I decided I wanted to be a child therapist long before I ever had children. I finished graduate school before I even began motherhood. I knew all the signs and symptoms of every childhood mental health disorder before my first child entered the world. You would think I was well-prepared. You would think if anyone could handle anxious children, it would be me. Apparently the universe shared the same sentiment — it dutifully delivered me child after child with some form of anxiety in their DNA.
At first I was in denial, quickly rebuking my education and profession by thinking, “Come on! These things seem normal to me. What’s the big deal?” Eventually the reality started to sink in. No, not every parent has to worry about going on the highway because their 3-year-old starts to panic. No, not every parent has to talk to their 5-year-old about what will happen when they die.
Twelve years and three children later, I’ve embraced anxiety as much as I embrace my children. My children have taught me more about life than any textbook ever did.
They’ve taught me…
1. That I need to believe in them — not in their fear.
Early on I found myself accommodating my child’s fear. She doesn’t like highways — I should find an alternative route. She doesn’t like elevators — let’s find the stairs. But over time, I realized she was more of a fighter than I was allowing her to be. She was tired of her worries and wanted them to go away. Instead of turning away from her fears, I began to hold her hand and we faced them together. One small step at a time.
2. That my fears aren’t always their fears.
Sometimes I find myself inadvertently putting my children and their worries into tiny, predictable boxes. I play out scenarios in my head and anticipate how situations will unfold. Luckily, I’ve often been wrong. It make me realize I can’t underestimate my children. I think I was more nervous about kindergarten than my son. I walked him to the gate on the first day waiting for the meltdown. Waiting for the battle to start. Wondering if the school counselor was in on the first day. He turned to me and said, “You can go. I’m good.” And he didn’t look back. Not once.
3. That my words can tear them down and lift them up.
From my experience, anxious children tend to be much more sensitive in general. My kids are no exception. They love hard and hurt hard. Sensitive children often have the biggest hearts. My 3-year-old is the first to notice when I’m having a bad day. She’s also the first one to sulk in a corner for hours when I correct her behavior. She is the one who frequently asks, “Are you proud of me?” five zillion times a day. I realize now my words have weight. They’re actively shaping the way she views herself. I’ve learned to be cautious with my words — as they can tear my little girl down in a heartbeat or lift her up. I’m in the process of helping her develop her own inner dialogue.
4. That my children are watching.
They are watching my reaction. They are watching my emotions. They are watching my choices. Emotions are contagious, especially when your children look for you to be their anchor. And my anxious children are observant. When I’m nervous, they’re nervous — sometimes sadly when they wouldn’t have been otherwise. I’ve had to develop a good poker face. Sometimes I can do this and sometimes I fail. But, I always try my best.
I’ve learned to stop worrying about their worries as much as I can. I take one day, one fear and one phobia at a time. I remember when my oldest daughter couldn’t sleep unless she was holding my hand. I thought she’d sleep next to me forever. She is now 12 and would deny that ever happened. (Oh, it happened.) I remember not too long ago when I thought my youngest would never go poop in the potty. Her fear was palpable — she walked around holding her bottom saying, “I no poop. I no poop!” That too has passed. We are on to the next challenges life inevitably brings but with a new belief. A belief in my children. A belief in their strength. In my strength. A knowledge we can get through whatever life wants to throw at us — one day at a time.