Raising an Anxious Child
By: Shannon Ralph
My name is Shannon Ralph and I am an anxious person.
I come from a long, dignified line of worriers, depressives, drunkards, over-eaters, and generally nervous people. As a small child, I was painfully, painfully shy. I remember second grade vividly. I had just moved to a new school and had difficulty making friends. All alone, I spent hours walking laps around the playground (actually, it was a parking lot) at Precious Blood Catholic Elementary School (perhaps that explains a lot)—desperately hoping someone would invite me to play kickball. I would never ask to join. Never. The courage to do so completely eluded me.
My anxiety only worsened as I got older. In third grade, I was called out in front of my whole class for being a habitual nail-biter, a “nasty” habit that my third grade teacher seemed pretty certain would lead to degenerative lifestyle choices. As a preteen, I had constant stomach aches and drank Maalox® like it was water. As a teenager, I would obsess over “stupid” things I said for weeks or months—things I said to people who 1.) didn’t even know my name, 2.) couldn’t possibly care less about what I had said, and 3.) would likely never even remember having a conversation with me. In college, I upped my anxiety game and began having panic attacks in class. As a young adult, I became a raging perfectionist, unwilling to accept 2nd best. Eventually, I grew up and married a person who may just outpace me on every single component of anxiety and worry.
My wife and I have three beautiful children. She gave birth to our oldest son and I carried our twins. Like most parents, our children are the loves of our lives. They are smart and witty and generous and kind. They are truly amazing children, but like all human beings, they are not perfect.
Imagine our surprise when our children, the fruits of our loins and the lucky recipient of our splendiferous gene pools, began displaying some of the same anxious traits we possessed as children.
My oldest son was extremely nervous as a small child, worrying about a vast array of unlikely scenarios he would create in his own mind. At 12 years old, he has begun to outgrow some of his anxious traits. Or perhaps, like his parents, he has simply learned to hide them. My 9-year-old daughter is a perfectionist. She expects to be flawless in everything she does and will accept nothing less from herself. She is also painfully shy. Making friends has always been difficult for her. Her twin brother struggles with social norms and mores. He’s extremely intelligent—probably too intelligent for his own good—but the social aspects of school are exhausting for him.
I will be perfectly honest. Raising an anxious child is an exercise in frustration. It is fiercely loving a person with your entire heart who often finds it difficult to love himself. It is seeing in your child immense potential and beauty and strength that she cannot see. It is making yourself expect the best possible outcome when your child fears the worst. It is hard work, to say the very least.
Raising an anxious child is reminding your child to breathe—a function of the autonomic nervous system that most of us take for granted.
Raising an anxious child is constantly reassuring him that you will not lose his brother and sister. That you will not divorce his mother. That you can pay the bills. That he is safe. That he is secure.
Raising an anxious child is accepting that your child will know one or two “talking doctors.” This does not make you a bad parent, though it may take you a good long while to believe this.
Raising an anxious child is taking the abuse day after day, all the while reminding yourself that you are her soft place to land. You are her safe space. The only place she feels comfortable enough to show her fear. Her embarrassment. Her rage.
Raising an anxious child is arriving 20 minutes early to karate practice (because walking in late would be mortifying), then driving around the neighborhood for 15 minutes (because being the first one there would be equally mortifying).
Raising an anxious child is sitting on the floor of your tiny bathroom cradling your young son while earnestly trying to make him understand that the dripping sink you’ve not had the time to fix will not hurt a single soul in your house.
Raising an anxious child is trying with all your might to avoid surprises in your daily schedule—no easy task while maintaining a busy family of five.
Raising an anxious child is accepting the fact that the school nurse has your phone number on speed dial. And that “frequent flyer” label the nurse gave your son in kindergarten? That’s going to stick.
Raising an anxious child is accepting that homework will usually be accompanied by tears. No matter what you do. No matter what you say.
Raising an anxious child is watching your talented child quit piano lessons. And soccer. And gymnastics. Because good is not good enough. She will settle for nothing less than perfect, and perfection is seldom achieved after one lesson.
Raising an anxious child is learning to cope with the tearful, overwhelmed child who will walk through your door at the end of any given day. It is learning to turn his “worst day ever” into something more manageable.
Raising an anxious child is keeping your cool while prying an eraser from your child’s tiny death grip to keep him from erasing a hole in the homework that wasn’t “just right.”
Raising an anxious child is laying wide awake in your bed at three o’clock in the morning worrying about the first day of school—though you’ve been out of school for two decades.
Raising an anxious child is asking your son every day who he played with on the playground, and trying not to react when he responds—again—that he just walked around by himself.
Raising an anxious child is trying to maintain your sanity when your child’s reactions to everyday events are completely different than every other child you know. A trip to an amusement park will excite other kids, but your kid will take an invitation as an opportunity to expound on every “bad” thing that could possibly happen. Other kids would love to go to a movie, but your kid is scared of the dark. Laser tag is fun for other kids. Kickball is fun for other kids. Roller skating is fun for other kids. Playdates are fun for other kids.
Raising an anxious child is trying desperately to avoid being too hard on him because you know he’s tougher on himself than you’ll ever be.
Raising an anxious child is constantly second-guessing yourself. Constantly.
Raising an anxious child is coming to expect midnight visitors to your bed (and not the fun kind).
Raising an anxious child is waging an exhausting, never-ending war with yourself over the decision to medicate or not to medicate. To poison or not to poison. To pump your child full of mood-altering chemicals or to stand by idly refusing to provide the help your child needs to navigate this often unkind world.
Raising an anxious child is resisting the urge to say “snap out of it” because she can no more snap out of it than you can sprout wings and fly.
Raising an anxious child is making excuses for all the playdates and birthday parties and sleepovers your child is invited to but can’t find the courage to attend. Over and over again. Year after year. Until the invitations stop coming in, and your heart breaks in two.
Raising an anxious child is biting your tongue. Policing your words. Controlling your instinct to react. To inadvertently belittle. To accidentally shame. Raising an anxious child is tiptoeing through a mine field. It’s walking over broken glass. It’s praying that your child will just relax when relaxation completely eludes him. It’s wishing that she would realize what an amazing little person she is when every cell in her brain is screaming that she is different. That she is weird. That if she speaks up, the world will reject her. Or worse, that it will crumble. It is convincing her that no doom awaits her around the corner. It’s convincing him that there is no great un-nameable dread lurking on the horizon. That tomorrow is a new day—a new chance to embrace the world rather than shrink from it.
It is letting go of the happy-go-lucky child of your pre-parenthood imagination, and fiercely embracing the careful, apprehensive, fretful and utterly amazing child you have. It is committing to always be her safe place. To always be his soft landing. It is providing the abundant assurance your child needs that everything will be okay. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, eventually.
Everything will be okay.
Photo Credit: Armywaremrw