An Update on Lilly’s Battle with Anxiety
For awhile, I thought my legacy with this blog would be writing about miscarriage (surviving, moving on, conception) or struggling to breastfeed (breast is best follow up). But, these days, I think it might be shedding light on mental health and, specifically, anxiety in children. I’m continually amazed at how many of you are touched by this subject, reach out, share your stories, offer advice, ask questions… It just goes to show how many people are affected by anxiety (and that not enough are talking openly about it).
I last wrote about this subject a year ago when Lilly was still in preschool, about to turn 5 and coming out of a pretty bad battle with anxiety. We were working with a therapist who gave us tips (be specific in our praise), good phrases (“asked and answered” when she’s obsessing and inquiring about the same thing over and over again) and the most valuable piece of advice for us, which was to take away YouTube as it exacerbates an already anxious brain.
Those practices combined with us handling her a little better (letting her have more control of her environment- what she ate, wore, who she invited over, what they played with) and school being more aware and also giving her some leeway allowed her to relax a little bit, realize there was no imminent, direct threat and be able to enjoy her time there again. By the end of the school year, she was even voluntarily sitting next to the boy who was the catalyst to her condition at a birthday party!
She had a fun summer filled with programs and classes she previously said she didn’t want to attend, new experiences and even went to a full day of drop-off vacation camp (with her cousin, but still)!
September soon rolled around and we were all anxious about how she’d handle another new school and all day education in the form of Kindergarten. We went to every orientation and play date the school set up in order to help soothe her- and our- nerves and got her plenty of books on the subject to best prep for the big day.
Her sweet teacher gave her “jitter glitter” to put under her pillow the night before and it worked! She was so excited about it and it helped her head to school that next morning on the right foot as she sprinkled it along her way. She had the best first day, some tears the second (She was tired and the novelty had already worn off.) but, after that, soon settled in comfortably.
We were elated. She’s in such a good school, has a great group of classmates, the most attentive teacher and her growth, confidence and knowledge is rapidly increasing. She was truly thriving there and we all took a big, deep breath for the first time in awhile.
And, then, just like last year, after a super smooth transition, once it appeared everything was fine, anxiety reared its ugly head again.
It started with Saturday swimming. For the first 3-4 sessions, she was an all-star. While her other little friends were either refusing to suit up, put their head in the water or jump in on their own, Lilly was running to the pool and swimming laps by herself. Then, one day, out of the blue, she started hysterically crying.
She said she couldn’t hold her breath for that long, the instructor went too fast, she didn’t want to be there or stay, wanted to go home and quit swimming altogether. I made her stick it out but had to be by her side at all times and often speak to her teacher for her, conveying her worries and mandates. “Mommy, tell him I only want to put my head half under. Tell him I want to go slower. Can you tell him I need new goggles? Tell him, Mommy. Mommy, did you tell him?”
And, as we’ve discovered, where it relates to one area, it always seeps to others. Next, it was gym class and not being “good” at jump rope, then it was “Buddy Activities” and not wanting to be paired with that third grade boy again, after that it was all school meeting and not wanting to go up on stage. One day, it was even her beloved art class. Certain days, she run happily into school, others, we’d have to drag her.
She’d complain of her tummy or head hurting, even her ankle, saying she couldn’t walk, that she needed to stay home from school. One time, she got so upset, she made herself sick and we kept her home from school the next day, actually believing it was a bug (We’re still not entirely convinced it wasn’t but the more time that went on and the more the anxiety continued, I’m also not certain it wasn’t her nerves, instead of a virus).
Like last year, we immediately met with her teacher. She said that any time she brought up something new, Lilly would immediately tear up. It could be something as silly and fun as a game, where the other kids cheered, but not my girl. If it involves change, something she doesn’t yet understand, know how to do or might not be “good” at, she is immediately a mess.
Perfectionism runs in the family. Lilly comes from a long line of it. And while we’ve all had our own separate issues with it, for my mom and myself, it never manifested in being worried sick over school to the point of it affecting our behavior or character. But for Zach, as a kid, it did. His anxiety wasn’t necessarily derived from being a perfectionist but he absolutely would feign illness or make himself sick because he was too shy to try or do something. Our poor girl is getting it from both sides.
Naturally, we went back to the therapist we saw last year and filled her in on the latest. She said that often very bright kids struggle with anxiety because they’re overstimulated. They’re taking in so much so quickly, learning at a rapid rate, observing so much, contemplating and questioning everything… it’s all too much.
Lilly has always been advanced. (I say this humbly and very aware that it also has its drawbacks.) She was speaking in sentences when her friends were still struggling with one-syllable words. She was memorizing books after the first read, counting and reciting the alphabet way ahead of schedule and is now reading at a second to third grade level in Kindergarten. While athletics are not her forte, academics are.
But her overactive brain breeds anxious thoughts and behavior as well. She’s a big “what if” kid. What if you drive too fast and our car crashes into another? What if the storm is so bad and the lightning breaks our window? What if the fire in the fireplace sets the house ablaze? What if we’re late to school and the last ones there? What if I forget how to do the how-to’s at writing center? What if I’m not good at jump rope? What if my teacher forgets what we talked about and I have to be partnered with that boy?
Her worries are endless. And it’s overwhelming for all of us. But it’s not just the questions. Like her father, she’s started habitually and nervously biting her nails- at age 5! She fidgets, averts eye contact, quiets her voice. For a girl with such confidence, her extreme lack of it at times is upsetting. She normally bounds in to new buildings, is halfway down the street from us, introducing herself to everyone, telling them all about her little brother, how old she is, what grade she’s in and runs, skips, dances and sings everywhere. But when her anxiety spikes, she’s suddenly a different child.
What we’ve been able to discern is that hers it’s brought about when it’s something new, she doesn’t understand, thinks she’s not good at it and when it involves older kids or adults, particularly boys and men, whom is often intimidated by.
We scheduled her own meeting with the therapist (where they play with a sand table, draw pictures, etc. as she passively engages and talks with Lilly) to help her better work through her worries. But, in the meantime, she suggested we keep talking to her about her feelings. She suggested we really go in depth, when she’s in the mood to talk. She warned that we, as parents, can talk too much- and at the wrong times. Since Lilly is such a chatty girl, we take her lead. When she wants to talk in the bath or at bedtime, we are ready. Her therapist said, of course, some kids don’t share much and you may need to prompt them more. She said mirroring their feelings is really important. “I understand that must be scary for you. Why don’t you try…”
She also suggested we also say things like “What about swimming makes you scared?” and help her work through those fears. Or when she has a “what if”, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” So, for instance, if she says, “What if I mess up?” about her art or school work, then say, “Okay, what if you do? What’s the worse thing that could happen? You cross it out and start over? You try again? You get a new sheet of paper? You create something different that you might like even more?”
In addition to the chart I made Lilly, which I discussed on Instagram Stories, that details what time she eats breakfast, gets dressed, leaves for school and she has to check it off, which she loves and takes pride in, her therapist suggested we get this clock to help her see how much time she has. Lilly struggles with leaving for things that scare her. She’ll keep asking how much longer she has, does she have time to play, she doesn’t want to get dressed yet, etc.). She said time is still so tricky for kids this age. They don’t really know 5 minutes from 15 and being in more control for a kid like Lilly can help immensely. She also suggested we do an after-chart. So when she’s had a successful gym period or an all-class assembly without tears, she can come home and visually acknowledge and reward that behavior.
I addressed my concern with her therapist that, while I want to validate her feelings and let her know we’re there for her, I don’t want to be the parent that solves all of her problems for her, that she needs to learn the tools to manage her worries on her own, since we won’t always be there. Her therapist said that up until third or fourth grade, kids really need us to help advocate for them so we’re not in the wrong for emailing her teacher, etc. But that it is also important to give them a nudge like making her stick out swimming and not letting her quit.
She said it’s great that we have her in yoga, recommended a local yoga camp for the summer and showed us how to teach her how to breathe by placing your hands on your stomach and make it puff out by exhaling slowly and deeply. She said we should practice it together and when she’s walking to school or approaching an activity that causes her to be anxious say, “Let’s do some big breaths”. She also suggested since Lilly fidgets and bites her nails, to give her a stress ball or a squishy so she has something to do with her hands when she’s feeling overwhelmed.
Her teacher recommended we put her in martial arts for her confidence, which she says worked wonders for her own daughter. And, after sharing on Stories, lots of you suggested so many great books, some of which we’ve already purchased, others that are on our list. Those combined with my finds are below.
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