Any worriers out there?
Here’s the thing with worry: some folks are born with it, wired into their makeup, and others aren’t. Me, I’m not an innate worrier. Intense? Yes. Loud and blustery? Heck yes. But anxious, no.
I think this is why it took me so long to realize that my one daughter is a worrier. It took me years – we’re talking five or six years – to see that anxiety’s in her wiring. See, she doesn’t come across like a worrier. No phobias or clinging to me leg or hanging back from new activities. No, she’s lively and assertive and independent, a can-do kid. And she’s forceful (a good thing!) and has a will like steel.
So when it comes to her meltdowns, for years I didn’t see that their fuel – at least in part – was worry. Worry makes a person feel inadequate, overwhelmed, out-of-control (whether or not that’s a valid reason to feel that way). And the classic anxiety responses are fight or flight. My daughter trends strongly toward “fight.” She goes to B A T T L E, not toward withdrawal, pretty much every time worry besets her.
I didn’t know for years… but thank the good Lord Jesus I know now.
Because now I can see behind her angry, steeled face to the worried heart behind it, and I can have right compassion. I can see her fears and needs better. And we can begin to make some headway together from that real, raw space.
My daughter’s in a challenging season now, and I’ve been pulling out all the stops… drilling down with her to core feelings and striving to unlock change. There’s been lots to learn.
Here are 5 things I’ve realized I need to do to help my daughter – and all of us – in working with her through anxiety.
1. Expect her to cycle in and out of anxious seasons. When worry is part of your innate makeup, you carry with you the tendency to worry – it doesn’t just go away. Sometimes it’ll be a central, forefront struggle and sometimes it’ll recede into the background. But I need to be fair to her and have realistic expectations that worrying spells will crop up throughout her childhood… even though she’ll (hopefully!) become progressively more skilled and adept at managing it.
The first five months of full-day school when she was newly six were incredibly taxing for her (and hence, for all of us). My husband and I were overwhelmed with relief when she got to the other side of it. But we weren’t prepared when an another spell of similar intensity cropped up a year later; we didn’t know to expect the seasonality of it. Now we know.
2. Realize I can’t predict the timing of an anxious season. Last year the “starting school” trigger made sense to us – she was contending with a huge life change. But what caught us much more off guard was her handling a summer of nomadic life and entry into a new country/school beautifully… then starting up with meltdowns months later. When everything was normal and routine.
Now I realise: her response to anxious feelings may happen at the time of the challenging experiences, or it may happen later, after the dust has settled… Like a deep. dramatic exhale after the quiet of a long-held breath. Or – who knows? – it may happen at some seemingly unrelated time. Whenever the anxious feelings storm her, she doesn’t get to choose the timing (and neither do we). Fairness to her is accepting this.
3. Manage the behavior. A godsend for us in the midst of our starting-school months of behavior challenges was the behavior modification program outlined in The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child; it injected a sense of control and positivity into ongoing negative dynamics. And it produced real changes!
This time it took me a bit to gauge whether she was just having “a few rough days” or whether a new season was starting up. When I eventually started up with the Kazdin program, I was glad I did. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it.
4. Educate myself about anxiety. There’s a lot to learn about anxiety and how it works; this is all the more true for a parent who isn’t wired this way and approaches worry as something of a foreigner to the landscape. Tamar Chanksy’s book Freeing Your Child From Anxiety has served as a valuable 101 course for me, and its practical instructions and exercises really help
5. Teach my daughter about anxiety and how to manage it. My daughter and I have been working through What to do When you Worry Too Much, and it’s been really helping. She likes the book, she recognises herself in the book, and she’s willing to try the ideas. (“The worry box” and “worry time” have been especially helpful.) If that’s not a shot-term win, then I don’t know what is. Also we’ve found the story and breathing exercises presented in The Angry Octopus valuable in our journey.
Tackling worry takes work and it takes bravery, and my daughter is pouring out both. Not all the time… and certainly she’s pouring out other things as well during this process (!). But she’s gaining ground, and I’m proud of her for the steps she’s taken and the strides we’ve made together.
Ultimately… may I help her understand herself and see the unique beauty that can be found only inside her own soul. May I give her knowledge and tools to manage the challenging parts of her personality. May I pace it out alongside her with patience (even when I’m at the end of my rope); love (even when she’s unlovely); and the long view toward this beautiful, worthwhile journey we walk as mothers of littles. One more slice of this glorious adventure we’re privileged to live.
This article originally appeared here.