The children are finally back at school now that school holidays have come to an end. I sit down with my newly-acquired spare time to read a parent-written article on how people misunderstand and demand too much of anxious children. I expected to sit there nodding in agreement, expected that I’d surely be aiming for those share buttons to help spread the word…instead I just cringed. And shook my head in dismay. And sat down to write this counter-piece.
The article that’s annoyed me in its portrayal of children with anxiety and with its view on how we should treat these children, is called “Don’t Ask my Anxious Child to ‘Suck it Up‘” (published on October 9th at “pickledbums”). It’s getting plenty of love and approval, so rather than loudly rain on her parade over there and upset all those parents in heartfelt-agreement with that writer, I’ll do it over here where no one can see me in my quiet little corner of the web.
I write my response here as a mother of two autistic children who both suffer from anxiety, one whose suffering is such that he is on daily medication to take the extreme edge off but who still needs help coping with anxiety. (We’ll be trying to get him off the meds at the end of the year by the way, the story of going on and coming off meds for anxiety will need a future post of its own.) I write too as a person who suffers from anxiety and who has other family members with the same; there is no doubt a heap of genetics at play here. The point being, I see and live anxiety everyday.
First things first: a diagnosis of anxiety is not a reason to stop pushing your children and exposing them to challenging situations. Rather, knowing your child has the condition is a gateway to understanding and to figuring out what tools will help your child and how to use those tools.
Let’s use the writer’s own analogy: She says “You wouldn’t make a child with a broken leg run a race, so don’t force my anxious child to do things they find difficult.” If my child had a broken leg, I wouldn’t rule them out of the race, neither does having anxiety mean my children will be allowed to sit things out and not be challenged anymore in those things they find extremely difficult. Instead, if my child had a broken leg I would figure out whether there is any way in which they can still take part – maybe on crutches, maybe go a shorter distance; find someway that they can still give it a go with appropriate support. And I would work towards a future where we can heal the leg and help the child eventually live the best-legged-life they possibly can.
Similarly, if my anxious child finds something extremely hard, I would work to find ways to allow them to be slowly and thoughtfully exposed to the challenging experience. I would find out what aspect of the experience is hard for them – is it the running surface, is it the fit of the shoes, is it the speed, is it the length of the race, is it the proximity of the other runners, or pain of the movement, etc. My point is when your child is struggling, you don’t say “oh well, damn anxiety, we’re sitting this out,” rather you go into problem-solving mode and refuse to let the anxiety run the child’s life and restrict the child’s future.
Take a very real example for both my children: They have fear and intense anxiety around swimming (or frankly, even getting wet at all some days). I don’t pull them out of swimming sports though. I get involved – I get in the water with them, I slowly expose them to the experience of water on their faces in a controlled way and we use goggles because their eyes are particularly sensitive to water. I recognize their learning pace is slow and anxiety-filled so I break every learning step down as much as possible, with constant reassurance and encouragement. I tell teachers and anyone else who will be with them in the water about the concerns and that if my children are pushed too hard too fast then it will only increase anxiety and distress, so to be mindful and recognize that they aren’t like every other child learning to swim. Recognize and respond to the individual. I also use social stories and videos to reinforce that being in the water can be fun, can be safe, and to build familiarity. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what an anxious child requires.
Do I think my children will both be fantastic swimmers one day? That’s highly unlikely, but I won’t stop trying just because of anxiety. They need to learn to swim for their own safety. Similarly, will a child with a broken leg win the race? No, they won’t, but if there is any way at all to encourage their participation and reward them being willing to give it a go, then that is the right thing to do. And never lose sight of that future less-broken-legged child.
The entire tone of the article I read, seemed defeatist. Yes I understand the writer’s annoyance and distress that people sometimes blame parenting instead of acknowledging that anxiety for some children is an an actual mental condition and not just a transient state of being that could be fixed by simply “sucking it up.” However, the fact is that parenting can and does help anxious children; just because parenting is not the cause of all childhood incidents of anxiety, does not logically mean you can’t use parenting methods to ameliorate the child’s suffering.
In fact, it is in the child’s best interests to not have their anxiety reinforced by a parent who says “yep, too hard for you dear, don’t have to do that.” Instead, we need to help our children see things in a way that exposes the fear as something that is in excess of the actual danger involved to them, and equip our children with long-term strategies to help them overcome situations that would otherwise leave them paralyzed with fear. We must listen to our children to understand their type and level of fear, and use that knowledge to then help them to live in this frequently-overwhelming world of ours. That’s our job as parents.
My children are not going to be great at everything, I know that. And there will be some experiences that are ultimately far too hard for them. But I will not give up, and I will not tell others to give up on them either. I will teach my children and the adults who work with them, to better understand the challenges ahead and how to work through them to achieve as much as my individual children are capable of achieving.
One last point that really bothered me about the article. The author says: “Some kids might be anxious because parents are too focused on safety rather than long term consequences, but some kids are anxious because their brains don’t work quite right.”
That made me cringe. Their “brains don’t work quite right”? Both my children’s brains are astounding, some days I think my brain is pretty damn awesome too, but because we get anxiety our brains now aren’t working quite right? Take any given person in the population – some have irrational fears, some have perverse fantasies, some have addictions to cigarettes or alcohol or gambling, others are perfectionists or have OCD, or have extremely high pain sensitivity. For all these variants of minds and mental states, do we declare that each of those people has a brain that doesn’t work quite right? Or, do we recognize that we all have our personal challenges, some far more extreme than others, but we still have perfectly functional brains that allow us to get on with life 80% of the time and find ways to cope with the more troubling parts of who we are. You can recognize mental illness, you can acknowledge hardship and difference, without having to declare the brain to be broken. Brains are immensely complex and immensely changeable, I worry that if we accept the idea that a child’s brain is not working “right,” then we are doing them and their future-selves a disservice by accepting a limitation on who they are and what they can do. “I have anxiety” doesn’t mean “my brain doesn’t work quite right.”
Now maybe you feel I’ve been too harsh with the author. Maybe she didn’t intend to come across as accepting of her child’s anxiety in such a defeatist manner, maybe she didn’t mean to say that she doesn’t want others to push her child to do challenging things, maybe I’ve misunderstood her choice of words about the brain not working right. Such misunderstandings happen, and if I am mistaken I will accept that error and do so happily. Regardless though, her article gave me the impetus write this post, and to make the points I feel need to be made about children with anxiety; that the diagnosis of anxiety is an open-door to new understanding of the child and to new techniques to help the child, it is not a closed door with a sign on it that announces what your child cannot and should not be asked to do.