The heartbreaking reality of parenting an anxious child

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

You've just arrived at karate, or swimming, or soccer, or playgroup and all the kids are buzzing around, excited to get going. Except for your child.

You're sitting on the floor with your hysterical child wrapped around your throat, refusing to join in. You're trying to pry those little hands off your arms as you awkwardly unfold yourself into an almost upright position with an 18 kilogram weight hanging off your neck. You keep talking, whispering how everything's going to be ok and how they're going to have fun but they're now wailing and kicking and EVERYONE is staring.

The other kids, their parents, the teachers or coaches: all staring. Any minute now, someone is going to come up to 'help' but it's going to make everything worse.

The coach comes up to say hi and a little face digs into your stomach.

You smile politely and speak on behalf of your child because you want to look like you're encouraging good manners but the tears have started to well in your own eyes because it shouldn't be this HARD to have fun with your child.

You feel like everyone's judging you because your kid is, quite frankly, acting like a brat and you are failing to do anything about it.

Except he's not being a brat, he's just terrified. Terrified of the world. Terrified of strange, unknown things happening. Terrified of being left alone and terrified of everyone looking.

This is my son, and I am that mum.

"He's just shy," people say. But he's not shy. Once you get to know him, he's a maniac who never stops talking and he really doesn't mind being the centre of attention.

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"He's an introvert," they reason. He's not that either. He hates being by himself and loves being around people. 

My son has anxiety. And it's confusing, frustrating and heartbreaking.

I don't understand him because I've never struggled with anxiety myself.

I get annoyed and frustrated because he refuses to do things I know he'd enjoy.

I feel useless and heartbroken because I can't fix it for him.

And I feel alone because I'm always the only mum in the middle of the class, trying to calm down a crying child while everyone else sits on the sidelines and watches their kids have fun.

Those mums with happy, confident kids will never understand. They think I'm overreacting, they think I'm worried about nothing, they think I'm making it worse for him by sitting and cuddling him rather than making him get involved like everyone else.

My son started preschool this year and the build up to the first day had me in such a panic. He was so excited, he couldn't wait to go to his new 'big school' and wear his new uniform.  Everyone thought it might be different to all the other activities we've ever tried to do with him.

But I knew it wouldn't be. I knew we'd get there and he'd be buzzing with excitement – until I had to go, leaving him in a room he'd never been in, with people he'd never met.

Sure enough, as the bell rang and it was time for me to say goodbye, his eyes grew wide with realisation. His fingers dug into my arms, his eyes started to pool, his lip dropped... and then the screaming started.

Two teachers had to pull him off me so I could leave the room, where I burst into silent sobs myself.

Nothing could ever describe how wrong it feels to walk away from your child who's hysterical with fear and whose heart is breaking for mummy.

But, the one thing I've been told by psychologists and adult anxiety sufferers themselves is – you have to walk away. To learn to be brave, he needs to discover that he will be okay without Mummy by his side.

We've spent the last couple of years talking to our son about his anxiety. We talk about all times we've been scared ourselves because everyone feels scared now and then. We tell him there's nothing weird or wrong about feeling nervous because we don't want him to feel shame on top of everything else. We've made "brave" our family motto because doing things even though they scare you is SO BRAVE, just like Batman.

I've spent countless hours, cuddling my boy, whispering in his ear about how the bad, scary, nervous feelings won't last and all he has to do is bravely walk through that tunnel of feelings until he's out on the other side where it's sunny and happy and he can have fun playing with his friends. He understands this and often talks about the tunnel. 

And we talk through all the possible scenarios before we go anywhere so he feels prepared for the great unknown, which is the scariest thing of all. What if someone runs up and hits him? Probably won't happen, mate, but you just tell a teacher. What if Mummy never comes to pick him up? Never, ever, ever. And even mummy couldn't come, Daddy would be there, or Nanny. Once he works through all the possible scenarios and once he has an idea of what to expect throughout the day, he calms down.

It's working. The first day was horrific; the second day was surprisingly low-key; by the third day, he was almost happy to go to school.

We wouldn't have believed it in a million years. Our little boy, who fell to pieces at almost every day care drop off for three years, has started to look forward to school. We think the structure of the day suits him. He loves the routine and knowing exactly what's coming at every minute of the day. And his teachers are magical.

More than anything, this one trick has worked for us: as the bell rings, I lean over and whisper, "now, you listen to me, DON'T YOU DARE PUSH ME OUT OF THIS ROOM!" And he grins from ear to ear, places his little hands on the small of my back and pushes me all the way out the door and down the stairs.

He loves it because I'm not leaving him, he's telling me to go. He's in charge. And if that's what it takes for him to start the day with a smile on his face, I'm all for it.

Lauren writes about life and motherhood at The Thud. You can follow her on Facebook or Instagram