When a parent realizes their child is struggling with anxiety, there is most likely going to be both sadness and relief: because while no one wants someone they love to live with high levels of anxiety, knowledge is much more helpful than ignorance.
With young children who don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings verbally, it can be difficult to correctly read their behavior to see through to the underlying anxiety. Maybe a child is just sensitive, or reserved, or organized – in moderation, those are all perfectly normal personality traits, after all, and can appear superficially similar to symptoms of anxiety. And a lot of parents just want their kids to be normal and healthy and happy, and don’t want to admit that something might be wrong. But if the anxiety is there and not seen, it can worsen until the symptoms spiral out of control, into extreme clinginess, or irrational aggression, or refusal to engage in everyday activities. (Here is a helpful list of potential signs of anxiety in very young children ).
With Limerick, I had concerns about potential anxiety issues from before he was two years old. He would notice when lightbulbs were blown (say, at a restaurant or at my parents’ house) and not be able to relax until they were fixed (so he’d have trouble eating if we were out, and would pester my dad about it until he replaced the broken bulb if we were at their house) – and that could just be a desire for things to be the way they ought to be, or it could be more. He always wanted me to sleep with him, and would act very scared if I were not there or if the room were too dark – which is fairly normal at two, but became less so as he grew. While Rondel and Aubade would want to go places, even if just to run errands, Limerick wanted to stay in the house – and I thought, maybe he is just a homebody and a quiet kid. But I knew enough to keep my eyes open, at least.
And then recently Limerick started struggling in class at church, needing help to stay focused and calm (tracing numbers on a sensory pillow helped, but he would tell the teachers he just wanted me). At home, I noticed in increase in angry and aggressive behavior: angry words, threatening gestures, and actual scratching, kicking, and even biting – and Limerick was never a biter, even as a baby. Talking to him about anger didn’t help the way it has helped Rondel, and I gradually realized that his problem didn’t lie in controlling anger, but in controlling anxiety. His brain, for whatever reason, felt threatened and unsafe, and he reacted with out-of-control aggressive behavior that looked angry from the outside.
Now that I realize what’s actually going on, I have a lot more hope that I’ll be able to help Limerick, both to reduce the behavior and to help him stabilize and calm down internally. It’s already started to be helpful, actually, just in the past few days, to have a more accurate perspective and a different toolbox of strategies to try 🙂 When Rondel or Aubade get angry or want to state their opinions, they get loud, and Limerick reacts quickly and violently, so I’ve been stepping in right away, telling Limerick that he’s safe, giving him words to use to talk through the interaction, and coaching his siblings on how they can help defuse the situation as well (mostly be speaking more quietly, and by shutting up long enough to hear what Limerick is trying to say to them). When we needed to go to the grocery store and Limerick was starting to get physical with his refusal, I took some time to talk with him and found out that the store is pretty overstimulating for him (noise, bright light, undefined length of time, etc.), and I let him bring the iPad so he could focus on his current special interest (the Solar System!) when things felt overwhelming. It was the most peaceful errand we’d had in a while.
I found this website to be quite helpful with regards to anxiety-reducing strategies – it’s where I got the idea to use his love for the Solar System to help counteract the anxiety caused by the grocery store, actually! I appreciate that it has multiple ideas, since it can be unhelpful to be too dependent on a single coping mechanism and since some strategies are not ideal for certain situations.
I’m not surprised that at least one of my children has anxiety to the point that it interferes with their everyday life – it’s a pretty common thing in my family. But I am hopeful that by identifying it so early in Limerick’s life, we can help make sure that the neural pathways to address, calm, and stabilize are just as tightly woven into his brain as the pathway of anxiety. It’s much harder to rewire those networks after years of traveling down them in every tense or emotional moment, when you don’t realize the anxiety is there until after you’ve spent your whole childhood being controlled by it. Limerick doesn’t have to take that road, because his anxiety is no longer a hidden or ignored reality, but a present issue that he can learn to cope with in healthy ways from the beginning.
One thought on “dealing with childhood anxiety”
It feels healing to me to read about the understanding you’re offering. So much suffering can be avoided and useful skills offered! It’s helpful for me to read about as an adult as I can look back on my own issues with sensory processing and how challenging they made mundane activities like doing family errands.