You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you trip on the pavement and, for a split second, you think you’re going to faceplant but you find your footing and everything turns out okay? That’s what anxiety feels like. Only that “tripping/falling feeling” comes and goes all day, every day, and at the oddest times. Now imagine you have that feeling continually throughout the day but you’re also in charge of a smaller human who also has that feeling but doesn’t have any idea how to cope, so every moment is a crapshoot on whether or not things will go smoothly.
That’s what it’s like to parent a child with anxiety while managing your own.
I noticed my daughter started to have anxious tendencies when she was around 3 years old, but they didn’t really “come into bloom” until the past two years. I suspect along with anxiety she may have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder like her mother, but there hasn’t been an official diagnosis.
I’ve had anxiety since I was very small, but it wasn’t until my 30’s that I was officially diagnosed with OCD. I lived with guilt and shame surrounding my OCD (though I didn’t know that’s what it was) for the better part of three decades, and I decided to not let my daughter suffer through it as I did.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents were (and still are) amazing. When I was a kid, mental health just wasn’t something you really talked about, and kids weren’t seen as “having mental health issues”–you just thought they were “quirky” or “weird”.
I wanted to start laying the groundwork for coping skills now, so my kiddo would be able to work through issues with (hopefully) less overwhelm in her childhood than me. It hasn’t been an easy road, but helping my daughter through her anxiety issues has actually helped me with mine. Here are some ways you as a parent can help your child while also helping yourself*:
Listen Without Judgment
Let’s be real: if you told someone something about yourself with which you’ve been struggling and they reacted negatively, you probably would find it hard to go to that person again, right? If your kid comes to you and says, “I’m worried,” and you respond with, “You’re eight! What do you have to be worried about?” chances are they’ll be hesitant to come to you again. Listen to their concerns, but don’t try to fix it. Let them know that you will be there for them and help them in any way you can. There’s also a strange calm that comes over me whenever I listen to my daughter talk to me about her worries. I think it’s knowing that she trusts me to be her safe space that helps me to keep my own anxieties in check.
Practice Coping Strategies Together
I highly recommend going through a workbook together to help your child understand what is going on while also learning ways to deal with what they’re feeling. Right now, we are working our way through this book. Not only has it been great for her, but it has been a big help for me as well! We also put together a “calm down box” for when anyone in the house is feeling overwhelmed. There are noise-canceling headphones, squishy toys, sensory bottles, and roll-on essential oils inside. We will also play word games to re-direct thinking, color together, or do yoga!
Take a Break When You Need It
I’ll admit, there are times when she and I are both reeling with anxiety or sensory overload and neither one of us can deal. That’s when I say, “We’re both having a hard time. We need to take a break. Let’s wait for one another to calm down before we talk again.” We both go to different areas of the house and whenever we both feel ready to talk, we’ll come back together. (This may not work for younger kids. I’ve found though, that if you give a younger child something to do with their hands such as kinetic sand, Play-Doh, or a squishy toy, it helps them to get out any frustration they may be having.)
Show Grace to Them and to You
We all have bad days. Kids may have it even harder because they can’t always express why they’re feeling the way that they are or even what they’re feeling. You may lose it. They may lose it. Remember to show grace to yourself and your child. When you do lose it, go back and apologize for losing control and explain that even parents can’t keep it together all the time.
Parenting a child with anxiety while dealing with your own is rough, but it’s not impossible. Seeking out help from a mental health expert can be a huge help in managing your and your child’s anxiety. By taking care of your mental health, you’re modeling excellent behavior to your child and laying the groundwork that will hopefully grow into a healthy future!
*I’m not a mental health expert. I’m just a mom who has tried – through trial and error – to find ways to help my child while also trying to take care of myself. I encourage you to reach out to a licensed therapist/counselor if you feel ready for that step. We have; however, there is such a long waiting list. The above are strategies that have worked for us.