I have seen many posts lately on anxiety–in moms, especially, but also in people in general. I have been hyper-aware of these articles and questions, because I suffer from anxiety. But it is not only me. My son does, too. This is the story of our experience with anxiety in our home.
What I remember of my son as an infant (sleep deprivation does a number on memory, doesn’t it?) was that he was a terrible sleeper. My husband and I would take turns holding him, swaddling him, shushing and rocking him as we walked circles through the hallway, kitchen, dining room, living room on a loop for hours.
He was a fantastic nurser, though. When I went back to work, I pumped on my breaks and nursed all night long. He seemed to take bottles fine, but he saved all his needs for when we were together at night. I became an expert at the side-lying pose and snoozing while he ate. I had not worked with my first baby, so I figured this was how it was.
Once we night-weaned and moved him into his own crib, we had to do the exact same bedtime routine every night or he would not be able to relax. All the books tell you to have consistency and a calming routine so children learn to relax and unwind.
We moved to Iowa from Tennessee, and he experienced his first Midwestern winter at a year-and-a-half. He would scream and cry when his mitten fell off and his hands touched the snow or got cold. We all dislike being cold, right?
At two years, his little sister was born, we moved into a new house, and we moved him into a toddler bed. I know. You are all shaking your head. “Don’t do more than one ‘life change’ at a time!” Well, we didn’t really have any other choice. Necessity knows no rules. Commence sleep struggles again.
We continued with the elaborate bedtime routine, sometimes falling asleep next to his bed ourselves. Many nights we would sit in the hallway, praying he would fall asleep so we could do something else. I forget the number of nights he would sneak downstairs to find us. We’d walk him back up and repeat the process or simply put him in bed without speaking to him; either way, we did it multiple times. Some nights we didn’t find him until we went to bed ourselves, and he had fallen asleep on the stairs, watching us watch a show on tv. We never struggled like this with our daughter; they must just be opposites.
When he began preschool at age three, we had an extensive good-bye routine. I still remember getting the phone call from the teacher the day I was late for something, or maybe I just thought the routine wasn’t necessary anymore, so I had just dropped him off with a quick kiss and wave. It was probably 30 minutes after I had left, and I could hear him wailing in the background. The teachers could not get him to calm down or engage with any toys or activities. They asked me to come back and see if he would calm down. I was able to, and he had a great day. He generally was a lovable and sweet-tempered child.
I didn’t think any of this was important to mention at well-child checks. Kids have quirky behavior at times.
He was so excited to start kindergarten! He got to go to the big school with his sister, and all the teachers knew him. Already he loved reading and was a whiz at math concepts. However, the principal and his homeroom teacher became frequent phone call friends with me. We worked on plans and suggestions for helping him cope with changes. We knew he needed prep time to accept something out of routine. One time, we talked about the substitute teacher; we met her before, and he was ready.
Another day, I got a call from the principal telling me they had to evacuate the classroom because he threw a chair and refused to come out from under the table. I was asked to talk to him and find out what was going on. He told me the teacher had offered him two paper choices. He picked one, but then decided the other one was really the one he wanted. She wasn’t able to give that one to him, and he could not recover.
This happened at home, too, when I asked him if he wanted the red or blue cup to use for dinner. We are told to offer choices to our children, especially when they tend to struggle or seem overwhelmed. It always backfired for us. He could not handle choices.
By third grade, we were getting regular calls from the school for behavior challenges. It was always due to his inability to recover from a blip in his routine or not knowing what choice to make. He struggled with friendships; he constantly told us everyone hated him and refused to play with him. They even began a “friendship club” for the boys in the grade to work on friendship skills and anti-bullying curriculum. It finally came to a head for me at home, though, when something happened and he had the biggest tantrum–screaming and crying, throwing himself on the floor and refusing to move–that I realized.
This behavior was not age-appropriate. I felt overwhelmed, thinking, “What is wrong with my son?”
I called our pediatrician and scheduled an appointment. He was great. First he talked to me, and he talked with my son. He asked questions and listened to what was happening. We set up an appointment with a child play therapist to learn coping strategies. These were great, but they simply did not do enough. He was not able to use the tools when he lost control.
I shared that I had been receiving treatment for anxiety. I would react to seemingly normal situations with either irrational irritability or rage, or I would freeze and be unable to make any decision at all. Could our son be experiencing the same? We requested a referral to a child psychiatrist to see if medication would be a viable option.
Thankfully, we found the right provider, and that has been the best decision our family has ever made. We got information and a prescription. It was within a week that we saw a noticeable difference. The coping skills he learned and the therapy and support at school worked! The medicine brought him down to a “normal” level so that when he had a reaction, it was proportionate. Before, he always seemed too elevated to be rational when things went wrong. Three years have passed, and our son is a completely different person. He has friends, he talks about his life differently, and he sleeps!
He’s a great kid, and we can finally see his unique personality shine through.
Now I feel I need to champion anxiety awareness for children. Children are not bad. They have needs and sometimes lack the ability to tell us what would help. The best way they share is by expressing themselves through behaviors.
There are many sources for learning about child development and age-appropriate behaviors. If your child is experiencing extremes or you simply don’t feel that things are going in the right way, seek help. Talk to your parent friends. Call your doctor. We all want our kids to have the best life they can.
We, as mothers, do not have to face the challenges of anxiety on our own. Reach out. Make it count.