Yet, I can speak up for my son and seek help for him while he is still young.

Third, we talk about our anxiety a lot: with each other, with other members of our family and with his therapist. All of that talk makes me more aware of my own internal processes. It also helps to normalize what is often stigmatized. Lord willing, he won’t have to feel the embarrassment I sometimes do over what goes on in my head.

Finally, his anxious thoughts aren’t the only thoughts he gets from me. He is an intelligent, creative and empathetic little boy. The deepest comfort for me was reflecting on how much I love my life, anxiety and all. I find so much joy in life, and hopefully, he will too.

I may not be able to take away his anxiety, but I can be there to help him with it. In the end, that’s enough for me. Even if it is right before my bedtime, and my brain is lying to me and telling me it’s not. Shut up brain. My son and I can handle this.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 18, 2016
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