Parenting a child with a mental health disorder can be scary, frustrating and tiring. Parents often navigate multiple mental health and educational systems and they frequently do it alone.
Scared to discuss what’s happening with their child, ashamed that they did something wrong, worried that disclosing mental health issues will negatively impact their child – whatever the reason, parents remain silent (except in small, trusted circles). The silence makes it easier to misunderstand the realities of childhood mental health issues.
In honor of Childhood Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re taking a peak into the lives of 11 parents who live with childhood anxiety daily. Knowledge can lead to understanding. Understanding can lead to empathy.
Let’s take the stigma out of childhood mental health disorders – after all, 13 – 20% of kids in the US will experience one in any given year (Centers for Disease Control).
What does anxiety look like for your child?
My son will wear a heavy hooded sweatshirt to school, even when it is 100 degrees outside, because he needs to put his hood up to feel safe. His worry is so encompassing that he turns in an incomplete test, simply because someone else finished before him. His panic attacks are an all-encompassing – they grip his mind and his body. During a panic attack, he can’t adequately process the threats in his environment. – M.M.
Anxiety is woefully misunderstood. It can present itself in so many ways, sometimes within the same person, that it takes real courage to try to wrap one’s head around it. – P.P.
My son’s explosive temper is usually triggered by anxiety. – J.Z.
Anxiety comes in sheer waves of panic that can envelope my sweet boy. The biggest anxiety attack he had, he did not remember having. He truly did not recall the complete and utter meltdown/devastation he experienced. I could do nothing but breathe with him until he could sit down. Then I spoke softly and repetitively to him until he could get under the covers. Then I read Winnie the Pooh to a shaking, sobbing 10 year old boy. I used the most unaccented, monotone voice I could muster. His cries finally became sobs, became intermittent chuffles became heavy sleep. It was heart wrenching and very, VERY real. – D. M.
My daughter’s anxiety brings out all sorts of “annoying” behaviors.
She’s not singing in a really high-pitched voice or whistling or flipping her body around because she’s trying to annoy you.
She’s not trying to be the center of attention.
She’s not doing it because she doesn’t care about what you’re saying.
She’s probably not even aware she’s doing it and she might not be able to stop it right away even if you ask her to. These are things I have to remind myself on a daily basis. – M.P.
What has been the most difficult part of parenting a child with anxiety?
The most difficult part is that I just want to take it away. I wish I could magically erase it all from his mind. He houses worries in his mind that are too big for his little body to carry. – C.C.
Seeing my child suffer. – H.C.
Being patient — everything takes a long time. Educating family and friends and teachers, finding the right therapist and psychiatrist, treatment and helping him build skills to keep it from taking over. – G.G.
The most difficult part for me is that it triggers my own anxieties. I don’t like to let anything get in the way of offering my children my best. – H.M.
Listening a 7-year old tell me that she wished she were dead and watching her claw her arms because she doesn’t have the words to express what she is feeling is heart-breaking. -K.X.
Accepting that it’s real and then helping others to understand it. – C.G.
It is so hard to know what is anxious behavior and what is just plain kid misbehavior. Establishing boundaries that shape positive behavior and don’t penalize anxious behavior is tough! Our basic rules are that you have to be safe and kind, even in the midst of a panic attack. – M.M.
What advice do you have for a parent who suspects their child has anxiety?
Get professional help. Anxiety can mimic all sorts of other things. Let a professional help you figure out what is really going on. Then you can develop a plan together to help your child. Don’t be scared of medication, if used well it can bring your child back to you and might even save his life. – M.M.
Fight to get them tested. We were told “he’ll grow out of it, aka mature” nope. – H.C.
Don’t be dismissive – be a safe place your child can talk about his anxiety and worries. Even if it seems silly to us, it’s not for them. – G.G.
Lorazepam for the win. – C.G.
Relax. This may take a lot of work — do whatever it takes. – H.M.
Look for the anxiety behind any behavior, from anger to depression to inattention. – J.Z.
Be patient! It does get better. Find something that helps calm your child. For my daughter, art has been a life-saver. She doesn’t leave the house without her sketch pad, but she pulls it out less and less these days. – K.X.
What do you wish your child’s school/teacher understood about your child’s anxiety?
I wish they realized that the child can’t help it – that they think in a totally different way than the teacher might be teaching and that the advice/comments that the parents give them is more true than they think. – H.C.
Anxiety may not always look reasonable to them, and it may not always look like anxiety. My son makes excellent grades, but his worst anxieties are surrounding tests and major projects. He often responds by shutting down and procrastinating. Harping on him to hurry up is therefore counterproductive. – H.M.
You can’t talk someone out of it. Sometimes trying to talk them down to calm them just drags it out and makes it worse. – C.G.
That many of the behavior systems and “motivation” systems they have in place to help kids make kids with anxiety feel worse. – G.G.
We’ve worked hard to help his teachers learn how his anxiety manifests in the classroom and then what does and doesn’t help. Some teachers get it – they know that my son is more than his anxiety. Those teachers are golden! – M.M.
What do you wish your friends and family understood about your child’s anxiety?
That they should include us in parties and activities — for better or worse — and not pity us. I have some great friends who know we may not stay for the full party, or that our son may need to step away from an outing to regroup. But they are gracious and don’t make a big deal so our son can save face and still participate to whatever degree he’s able that day. This has been so helpful, as having an anxious child can be very isolating. – G.G.
We’ve been lucky. Our friends and family have educated themselves about childhood anxiety disorders. They consistently show our son that they want to understand and help – they give him space when needed, provide calm stability during panic attacks and they treat him like any other kid when he’s feeling good. I couldn’t ask for much more. – M.M.
Too much praise or emphasis on an area of anxiety can make it worse — if a child makes good grades or devotes a lot of time to charitable efforts, for example, bragging on them too much actually puts a lot of pressure on them. Sometimes it is most helpful to be low-key and spend quality time. – H.M.
I wish that they [family] would stop minimizing it. It’s a big deal to HIM. Maybe they don’t think x, y, z is scary but it is to him. Don’t discount his emotional experience. – C.C.
I wish other adults could see through surface behaviors and read what is going on beneath the surface. I recognize so many kids struggling with anxiety that manifests as aggression or defiance. Adults need to slow down and take time to really listen beyond the words and actions. They need to understand that most kids don’t know what “anxiety” is, so they say things like “my stomach hurts” or “I have a headache” and hope that someone will figure out what that means. – K.X.
If you are a parent of a child with anxiety, what do you wish other parents, family, teachers, etc…knew about your child or about anxiety disorders in general?
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Parent and Teacher Resources for Childhood Mental Health