Raising a child with an anxiety disorder is hard. It is hard on them and it is hard on you.
I struggle with these difficulties personally with my son, Zach, who was diagnosed with high functioning anxiety 3 years ago. With the help of his diagnosis and learning more about how to cope with the unique challenges that childhood anxiety brings, we’ve come a long way as a family. I feel it’s important to share our learnings in case I might be able to help you – or someone you know – who is going through something similar. I believe that we are stronger when we share.
I will never claim to have all of the answers, but I do know what it’s like to suffer from feelings of helplessness as a mother when you are frightened for your child and scared to watch them going through feelings of anxiety.
Here is our story
When entering JK, my son was the kid who still clung onto his pacifier for security and needed it to be removed before entering class. He held his stuffed animal extra tight at nap time while at school and did not form full sentences until the end of SK. He was shy, nervous, afraid of what others would say about his speech delay and his difficulties with R’s, S’s and T’s. And, yes, this was brought to his attention many times, and not in the nicest of ways from his peers.
This negative attention played heavy on his self-esteem and carried on through grade one. He would not raise his hand in class to answer questions; afraid of what his friends might say if he was wrong. Even though he was only 6, he was suffering from a self-confidence crisis. Of course, I showered him with love and security at home, but I felt helpless.
Later, Zach began taking his frustration out on his body.
It started out with him screaming “I feel different!” with violent cries, or “I don’t know how to control myself!” while throwing himself onto the floor in a full-blown tantrum. This advanced to digging and tearing at his legs with his fingernails to show me, physically, that he was upset instead of telling me, verbally. On top of the fact that he didn’t understand his own feelings at the time, he was also unable to express himself fully and was afraid that we could not understand him.
I would often find myself holding and embracing him through his outbreaks as I tried to remain strong for him during those scary times. The truth was, I was fearful too. Here was the perfect, innocent child – frightened, but unable to communicate fully verbally, so resorting to physical self-harm. My heart broke for him and I was confused.
That’s when I realized that I needed help. I needed professional advice – and I needed to seek it quickly.
Getting mental health support
I took Zach to an amazing psychologist who started off by talking about Zach’s development as a child; his experiences at school, and his social experiences with friends. We also discussed family dynamics – parenting styles and discipline – without judgement or guilt. This open, caring form to discuss as a family helped us all immensely.
We learned together that all of these areas played a crucial role in how Zach managed his feelings and what would trigger his anxiety.
Since that helpful time with our psychologist, Zach has been working on his self-esteem. We’ve taken many classes together and read many books that walk him through feelings, how important it is to realize that we all have these feelings and that it’s ok to feel them.
I’ve also learned how to help support Zach in navigating through these feelings. I continue to meet with child psychologists, take parenting classes and to seek advice and meet with other parents who are going through similar situations with their children. The support is life-changing.
And over the years I have been fortunate enough to meet thought-leaders and holistic mental health specialists in these areas, including the lovely Afshan Tafler and the wonderful Cindy Smolkin. Don’t get me wrong, we still struggle. We still hit roadblocks and that’s OK.
I’ve found a handful of key habits and practices that have proven incredibly useful on our personal journey with Zach’s anxiety.
We’ve found that these techniques work twofold: they help to calm an anxiety attack in the moment and also create habits that Zach can use as tools when he is feeling his anxiety kick in.
Reflect on happy memories
Tantrums can be especially upsetting to witness as a parent. But remember, your child is trying to express themselves and they need to know that – no matter what – they are safe and you are there to support them.
During these outbursts, we’ve found that reflecting, out loud, about his younger years has been incredibly helpful and calming. I start by talking about my happy memories of him when he was a baby, sometimes I sprinkle in some funny stories from when he was growing up.
One of our psychologists taught me that all kids love to hear about stories of them growing up because it brings them back to a time where they felt most loved and safe.
I’m telling you – this works for us almost every time. Zach can’t help but to smile when I talk to him about the time he peed on me while I was changing his diaper or the time he threw up on my husband’s face while being lifted in the air. When I see him smile, I know that we’re having a breakthrough. When Zach is in a better emotional state, it’s easier to ask how to help navigate through his feelings.
Understand that anxiety is normal and it’s O.K.
When I know that Zach has had a hard day, he’s had an anxiety attack or feeling anxious around anything, I take the time before bed – when he is completely relaxed to talk to him about his experiences that day. When he’s calm and we’re alone, it’s a good time to express to him that his anxiety is a completely normal emotion.
By helping Zach understand what the word “anxious” or “anxiety” means, I could see that he was able to express himself verbally, instead of using physical tantrums or outbursts.
He started saying things like, “Mommy, I’m feeling anxious.” This allowed me to know that this was his cue to tell me that he needed me.
The sooner Zach understood that everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at different times in their lives – just like they do happiness, sadness, excitement – the sooner he started to feel as if his anxiety was not as scary of a situation. He started to realize that I, and others, can relate and that it is important to understand why we are feeling this way and try to move past it.
Physical activity as an outlet for anxiety
I find that Zach benefits from both calming physical activities and those that require him to focus his attention more actively.
When Zach was three-years-old, I started doing yoga with him at our house. We started off with an instructor and, once we felt comfortable with our transitions, we started doing our own yoga at home before bed when I could see that he could really use it. It was benefiting him so much that we made it a ritual in our house to do yoga every Sunday night as a family.
The benefits of this simple practice have been incredibly helpful for Zach.
He still finds the breathing, posing and concentration level required to be very soothing and comforting.
I always end each little session by rubbing some chamomile or lavender essential oils on his feet and temples while he lays flat on his mat with his eyes closed. He tells me that is his very favourite part. Now, when he smells chamomile or lavender in an herbal tea or hand cream, he associates that smell with the same peaceful feeling of relaxation and says, “Mommy, that smells like yoga.”
Choosing the right supplements for brain health
My naturopathic doctor has continually educated me on the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids for brain health and mental health. I’ve read a lot about this and knowing how important it is to give your children Omega-3 Fatty Acids and it’s been shown to help reducing anxiety and depression. So, I make sure our diets are rich in Omega 3s including: salmon, tuna, nuts, flax seeds (Organic Traditions Sprouted Flax) and chia seeds (Navitas Organics Chia Seeds). In between having meals that are high in these beneficial fats, I make sure that my kids take Omega-3 Supplements including: Herbaland Omega 3 – Gummies for Kids. We love our Omega 3s! I really see a difference in behaviour when Zach has the proper nutrients vs when he’s off track.
We’re in this together
Where I may have felt reluctant to share my story in the past, I now know that it is ok to talk about these issues without worry of judgement – my parental support groups have taught me that. The truth is, we all have our issues and with the proper support, understanding and resources, we are stronger together. I want my son to be proud of his accomplishments and growth and know that when he is feeling overwhelmed from the pressures of the outside world or feelings of uncertainty that he can use the tools we practice together to get through anything.
At the end of the day – navigating through my son’s anxiety is a work in progress. With the support of healthy foods/supplements, professional advice, natural remedies and exercises, Zach and I grow to understand one another more and more.