If only I knew 14 or 15 years ago what I know now about raising a child with anxieties.
Our first-born, now 20, had bouts of anxiety from as early as I can remember - infancy, really - and they grew more and more paralyzing as he grew into elementary-school age.
When he was in kindergarten, there was a light bulb flickering in the school gym during PE for over a month, and he would freak the freak out so hard they’d have to send him to the counselor’s office during PE time until they could get maintenance down there to change that damn bulb.
My son was so petrified of vomiting, he’d shake me awake in the middle of the night almost every night to ask me if I thought he might have a stomach virus, and he wouldn’t eat meat for years because he was terrified it would be undercooked.
He didn’t go upstairs by himself from second through fifth grade.
As someone who’s had my own share of anxieties throughout my life, you’d think I’d have been better equipped at parenting an anxious child, but no.
I didn’t have the same “nervy” or “neurotic” behaviors as my son had as a child, so I didn’t have the “how did MY mom and dad handle this?” to use as a reference.
We tried. We really did.
We’d run through the whole gamut of emotions and reactions to his fears.
At first, we showed understanding and empathy. We would coax him gently to face the discomfort of those fears.
Then, as he’d push back against our encouragement, and tensions would rise, we’d grit our teeth a little and use slightly more firm verbiage.
Then we’d grow frustrated and tired and we would just want him to go up-the-effing-stairs, or eat the effing meat, or sit in the effing gym for effing PE for eff’s sake.
Trying to find that fine line of balancing understanding and empathy for an anxious child, and making sure you’re not coddling or enabling is a tough act.
I learned a few things throughout the years parenting this child of mine, who is not a child anymore at all.
And we’re having to employ some of those lessons learned the first go-round because our younger son has some bouts, although not nearly as severe or as frequent as his brother.
This second child’s anxieties rear their head when it comes to large crowds.
Like birthday parties.
He hates them. He’s always hated them.
What six-year-old doesn’t want to go to a birthday party?
Mine didn’t. And at 11, he still doesn’t.
The crowds… the chaos. It makes him bananas.
He’s never even had a birthday party of his own. We’ve had neighborhood friends over, just to sing and share birthday cake, but even that is kept small.
I’ll admit that the advice below is just as much for me as it is for you. Just because I know what I should do as a mom, doesn’t mean that I always do it.
It’s hard to always follow through when you’re a mom of an anxious child.
It’s hard to always follow through when you’re a mom, period.
Here’s how to avoid enabling a child with anxiety
Avoiding situations that might make them anxious
There’s no way to avoid all the possible situations out “in the real world” that might make your child anxious, so by shielding her from the ones within your control isn’t doing her any favors.
For example, it’s one thing to RSVP “no” to a birthday party so your kid doesn’t have deal with the crowd and noise of a party.
But you aren’t protecting her by allowing her this avoidance all the time.
There are going to be plenty of occasions throughout her life where she’ll have to deal with being in an uncomfortable situation, and where you won’t be there to buffer her from it.
Furthermore, by allowing your child to continually missing out on get-togethers with friends, a wedge of distance starts to grow between your child and her peers, and - over time - she’ll start to feel as out of place as a dog biscuit on an hors d’oeuvres platter.
She can’t foster connections if she’s not physically present to make those connections.
I’m not suggesting you always RSVP “yes,” willy-nilly. That would be cruel.
I’m recommending that you say yes on behalf of your child to the smaller, less chaotic parties.
Protecting him from natural consequences
Letting your child off the hook “because he’s different,” or “because he has a hard time,” or - worse yet - taking the blame yourself, does nothing for your child, except make everyone’s life a little easier right that moment.
And much harder down the line.
You aren’t helping him by not letting him experience the discomfort of making mistakes and bad decisions.
Here’s that fine line again: I find myself asking sometimes, “Is he doing this because of his anxieties, or because he’s an irresponsible asshole?”
And the truth is, it doesn’t even matter what the reason is.
The answer should always be to correct those behaviors, because even though it might be because of his anxiety that he’s behaving a certain way, that doesn’t make it any more socially acceptable.
His boss 10 years from now isn’t going to cut him slack because he has anxiety.
We all have the same social rules we have to conform to if we want to be productive contributors to society.
Swooping in to do the hard stuff for him
Nothing tells your child he isn’t capable like a mom who swoops in to take over with the hard stuff.
It’s frustrating as hell sitting nearby, watching your kid struggle with a project.
You hate that he’s struggling. It’s painful to see him working hard, and getting more and more agitated, and then sinking back into the chair, defeated.
It’s murder having to stop yourself from shoving him aside, yanking the pencil away, and muttering, “FFS, I’ll do it.”
Tie your arms behind your back.
Do something to force yourself to do nothing.
Acknowledge him, acknowledge his fear and his frustrations.
Encourage him to push through, telling him you have faith in him.
He has to work through the hard stuff himself.
Sometimes even suggesting he take a break, so he can come back to it fresh a little later, will help.
Remember that your goal as his mom is not to make things easier on him. It’s to give him the tools to handle things on his own when he’s an adult, out in the world on his own, when you aren’t around, anymore.
The best response you can give to his cries of, “I can’t do it!” is, “Yes you can! Of course you can.”
Because he can do it.