When You Have a Child with Anxiety

I’ve written this post 6,227 times. It’s so bottled up, I start and restart and pause and try again. And then I shut this computer because it just feels too hard.

I sincerely think this is why the blog has been so neglected of late. I just can’t write until I write about this.

But it is hard to find the words.

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When that first child psychologist told us (two years ago) that our now almost seven-year-old son has an anxiety disorder, one of my first thoughts was, how do we fix it?

That’s what we Type A do.

We were sitting in her stale office and she handed us a packet with descriptions and details of her 4-hour long assessment.

Anxiety, I thought. Whew. Anxiety is not that bad.

[I mean, don’t we all feel anxious every now and then? Poor little man just needs some reassuring.]

What do we need to do to help him get over this? I asked.

She rattled off a list of suggestions and politely showed us the door.

###

This began our [very lengthy, very hard] journey to finding The Team to help us and him. It also began what I would call The Second Denial.

The First Denial is when you know something is awry, but you choose to look away. It’s that sinking feeling deep in your gut, the one you choose to ignore – this isn’t normal. In our case we kept thinking he will grow out of [temper tantrums, panic attacks, sleeping problems, rage]. He’s just young and emotionally immature, we’d tell ourselves. It will pass with time, love and discipline.

The Second Denial is when you look a physician in the eye and he tells you your child has been diagnosed with a condition that will likely challenge him for the rest of his life. Despite the certainty in his voice and the clarity of his words and all his credentials, you still somehow, because you can’t bear to embrace it, think it isn’t as bad, as absolute, as determined as he says.

These doctors always make it sound worse than it is.

[Incidentally, The Second Denial is also when you start scouring the Internet and read all sorts of scary things, telling yourself your child will be the exception.]

We will get him into therapy. We will teach him how to cope. We will get him medication.

We can fix this.

We can make his anxiety go away.

That’s what we Type A do.

###

i have a momHe was five months old the day we met him. He was sitting in a bouncy chair in a crowded room of an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was one of maybe 20 infants in the loud waiting room that day. We had flown 9,000 miles to meet him face to face, and that day was everything I could have imagined it to be. He was a healthy, happy, smiling baby boy, and I was totally in love with him. Though not of this body, he was my son and I was his mama from before I knew him.

What I didn’t understand then, (and am only beginning to understand now), is that even though my little man was only in the orphanage for five months, and even though the orphanage provided relatively good care, those five months were extremely traumatic for my little man. Infant trauma is a real thing – don’t let anyone tell you different.

I have talked about this before, but imagine your child in daycare the first 150 days of his life. This was his reality, the truth he did not ask for. He was supposed to grow in his birth mother’s womb and nurse at her breast and she would carry him in her arms when the crocodile tears fell.  But that did not happen.

“An orphanage is not a healthy place for a child’s nervous system to develop,” she tells me.

I nod. And hold back my choking.

Most of The Team thinks these first five months of his life (and the nine previous months in utero) and his inherited chromosomes are a huge part of his struggles today.

I feel angry.

I am angry there are children born into withouts — without food, without nurture, without comfort, without shelter, without mothers.

My biggest comfort is that there is Someone who knows every minute of his story, and that Someone was interceding on his behalf during the months when I could not.

###

Anxiety is not something I’m unfamiliar with. I have several family members who suffer from anxiety. But they are all adults.

Anxiety in an almost seven-year-old is a whole different nightmare.

Children with anxiety haven’t yet learned the words to articulate what they are feeling. They haven’t yet learned coping mechanisms we grown-ups cultivate over time and through maturity. They are often unable to distinguish between reality and imagination. Anxious children haven’t the intellectual understanding to know what is going on in their body and minds when their anxiety peaks.

Case en point, for months our son was extremely afraid of zombies. Strange because we do not watch zombie TV shows or have zombie Xbox games or Wii games nor can I ever recall exposing him to zombies. But each and every night at bedtime the Bean would begin to sob uncontrollably, sometimes for long periods of time: “The Zombies are going to get me.” He could not fall asleep.  He did not want to be alone.  No amount of reasoning would convince him otherwise.  I tried,

Zombies aren’t real.

Zombies don’t like children.

Zombies are afraid of light.

Zombies don’t have a key to our house.

Zombies are quite friendly when you get to know them.

But none of these explanations would stop the terrifying fear.  In the end, I turned on every light, full power, and I just held him. Because what else can moms do?

###

I am not the perfect mom though. Lest you get the wrong idea.

His anxiety throws him into bouts of irrational tantrums that he should have outgrown by now, and my patience runs thin. I get called to the school because he is being violent in the classroom. I call these the “mad anxiety days.” [mad angry mad, not mad crazy mad.]  The teacher is in tears.  Everyone is asking me what to do, how to help him, and I have tried every trick in my Mary Poppins bag. The day prior he is crumpled in a ball in a corner not engaging. I call those the “sad anxiety days.”  And the day after he is actively participating like any child should. I call those dream days.

I tell the principal he has my permission to physically restrain my son. By God’s grace, he happens to have a child with autism, so he knows the holds.

Sometimes I think we are repeating maladaptive behaviors simply because we are in a cyclical pattern.  This is something I’m learning from my other friends with children with special needs. That the children become masters at using their diagnosis as a means to sometimes (not always) manipulate adults to get rewards, bribes, to get out of activities, to get their way. We tread between being sensitive to his anxiety and being firm. Kindergarteners aren’t supposed to rule the roost, and as it is explained to me by Doctor Number One, the more options we give him and the wider our boundaries, the more he pushes the boundary of what can I get away with.

I have crippling guilt. Because there are days when his anxiety is so overwhelming, I’m at a loss. Even though I know him better than anyone else on the planet, his diagnosis is still a mystery even to me.

But I know Whom I have believed.

###

On a daily basis, here are some of his symptoms:

  •             trouble falling asleep
  •             trouble staying asleep
  •             afraid of being alone
  •             afraid of other people’s houses
  •             frequent paranoid tantrums
  •             severe, abnormal childhood fears that turn into panic attacks
  •             frequent emotional outbursts that are difficult to console
  •             afraid of noises and sudden sounds
  •             always in a tucked position (in the booster seat, on the couch, on the floor)
  •             often hands crossed the chest
  •             rarely faced a person square
  •             severely attached to comfort objects
  •             frequent upset stomachs and diarrhea
  •             poor eye contact
  •             picking finger nails

He is on medication. I’m not going to get into that here, but suffice it to say, those oblongs are one of the most compassionate, merciful, loving gifts we could ever give him. Just to see him in his bed at night sleeping peacefully, it brings consolation to our entire family.

###

I have moved into The Acceptance. Perhaps as a Christian this is the hardest of the phases thus far.  Because I believe in healing.  And yet, I also must come to a point where I am willing for whatever God has given.

I have a child who is imaginative, musical, athletic, entertaining, smart, cuddly, super handsome, and who struggles with anxiety. My girlfriend whose son is on the autism spectrum says the same thing. Her son is many things. He’s charming and sensitive and kind and smart and he also has autism.

I do not know if my son will ever be rid of his anxiety. It’s too early to tell.  We are doing what we can right now, between therapy and OT and meds, to try to better his anxiety and help him learn how to live life with it. We are doing what we can to look beyond the diagnosis, because it isn’t him, it is one of many descriptives of him.

I sat in my car two weeks ago with tears dripping down my face thinking of how God calls us to hard things. We say over and over that we are willing and open to the hard things, but The Acceptance has led me to consider, to what degree am I really open and willing? We are aware that suffering is in our midst and we partake with Christ in such suffering, but when it comes down to it, I still want this [somewhat] cushy life.  Especially when it comes to my babies.

He is good and gives grace along the way.

I relayed little bits of this to my spiritual director last month. I kept getting hung up on what I don’t know. That’s what we Type A do. And she said to me:

You don’t have to know. You just have to know the One who knows.

These are the wise words I cling to. I just need to know the One who knows.

Thanks for listening, friends.

    13 COMMENTS

  • Judy February 4, 2015 Reply

    So brave. Thank you. The Man of sorrows is near and holds your heart. And your son’s. I’m sorry.

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      Thank you Judy.

  • Bobbi February 4, 2015 Reply

    Karen … I feel this post in my bones. Thank you for writing so vulnerably about your son, your struggles, and your discoveries. I am at the very beginning of this journey with my oldest daughter, who is four. I have read and researched and asked questions, only to find there is so much more to learn. We don’t yet have any official answers, but I can only hope … they are coming. Though our story is a little different, our quest to help her feels the same. And with the responsibility of being her mom comes the angst of not having a clue what she needs, but trying desperately to “fix it,” in an effort to make it better for her … and for us.

    “I just need to know the One who knows.” What a great reminder that God’s mighty hand is already at work in all of this.

    Thank you for sharing what you know. Reading your words makes me feel less alone.

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      Thank you Bobbi. This really means a lot. I will be praying for you with your daughter. You know her more than anyone else on the planet. I’m sure you are an incredible mama. 🙂

  • Sonia Kostura February 4, 2015 Reply

    Karen. I am so sorry that it has been so hard. Thank you so much for sharing so openly AND so hopeful-ly. Like your little man, our Ethiopian princess spent most of 2014 battling intense anxiety — except it was ET instead of zombies, …and part of her panic reaction included a complete intolerance of all clothing. Infant trauma IS real — and it is heartbreaking to have to watch our children experience the effects of that trauma. We have also made the decision to use medication — yes, a blessing. Thank you for reminding me that our children’s identity is not defined by their diagnosis/challenges/special needs — that we have a God who knows and who heals and redeems.

    I just wanted to “fist bump” you as one mama-in-the-trenches to another. You are a GOOD mom, and by God’s hand of grace, your love is healing your beautiful son.

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      “FIST BUMP” back atcha Sonia. 🙂 Thank you for your camaraderie and encouragement. We are in these trenches together. XO

  • Susan February 4, 2015 Reply

    Oh, Karen. Wow. What a journey. I love what Judy wrote: the Man of Sorrows. HE understands…

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      I love you. #Thatsall <3

  • Dolly@Soulstops February 4, 2015 Reply

    Karen,
    Such wise words but yet so hard: “You don’t have to know. You just have to know the One who knows.”

    I’m sorry you and your son have to suffer through this…praying God continues to reveal Himself to you and to your son.

    P.S. I do believe in infant trauma.

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      Yes, thank you for praying. I really appreciate it (and need it). 🙂

  • Joyce February 4, 2015 Reply

    I’m sure this was tremendously difficult to articulate, but you have done it so well. I’m sorry for your son’s struggles, and for yours as his mama. And also thankful he has a mama who works so hard to mother him as he needs. I pray God gives you wisdom, peace, and lots of joy as you navigate this path you are walking.

    • Karen February 4, 2015 Reply

      Thank you Joyce. That means so much.

  • Betsy February 4, 2015 Reply

    So glad to have you as a part of ISF, Karen! praying for you and yours- Betsy

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