The 9 things every parent of a kid with ANXIETY understands

My name is Dena and I’m an anxiety mom. I don’t HAVE anxiety but I’m surrounded by it. Of course, I get anxiety… job, raising kids, money issues but I don’t have debilitating anxiety, the kind that stops you from doing the things you want to do, going places you want to go or just…..breathing. I know about it because of my daughter, Brooke, who was just…born this way.

My daughter is fifteen. We’ve been through a lot together….poor school placements, an inability to stay in classrooms, freezing from fear and crying through small triumphs like sleepover parties. For the last year she’s been medicated and it’s been life changing.  She’s a different kid. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be an #anxietymom. Frankly, I think I’ve blocked it out, like child birth. I’m just happy to have my baby back so I’ve blocked out the torture we’ve had to endure to get here. That is until this week….her first sleep away camp. Now, all the feelings that come with raising a child with anxiety come flooding back and it’s rough. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to raise a child with anxiety but I feel like there are 9 thing’s every parent raising that kid understands.

  1. Anxiety’s changed me

Before anxiety I was a different mom. I could take my kids anywhere, barring an average kid meltdown. If I planned nap times, snacks and activities properly I was invincible! Then, anxiety showed up. My best laid plans could easily fall apart before we were even out of bed. My daughter ruled our day. Realistically, her anxiety did but at the beginning I didn’t know she had it. I just thought she was a kid with some silly fears.

Through the years, I’ve dealt with it differently. I tried to bribe anxiety, yell at anxiety, tell anxiety it was being silly. None of that worked. It wasn’t until I stopped fighting it that things turned around. I stopped saying, “You don’t have to be scared.” I started saying, “You can be scared…but were still doing this.”

I can’t take anxiety away but we’ve both learned to have conversations about how to distract herself and how important it is for her to not let anxiety STOP HER from doing anything. For the most part, she doesn’t. She stands her ground and stays at camp or in the classroom while crying the whole time. It’s gut wrenching to watch.  Most times I have to turn my head so she doesn’t see me crying…but I know keeping her feet moving forward is what she needs. I hope kids her age get it. I hope those kids have compassion and share a calming word. I hope they reach out and say, “I’ve been there” and give her a much a needed hug but mostly, I just hope.

2. My day can turn at a moment’s notice

I’ve learned to be a planner because of anxiety. I wasn’t always that person but I’ve had to become that mom. Not to reach an unattainable level of perfection in my life but because I have to PLAN for the worst. I’ve had to add two hours to every road trip and map out rest stops along the way because her fear of being in the car too long can derail us at a moment’s notice. I’ve had to pack squishies, silly putty, blankets, sound blocking headphones and avoid loud noises to thwart a possible meltdown. I don’t mind these extra steps, don’t get me wrong. I’ll do anything for her. I’m just surprised that after ten years of making these accommodations I think my life is normal. It is not. A family event that we’ve planned for months and saved for can easily turn into a trip back home because, although I believe in pushing her forward, I also know when it’s time to retreat…and heal.

3. Anxiety affects the whole family

Brooke has anxiety but we all live with it. My kids, Dean and Jacqueline, have lived through some pretty scary, hard to explain moments with Brooke. They’ve had to miss events, catch rides from caring neighbors because I needed to be home and played counselor to her in my absence…and they’ve done so with such love. Correction: They haven’t always taken it in stride. When they were younger it was hard to explain why Brooke needed so much of my attention; why we had to leave an event because it was too loud or crowded or why we had to leave because Brooke, “said so.”

If I’m being honest, there were times I wasn’t sure my girls would ever really get along. The scales were always tipped in Brooke’s favor and Jacqueline was always adjusting. Ten years later I can tell you, in many ways, anxiety has been a gift. Feels weird saying that after all my lamenting but it taught us all to slow down. It taught my kids to not function at the highest level  of self-indulgent fun but learn how to care about others feelings before their own. I don’t know we would have learned that lesson….without anxiety.

4. Anxiety is always just under the surface

We’ve been living this life for as long as I can remember and the strides she’s made in the last few years have been life changing. Sometimes, I forget I have a kid with anxiety. She does so well that I fall into this wonderful illusion that she’s healed…that it’s behind us…that we can look forward to a bright future.  But that is not the truth. This week was that wake-up call for me. It’s been two years of her being even. (I mean, she’s a teenage girl, so I expect some drama, but overall….she’s been even.)

This week rocked me. This week was an awful reminder of where we’ve been. I know with time I’ll realize these setbacks are part of our journey. The ups and downs are just like any kid’s teenage angst…except other kids don’t freeze with fear for days, vomit because of feeling overwhelmed or need four days to recover from a simple life event. She will get through this but anxiety, it will always be just under the surface.

5. You have to use the right words

Our breakthrough moment was when Brooke asked me to stop telling her to “not worry.”  She looked me in the eye and said, “That doesn’t help me, because I can’t stop it.” She was right. I knew it. After years of breakdowns, I knew this wasn’t an act. It wasn’t her way of manipulating a situation, it was just how her mind worked. That was the first time we agreed to change our words.

Since then we’ve created lots of key words for our anxiety conversations. She used to tell me she was going to throw up. That was a big fear. I USED to tell her she “wasn’t going to throw up because she wasn’t sick “and she would be pissed!  Anxiety made her feel sick and telling her she wasn’t sick just fueled the fire.

Instead, we talked a lot about biology. (I was a bio major so this made sense in my brain.) I told her that she wasn’t “sick sick”. There wasn’t a bug in her body. We could change the words to “anxiety sick” and that would more accurately describe what was happening. It was important to me that she knew the difference between the two because I needed to know which one I was dealing with. I’m a great “mom doctor” but I wasn’t sure at any moment if I was describing Tylenol or hugs.

She didn’t want her ill feelings to be discounted because they were being caused by anxiety. It was still very real for her, regardless of what caused it, but this minor change in verbiage helped us understand each other better. We still work on our conversations. Sometimes I just say the wrong thing and her anxiety isn’t going away, so either I get on board and speak her language or I won’t be any help to her.

6. You need to find your trust person

Anxiety is a tricky beast. It makes you fear things that are not real. Anxiety gives these fears life and convinces you they’re going to happen any moment. I’ve found my best defense at times is being more convincing than anxiety.

I’m Brooke trust person. I’m the one most likely to calm her down and get her back on track. It makes sense, I’m her mom. I realized a few years ago, in the long run, Brooke would need to find another trust person….at school, play practice or camp and she would need to know how to choose a good one.

She needs to pick someone with no ulterior motives, lots of patience and a positive outlook. Choosing the wrong trust person could be her demise. We talk about this person a lot. In middle school her trust person was her guidance counselor. I was so excited she had a friendly, consistent face to go to at school. It was a great match until it wasn’t. One day her counselor was out and Brooke lost it. She couldn’t function. While having a trust person helped, the absence of her trust person sent her into a tail spin. That’s when I knew it was time to talk about coping skills.

7. You need to calm yourself down

If you asked Brooke today what she needs to do to calm down she’d give you laundry list of activities, but it wasn’t always that way. For years it was just me listening to her list all the things she was afraid of, which bummed us both out.  Then, it was her controlling every part of our environment… Dean couldn’t talk too loud, Jacqueline couldn’t leave certain toys out, the music had to be on a certain song. I agreed to all of her requests until I couldn’t any more. I was making her world a “trigger-less haven” and that wasn’t the real world.

The world wasn’t going to care how loud she wanted the music. The world didn’t care if she wanted to drive a bit slower. I started using a phrase I’m not proud of….but it felt like the most honest thing I could tell her….”Your anxiety is your problem.” It’s even hard for me to type it….but it’s true. I wish I could say the world will care if my little girl is sad, scared or lonely but it does not. And the best thing I could do for her was to teach her how to deal with her own crap, the best way she could and if that wasn’t enough…then you can lean on the world a bit.

Brooke will be the first to tell you she needs to go for a walk to calm down or not to talk about food because it makes her feel sick when she’s triggered.  She knows that distraction works. She knows that night times are hardest if I’m not around and she knows quality cuddle time with our dogs works wonders. I tell her all the time, I know adults that are not that self-aware.  She laughs at me thinking I’m just saying it to make her feel better but sadly, it’s true.

8. My daughter is my hero

My anxiety-ridden daughter is my hero. Sounds funny until you realize the anxiety is NOT who she is…how she deals with it is. That’s her character and it’s strong.

My earliest memory of Brooke’s courage was second grade. She had watched Dean and Jacqueline become altar servers at church and she couldn’t wait to join the team! She had gone to all the classes and finally it was Sunday mass. Dean and Jacqueline with her so I thought we were good. We were not. I found her crying in the back of the church and we talked about whether she wanted to do it or not. My biggest struggles have been knowing when to push her and when to lean back. I told her that she didn’t have to do it if it was too hard. She looked up at me with tears in her tiny eyes and said, “But I want to do it…and I just can’t.” I said, “If you don’t do this because of anxiety you’ll never become what God wants you to be.  You get to decide your destiny…not anxiety. (Big words for an eight-year old, I know.)

I sat in the front pew, right on the aisle. Mass started and she cried as she processed up the aisle, she cried as she brought the eucharist over, she cried as she rang the bell…and then she fell apart. She walked off the altar, sat beside me and bawled…her tiny little body just done.  After a few minutes she gather herself and looked at me. We both knew what she had to do. Without a word she went right back up there and cried through the rest of the mass. I could feel every eye in church on me. I’m sure I looked like a horrible mother. I’m sure it looked like I was forcing her to do it. I bit the inside of my cheek to hold myself together and just faced forward. I wanted to be a reassuring face in the crowd for her. That day I knew. I knew this would be a long road. I knew we would do this together and I knew she’d be okay.

9. She’s gonna be okay

When Brooke’s anxiety is at its worst it’s hard to see an easy future for her. My own fears set in and I’m left wondering what the next episode looks like. I wonder when it will happen again. I wonder if it will ever get better. Luckily, we talk about anxiety A LOT. I talk about it in waiting rooms, ball games, supermarket lines. Anywhere the topic comes up I’m ready to share. I’ve gotten the best advice by opening up about our struggles.

The best advice I’ve gotten….”She’s going to be okay.” Those simple words have helped so much. Strangers have written to me to tell me stories of their own children…”My son had the same problem and he’s graduated college and living/working on his own.” Each time I hear those words I calm down a bit in the inside. I get to hear that after all the breakdowns, all night cuddles and sleepless nights, she will be okay.  I’ve learned to trust it. I’ve learned to not get so upset about her future and learn to trust a bit more myself. She will make it….in her own way, and no amount of worrying on my part with make her road any easier.

Tomorrow I pick up Brooke from camp. She made it all the way through five nights at camp in Nebraska!!  There were calls and tears from both of us…but she made it. I hope when I pick her up she’ll say she had a great time and can’t wait to go back next year. Realistically, I hope she finds joy in the simple triumph of her staying.  We texted this morning. I said, “Have a great day. You are my hero.” She said, “Haha, okay, I love you.” I think she thinks I’m kidding but nothing is better than watching your child overcome their fears and when that kid fears everything…every moment is a reason to celebrate.


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