Aliki2006 wrote an achingly beautiful piece about her son's anxiety a while back. Go read it and come back...
I've been balking a bit on writing this last post, partly because I'm trying do some reading on the subject of children and anxiety, and partly because I'm hesitant. I want to stay away from regurgitating what books say, and stick to what I know. Except that I don't really know about children and anxiety and how to help them cope, other than a few memories of my own childhood. It has been something I've been thinking a lot about over the last few weeks, as I've been remembering and writing about my own experiences with anxiety.
On Easter weekend, my niece, who has been having a lot of stomach aches, felt sick while she and her family were having a sleep over at Grandma and Grandpa's. Apparently she spent most of the night feeling like she was going to throw up and she kept asking her parents to take her home right away. Obviously, this struck a chord with me. Except that I didn't have that kind of fear until I was into my twenties. She's such a sweet 8-year-old girl, smart and thoughtful and kind, and I wonder what the best way to help her is? So, I'll take a stab at this post and go outside my comfort zone.
As I mentioned before, I was kind of an anxious child. I was good at worrying and planning, although I don't remember being fearful, particularly. (In fact, one of my sister's most vivid memories of me as a while was she was around 11, I think, and I was around 5, give or take a year. My dad was trying to teach her to dive into the pool but she was scared to jump in face first. As my dad tried to encourage her to take the plunge, I was at the shallow end of the pool, leaping fearlessly into the pool while shouting, "Super Meeeee!" I don't think I need to make explicit the ambivalence that my sister likely felt during this lesson. Although I can't remember it myself, I can imagine the sunny scene vividly, with a touch of pride in my own fearlessness that I believe stayed with me until we moved when I was 8 and I got ostracized completely at my new school, and a touch of guilt that I probably wasn't helping my sister.
But I remember some nights becoming convinced that if I fell asleep, the barn would burn down and the horses would die (Black Beauty had rather an impact on me I think); every time, I was convinced I was having a premonition. By the time I got into my early teens, I realized that these fears arose when I was overtired, and by then I'd experienced several very fearful moments that hadn't turned out to be premonitions. I think my parents probably helped to point out that I'd had those thoughts before and nothing had come of them, so perhaps I wasn't clairvoyant?
(Wait a minute. I do remember fears I had. Like when I first learned about glaciers in grade three, and the teacher said that another ice age would come upon the earth one day, I worried that we would all have to evacuate our homes and run for the equator, carrying whatever we could as a three-mile high wall of ice beared down on us. My only hope was that the glacier wouldn't be able to quite make it to the equator and we'd all be able to squish together around the waistband of the earth. AND I remember in grade nine learning about the geological clock, and how humans came into the earth's history at around five minutes to midnight. I got confused, and worried that midnight was when the earth would end, and it could happen at any second. So I guess maybe I was a fearful child.)
I think my parents did and said several things that helped me relax. My dad had suffered panic attacks in his twenties, so he knew the importance of relaxation techniques and how to conquer fears (his panic attacks were related to public speaking, which he'd had to do as part of his job). He always told me that if I was nervous the night before a horse show, that winning was not important. Winning depends on other people's performance; it's relative. And I don't have any control over what other people do. All I could focus on was doing my best. This is an attitude I have carried forward, and it always helps me to identify things that are within my control and without, and most of the time I can put aside my worries about things that are beyond my control. Because I can't control that stuff anyway so worrying serves no purpose. The thing that screwed me up in my twenties was that I couldn't control when or if I got sick, but I COULD control whether I left the house if I thought it was likely. I COULD control whether I ate certain foods. I sought more and more control over my potentially illness-inducing environment and behaviour.
Sometimes, too, when I was afraid, my parents would ask me what was the worst possible thing that could happen. What was I most afraid of? Many times, when I really explored the fear, immersed myself in it and articulated the details of it, I realized it wasn't so scary after all. I think this is something that could help my niece... asking her to imagine the worst case scenario, and hopefully she would realize that throwing up away from home, while not pleasant, is not really that horrible.
I suspect my niece is also suffering some panic, which I can say from personal experience won't really be helped by exploring her fear. Some of the techniques I used in the midst of a panic attack (which I described earlier in this series) might also help, going through them when she's calm in preparation, then helping her implement them when she's feeling panicked. The book I've been reading recently, The Worried Child by Paul Foxman, which is ok, reports that childhood anxiety is very similar to adult anxiety, and the treatments for both are pretty much the same. As an anxious parent, one of the best things we can do to help our children feel less anxiety and cope with it better is to overcome and treat our own anxiety. I know that having suffered and overcome crippling anxiety myself, I am quick to recognize it in others, and I hope I will be able to help Swee'pea if and when he shows evidence of panic or anxiety.
(Although I want to stay away from giving out advice, I think it is safe to advise adults not to ridicule or belittle the fears of children. One night at summer camp, a different summer camp, the year after the accident, a much smaller camp with a maximum of ten kids who stayed in the house with the camp owners... one night I couldn't sleep. I was terrified the barn was going to burn down and our horses would die a horrible, screaming death and I would never be able to rid my nose of what I'd read was a horrible awful stench of burning hair and flesh. The grandmother was still awake in the quiet house, sitting at the kitchen table. I told her about my fears, that I worried I was having a premonition. I think she said she would be up late watching the barn or something, so eventually I was able to sleep. But the next morning when I came to breakfast, everyone laughed at me and my midnight fears. She'd told everyone.)
Foxman's book also begins by reporting that certain fears are developmentally appropriate for children at certain ages. This information made me really sad. Somehow, I'd hoped that if I did everything right, I could make it so that Swee'pea would never feel afraid. But of course this is impossible. For one thing, fear and anxiety keep us safe; they are evolutionarily essential. For another, I cannot protect Swee'pea from the world. Bad things -- hopefully not VERY bad things -- can and probably will happen to him, and all I'll be able to do is (hopefully if I'm still around) help him cope with the fallout.
So this book I'm reading... except I've stopped reading it because I picked up A Mind Apart by Susanne Antonetta, which I've already raved about... if you have any interest in mental illness and neurological disorders, I highly recommend it. She describes her grandfather's anxiety, which basically made him housebound for her entire knowledge of him, thus: "He talked of muggers and burglars and diseases spread by cats, his world a bright festival of harm."
Anyways, this other book, The Worried Child, is quite clinical and makes lots of distinctions between different anxiety disorders and shares lots of specific ideas about how to help our kids. I just can't get past the feeling that the author is one of those doctors who proclaims and prescribes and diagnoses. Well, I guess all doctors are like that. Anyways, if you can get past that tone, I think it has some great ideas and the author suffered significant anxiety himself, so he has first-hand knowledge. He makes an interesting distinction between anxiety, fear, fright and stress, that is perhaps worth passing on.
Fear: an instinctive reaction to a clear and present danger or threat
anxiety: a state of apprehension or worry about a danger or threat that might occur
fright: a state of fear when danger or threat catches us by surprise
stress: any situation (positive or negative) that requires adjustment or change
So fear can be appropriate. But anxiety and avoidant behaviour not so much, especially if the likelihood of the danger is very low.
At the library I saw a lot of similar books about children and fear, so I'm sure there are a lot of valuable resources if you have an anxious child, and you haven't had the benefit (ha ha) of suffering anxiety yourself.
This past weekend Mad totally pegged my blogging method. I sit down, I start writing and then I stop writing. And I'm gonna stop now, even though we have a very rambly incoherent post that's not really going anywhere... but at least I'm finished this series.