Mommamental: When Your Child's Anxiety Gives You Anxiety

It’s been a month since we moved to our new house in the hills. It feels like we’ve either lived here forever, or for one day. We moved three and a half hours away from the place I grew up, the place I mostly raised my older kids, the place my younger kids were born, the backyard my husband and I got married in.

It’s been… an adjustment.

It’s also summer, which means those of us who are lucky enough to work from home are already experiencing a special kind of torture that starts at 6 am with “I’m BORED” and ends with everyone crying. To try to combat this, I enrolled both of my children in the local YMCA camp.

It’s an all-day camp where they do things like swim in a giant pool with waterslides and go on field trips to the beach and do absurdly elaborate crafts and learn to garden organically using stuff like worm castings and the discarded filters of their parents pour-over coffee. Welcome to the Santa Cruz Mountains (just over the hill from Silicon Valley: Competition is fierce, so everything we do is EXTRA (and extra dollars).

On the first day of camp, we packed the swimsuits and water bottles, the mosquito repellent, and sunscreen, and headed off. My six-year-old skipped in across the log bridge like he’d been there 100 times. He introduced himself to his Scottish counselor Olivia, who said: “have a wee look at these coloring papers and decide which you’d prefer.” He waved goodbye without hesitation. 

My seven-year-old, on the other hand, would not even go inside. Not even one step. Not with begging, pleading, coercing, bribing, not for anything would she go in.

Because we are not in the parenting business of “Make Your Kids Cry Hysterically At Every Opportunity,” I did not make her go.

Instead, I drove her home and gave her a book and some crafts. The next day, we tried again. And again the day after that. And so on. Thursday we went to the local natural market and picked up some homeopathic children's anxiety remedy (at my suggestion and her request). We had high hopes for Friday (swim party and s’mores day!) but (not surprisingly) the homeopathic remedy was a bust.

There were tears.

Hers, because she wanted SO badly to be part of the fun

Mine, because it’s heartbreaking to see her try and fail.

Hers, because there is a “wall of anxiety” she can’t get over.

Mine, because she is waiting for me to show her the door I cannot find.

We’ve been coping with the not knowing what to do (and not wanting to start her on any pharmaceuticals at such a young age) since she was around four. Without going into the details of her story, because it is her story, let me just say, her anxiety has caused me more anxiety than even my own actual anxiety.

The stares from the staff. The questions from family members. The accusations. People saying things like “you just need to be more firm” or “all kids go through some fear of school” or “did she have some trauma as a baby” or “you’re not doing enough/you’re doing too much.”

 

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I don’t have all the answers — I often wonder if I have any of them, but I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about myself while parenting a neurodiverse kid (and I’d love for you to share with me what you’ve learned!).

Don’t take it personally.

This is most likely not your fault. Which is to say that your parenting didn’t cause the problem. Probably.

With one caveat: If you have mental illness, you may have passed it on.

This will make you think it’s “your fault” but there is no room for blame here. It doesn’t matter anymore because it’s done. Even more importantly, if you are a person with mental illness, you have probably already have a special set of skills that folks who are neurotypical do not have.

You know how to navigate the system.

You know how critical psychiatric meds are.

You know how important it is to take those meds.

You can empathize with the way your child is feeling in a way other parents cannot.

Do not berate yourself for your genetics. There is nothing positive that will result.

Take a break.

Taking care of kids is depleting. Taking care of kids who challenge you at every turn is depleting in a whole new way.

Remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup. Remember that your child(ren) do not benefit from your exhaustion. Remember that a Pinterest-worthy birthday party is not as important as your mental health — regardless of what the Internet would have you believe.

Enlist the other parent or a family member. Or go to Care.com.

Take a nap. Get a massage. Read a book. Wander in the park. Phone a friend. Hire help.

If you do not have the financial means to hire someone, find another mom who also needs a break.

Also, do not forget the importance of things like sleep and water and food and emotional support.

Therapy.

Get some.

Obviously. I’ve said before I don’t think therapy is ever a bad idea. You need a safe space to get out the feelings that consume you.

Find other parents who get it.

I have been known to reach out to my friends Jordan and Julie in a state of total panic. I have been a parent more than twice as long as they have. But they have a wealth of experience dealing with things I have never seen.

The Internet opens up a lot of possibilities for you to connect, use them. Last week we had a playdate with a mom who has two sons (one not neurotypical). Things didn’t go well, but it made it a lot easier knowing I was with someone who wasn’t judging my child or me.

Banish guilt.

It's not helping you.

You may wish you had a different, “easier” child. You may wish you hadn’t had children at all. This doesn’t make you a terrible person; it just makes you a person. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your child; it means you’ve been given an extra challenge you need to manage.

It’s not going to be pretty all the time. You may have days where you feel like you’ve finally got it all figured out, followed by days where you think you know nothing at all, followed by days where you want to crawl in a hole and never leave.

Try not to judge your feelings. They are just feelings. See them. Acknowledge them. Recognize this is hard. Be gentle with yourself. You may feel like you're failing but so do the rest of us.

And, as always, keep talking, keep laughing, keep hugging. The manual your kids didn’t come with is inside you.


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