When I was a kid, I thought that if I repeated the same made-up prayer every night, warding off every possible misfortune, that I might be able to prevent bad things from happening to me.
Please God, don’t let anyone in my family get sick and die, or get murdered or hurt by anyone. Please don’t let anyone break into our house. Please don’t let our house catch on fire.
Years later, I don’t remember all the addendums to this “prayer,” which was really more like a superstitious, paranoid mantra of sorts. But what I do remember was the anxiety.
I don’t believe this anxiety manifested outwardly at all; it did not interfere with my enjoyment of life, or my ability to make friends; it did not prevent my family from going on vacation, or road trips, or outings and errands. In fact, I don’t think my parents had any idea about my somewhat dysfunctional prayer. I doubt I ever told them that I sometimes had repetitive thoughts about bad things happening.
While I never experienced crippling anxiety or bouts of panic, there were times throughout my childhood years that I felt acutely out of place and anxious about who I might talk to at lunch, or what I might do at recess. Sometimes I would catch myself daydreaming during school; when I realized I hadn’t been paying attention and had no idea what was happening, I experienced a very unpleasant physiological response: heart pounding, face burning, quick breathing. (My therapist informed me years ago that when I experience this response even as an adult, it is described as becoming “activated.”)
I never really thought of myself as being an “anxious child,” even though I was prone to worrying. I performed vocal solos and served in leadership roles- how does that translate into anxiety? But it’s always been there- popping up every once in awhile from its home just below the surface of my psyche. After my first daughter was born, I experienced a combination of anxiety and irritability that my OB treated with a low dose of an anti-depressant. This took the edge off during those horrible failed naptimes when I could feel myself becoming “activated” once again as my infant daughter refused to settle in her crib.
Childhood Fears- What is Normal?
I suppose it shouldn’t have shocked me when my own daughter began to exhibit signs of anxiety. Certainly all children go through a period of fearfulness, and rightfully so. Determining which environments and characters are safe and familiar is a crucial part of child development. I remember when darling Uncle Brian, in a misguided attempt to relive a favorite childhood memory of ours, played a live version of Alice in Wonderland for an almost-two-year-old Izzy.
She was terrified of adults dressed as rabbits for several years, (take a hike, mall Easter Bunny!) and would occasionally, during diaper changes, reenact the parts of the movie that most distressed her: “Go away dino! (The Jabberwocky) Alice skeeming! (screaming)”
When she was four, seemingly out of nowhere, she developed a fear of the wind. She became absolutely incapacitated during wind storms whenever we had to walk outside. We began to avoid public outings on excessively windy days, but we couldn’t avoid going into or out of the school building. On windy days, my own anxiety would resurface, as I imagined my daughter forced to go outside at recess.
One day, she ran into the building screaming, abandoning her class on the playground, and fortunately barreled straight into her kindergarten teacher. The school psychologist got involved, implementing a “safety strategy” with Izzy and trying to find a reward system that might motivate her. We learned that sometimes the support and distraction of peers helped her, but not always. We learned that when she was truly frightened, there was no point trying to “reward” her. We discovered that on the most turbulent of days, it was best for her to remain inside in a classroom of older children while the kindergarten class went to recess.
We made it through the school year with help from the psychologist, a session with an educational kinesthesiologist, and weekly sessions with a play therapist. Izzy used sand play as a method of working through some of her anxiety, and the therapist also worked with me and my husband to help us brainstorm some strategies for helping her to feel safe. The anxiety with the wind lessened over the next year, and eventually, the impact on our daily life was nonexistent, save for the occasional late night wind storm.
Tips for Helping an Anxious Child Cope
Looking back, it’s hard to say which of our efforts were the most instrumental; perhaps Izzy just grew out of that phase on her own. But being a
control freak planner, it helped me to have a few strategies in place- who knows if we may need to break them out again at some point?
- Pinpoint triggers: With us, it was no mystery that the wind, wild birds, and loud environments like movie theaters and concerts caused Izzy to panic. It may not be so obvious with all children- keep a log of when your child is exhibiting anxiety and note all the sensory and environmental factors.
- Develop a strategy when your child is not “activated”: When our daughter was calm, we spoke objectively about her fear of the wind, discussed our family’s plans, and brainstormed a solution should it become windy while we were out. This was our protocol:
- If Izzy became frightened, we encouraged her to first voice her concerns as calmly as possible.
- We always brought a windbreaker with a hood, some headphones, and her “safety bear” when we went places- we brought them out during moments of crisis.
- We had a protocol for leaving places like the zoo in a hurry: zip up, cover ears, let Daddy hold you, and stay calm while we walk quickly to the car.
- We invented “the stroller bubble” for those transitions to and from school: Izzy would stand between my body and the stroller, and I put my arms on either side of her as I pushed the stroller through the parking lot.
- Examine your own anxieties and emotional struggles Are you dealing with stress at home? Have you had a major transition like a new job, baby, or home? Children are extremely sensitive and often pick up on subtle emotional cues that we aren’t even conscious we are projecting. Dealing with our own issues is always beneficial to our children.
- Get help Having an anxious child can be embarrassing or stigmatizing- especially when you have to pack up and bail on a special event or gathering. Don’t deal with it alone. Working with the play therapist and school psychologist was crucial for our family. We also benefitted from reading books- The Highly Sensitive Child by Dr. Elaine Aron, in particular.
I accept the fact that my daughter and I share a sensitive temperament and are both prone to anxiety. In our family, prioritizing emotional and mental health is central; while we are currently unaffected by episodes of anxiety, I know it is always possible that they will return. Being aware of this reality and staying prepared with some strategies does wonders for alleviating my own anxiety.
If your child is struggling with anxiety- you are not alone. Reach out and get help.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post.
This week’s sentence was: “When I was a little kid, I thought….”
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