Anxiety in Children (and why you shouldn’t let that “broken leg” stop you running races)

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.

Public domain image

Public domain image

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.

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14 Responses to Anxiety in Children (and why you shouldn’t let that “broken leg” stop you running races)

  1. Sheree says:

    Thank you for sharing. My thoughts are I believe in you both, and you are both right. And it is fair to say you acknowledge you may have misinterpreted the article etc. etc. But I have read it after your reflection. And upon my reflection thought to read it twice in two different ways one from how you yourself have interpreted the article. And from your beliefs and strong passion for you boys to get the best out of everything, it is fair to say I completely agree with challenging them, learning their ticks and triggers, knowing when to much is to much but not back down just taking the foot of the exhaust pedal a little, but not use the brake and come to a complete stop unless it is absolutely necessary. I can see you have moved on passed that mental illness is not what defines you or your children, it is a part of you and your boys.
    I do feel the article portrays a struggling family and they are still at the point where they are defining mental illness as cause and effect, yes this may be so but with the right supporting networking’s, understanding of anxieties, and types of anxieties, they will hopefully become aware that yes it is and will always be challenging but doing it the right way for the right reasons and cause will only make you as a person and others around you that much stronger.

    I to understand from a mother herself you struggles with anxiety every day, not hat many are aware or even notice, as it is a very private thing but have learned to cope, although I believe personally my husband has been my biggest encourager and my children also. My two oldest boys have anxieties, the oldest ASD + ADHD + Moderate Anxieties (moderate is just another sour grape but I wont go into that) our other boy ADHD Moderate Anxieties also. Anyhow we have challenged them to push themselves in their goals, friendships, learning anything that makes them a better person. They are going places and that is because we have not allowed their challenges defy what they are capable of, we have just had to fid alternative methods of choice to allow them to be successful and succeed.

    I guess this is what the message needs to be do not let mental illness defy you or anyone you love and care for. Mental illness is not a disease, I don’t even personally believe its a mental illness. to me it is our brains way of functioning and going hay I don’t want to be like that persona nd think like that person I want to think and do things that may appear a little different but end up with the same results or even better.

    We are all unique it would be a dull world if we are all the same.

    I guess they way I have taken the article is it is a mothers vent on how she feels at present, hopefully some day she will come to realise this is part of an ongoing process we as parents go through I order to make sure we fight for our children’s right to be successful in life.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and compassionate comment. I’m sure she is doing the very best she can, and I suspect – as you do too – that she is coming to terms with things as she adjusts to her children’s and her own daily life with the growing knowledge of what it means to live with anxiety. I hope I didn’t come off too harsh in my disagreements with her views, I just felt it was important to voice how much in disagreement I was with her perspectives and why. I know there will be many who think (or may know) that I can do better and would tell me how to go about it as well, I hope that when those moments come (as they always do) that I will remain open to differences in opinions and experiences. Thanks again for your response 🙂

  2. katepickle says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my post about Childhood anxiety.

    I agree my choice of words regarding my child’s brain ‘not working right’ were probably not the best, but at the moment, in my personal situation, that is how it feels. My child’s mental illness is caused my an actual physical difference in the way her brain works right now, and while not the best choice of words, I wanted to convey that this is an actual illness or difference and not a choice. But you are right I could have chosen better wording.

    However I don’t think we really disagree about challenging children to do things they find difficult.

    While I feel very strongly that my child should be forced to do things they find difficult, I don’t think they should never be challenged or supported to do difficult things (and I do say in the post that we work on resilience every day and I think if you read some of my other parenting posts you might find that I value challenge, risk taking, and failure) but I feel strongly that there is a big difference between forcing a child and challenging a child.

    There is a big difference in the way you challenged your child, gently and with support, to join in swimming and the way my child was once told to ‘just get over it and do it’ and was then forced to do something they were obviously very distressed about.

    To me that is like a child with a broken leg being told to deal with the pain, put down the crutches and run. Instead of that child being supported to join the race in whatever way they could, without causing more pain, or harm, until their leg was healed. With support and understanding my child can do anything and everything, but they need support, and sometimes they need time to heal and learn ways to cope and join in – forcing my child causes harm it doesn’t help.

    Unfortunately in the time that I have been dealing with childhood mental illness I have heard many stories like mine – where children and families have had their diagnosis and struggles brushed aside, where they been left unsupported and even blamed and belittled… but I hope that by talking about it – even when we don’t always agree – that things will improve for us all. 🙂

    • Hi Kate.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and for your comments. It does look like a lot turns on your use and connotations of the word “force” (as compared to being challenged or encouraged). I didn’t particularly pick-up on that subtle (but important) nuance in your article, and that does somewhat change the tone of your piece; I suppose that’s the nature of writing though – there are word limits and differences in how we use words, so it’s all too easy for misunderstandings to arise. I do think your article perhaps does a disservice to that broader and essential point – that it is so important we continue to push our kids and to help them combat the anxiety in all sorts of ways. I suppose that’s because your piece was more-so aimed at the people who attack parents like us though, than addressing more generally how we can help our kids when faced with everyday anxiety and challenges through all sorts of methods – including parenting of course.

      Regardless of where our disagreements may lay, I do applaud you talking about anxiety in children, and your efforts to show support to parents of these children who are so often blamed for their child’s condition where what they need is support and understanding. It’s a valuable discussion to be having, thank you for your writing on the issue.

      Wishing you and your family the very best xxx

  3. katepickle says:

    Oops sorry that should say “While I feel very strongly that my child should NOT be forced to do things they find difficult,” 🙂

  4. Baa, xxx says:

    I haven’t read the other article but just wanted to say I enjoyed your perspective. I have an OCD child and another who suffers from anxiety. I have always taken the root of problem solving, slowing it down, breaking it up into smaller pieces and seeing what we are capable of achieving. If something is broken down into say 10 pieces and we manage 4 of them that is 4 more that what was going to happen when it was just one scary big thing. And that is success! And as they say success breeds success.
    Karen

  5. Great post here. I agree with your “corner” of the web 😉

  6. memordee says:

    I love how both writers are acknowledging each other, and the place they are each at with their children. I have a child that suffers from anxiety, ASD and SPD. We finally had a diagnosis earlier this year, and are still working out what the triggers are, but it definitely involves people, crowds and noise. School is a massive problem. We’ve spent the last 5 years forcing him to face his anxiety and go to school. It has culminated in him threatening to commit suicide. It’s not just words. He’s tried jumping out of the car while I am driving, hanging out the window of the car, and walking in front of cars in the road, and other things. While we wait for some good support, counselling and behaviour therapy for him, we will no longer be forcing him to face that anxiety. We pushed it for too long and he nearly lost it. I’d say follow your instincts. Do what feels right for your child and family – there is a time to gently push against the anxiety and help them see that it’s not as bad as they imagine, but there is also a time to accept that it is that bad, and it is not the time to push.

    • Yes, very true. We must always reference back to our children, not just to understand what is making them anxious, but also to see if our interventions are working the way we intend. As you say, if it’s not working and it’s all too much, then we need to be willing to back off and accept that limit. Our children do have their individual limits, and they can’t always let us know why or where those limits are, so we must always be willing to observe and learn from them and respect their pain as always relevant and very real. Thanks for commenting, and for showing how important it is to be aware of those limitations.

      Also, I’m so sorry for how hard it has been for you and your child, just heart-breaking. Wishing you all the best.

  7. Justine Fletcher says:

    With our second child (the oldest is a regular guy), diagosed at two years old as being classically autistic, we are very used to anxiety and its implications. Imagine our surprise (shock and grief) when our third and youngest, spunky and hilarious at the age of 7, all of a sudden it seemed manifests extreme anxiety and is frankly unable to function at school. So acknowledging his situation – also diagnosed and very much on the spectrum – we deal with anxiety on a minutely basis, and the lessons from the first time round serve us well. We have always pushed our kids and it’s the best thing for them, but only when the contributing factors buy in. It’s such a tough life. We work so hard, and do so very well. I can’t help believing often better than other parents 🙂

  8. I think the urge to protect our kids is a very powerful, visceral instinct that takes quite a bit of awareness and effort to overcome. I agree with everything you say, but I have to constantly check myself that I’m not wrapping my kids in three layers of bubble wrap. When I’m not conscious of my actions I’ll invariably revert to Helicopter Mom, and it takes effort to expose them in a safe way to activities that result in growth.
    Nice writing! I’ve learned a lot from this XXX

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