I’ve been putting this post off for a while now. Part of me feels like it needs to be some kind of epic research paper or a giant collection of data and anecdotes but really, it’s not. I could do so much more research. I could tell so many more stories. I wish I had a buddy who was a psychologist chime in but I don’t. I don’t even have a collection of helpful links though I will try and add them in later as I do find them.
This is more of a collection of things that have worked for us over the last few years. And just as often as these things have worked, they have also not worked so don’t get your hopes up that I have any magical answers. There really aren’t any.
I think if I’ve learned anything over the course of this journey with my kid’s anxiety, it’s that I’ve learned that I can’t do it for her. I can’t make this easier. I can try and I can provide comfort and remind her of tips and tricks but at the end of the day, SHE has to find her own way and that’s really hard for me. I want my child to grow up and be a successful adult and the only way I can help her do that is to stop protecting her from the scary things in the world. She has to fight her own battles, she has to find her own solutions, she has to find her own comfort… no matter how badly I want to do it all for her.
If you are dealing with a child with anxiety and you are struggling, my heart goes out to you. You are not alone. You are not a freak. Your kid is not a freak. A lot of this is normal. Sometimes it’s not normal and you need a professional but most of the time it is just a normal developmental step for a kid who is extra aware of their environment or extra intelligent or just extra sensitive. Sometimes even the professionals can’t help. But don’t give up. You love your child and they will get through this and they will be stronger. You will get through this AND THEN it will start all over again. But you’ll get through that too.
Bug has experienced separation anxiety for as long as I can remember. A lot of this is due my parenting. I have separation anxiety from her and I am the most helicoptering of all helicopter parents. If I could put her in a bubble and freeze her as a three-year-old for the rest of her life, I probably would. Actually, I wish I could save a version of her at every age because she is so dang cute but that’s just not practical. I mean, if we’re going to spend the day in daydream-land I might as well order up a small army of personal nannies, a live-in chef and a giant bouncy house made out of jello.
But whatever. We’ve been dealing with this since she was two and I thought I’d hire a babysitter to come watch her while I worked in the other room. That ended after two weeks because I couldn’t handle leaving her and she didn’t stop crying. Preschool was hit and miss. Kindergarden was HORRIBLE. First grade was remarkably smooth but I’m accounting that to the fact that she had an amazing teacher that gave her lots of one-on-one attention. Second grade was horrible… well you get the picture.
A pivotal point for me was when I finally took Bug to her pediatrician to get a note for her school. Everyday in second grade Bug would get the dry heaves on the way. She’d start with a tummy ache before we even left the house and she’d work herself up until she was actually vomiting by the time she got to the door of her classroom. Of course at first I kept her home. How could I not? But then she started missing too many days at school and it got really old that she’d be magically better as soon as we got home.
I forced her to go to school but her school would send her home because of their no-vomit policy. In fact, Bug started using her ability to make herself sick to get out of anything she didn’t want to do. This was not going to end well. I really really didn’t want her to use vomiting as a solution to stress.
So I took Bug to the doctor and her doctor was so kind. She’d seen this before with many many other kids. The doctor talked about it with Bug and then she looked me in the eyes and told me that anxiety was something Bug would cycle in and out of all of her life. In fact, at the time of her appointment Bug was actually getting better. I think it clicked for me. I could handle this. There would be good times and bad times. There is no magical cure. We just have to get through the hard times. I can’t fix her. She isn’t necessarily broken. She’s just wired differently.
So the point of this post is to collect all the things we’ve done that have helped us through the hard times.
I found this workbook during a frantic search on Amazon during some of Bug’s most difficult kindergarden days. She loved this book. She loved the analogy that her worries were like a tomato plant. We had a huge garden of tomatoes that year and it just worked for her active imagination. Plus she’s super into art and pages for coloring pictures were fun and helpful. It was art therapy for her and a great communication tool for us. I could really understand what was going on in her head when I saw her draw it out.
It was also really helpful because the books had us set up a time for worrying. A designated half hour at seven in the morning and a half hour at seven in the evening were set aside for talking about her worries. Not before, not after. This was great because if she had her way, she’d talk about her worries all the live long day and at that point I was going crazy trying to comfort and reason with something that could not be comforted or reasoned with. The more we talked about it, the bigger and more out of control it got. There was no snapping out of it. It just didn’t work.
But setting up a time for worrying kept it more manageable. It also gave Bug something to look forward to and she taught herself how to manage her worries while she waited for the designated time. This was a HUGE step. She can control it. But it takes practice. Some days are better than others but success breeds success. And she was proud of herself when she could get through a day without freaking out publicly.
I also bought What To Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck but Bug doesn’t really struggle with OCD quite as much. She does have quirky OCD-like tendencies but it’s not nearly as bad as her anxiety. And then I bought Freeing Your Child from Anxiety but honestly, I haven’t made it past the first chapter. I’ve heard it’s really good though.
We did try out a therapist for six sessions. Six very expensive sessions that I didn’t realize my insurance didn’t cover until it was too late. This is entirely my fault because I never read those big fat booklets of insurance benefits that they send me in the mail. I thought it was like a phonebook to use for kids who need a booster seat at Thanksgiving. I didn’t realize that I had a 6K (!) deductible. My bad.
The therapist didn’t really impress me. It was sort of like paying someone to be nicey-nice to my kid for a hundred bucks an hour. But she did have some really good ideas. These are not ideas that I couldn’t have come up with on my own though. And if I’d known I was going to be paying so dearly for her ideas, I would have tried a little harder to think them up on my own.
So let me share these ideas with you and save you six hundred dollars. Though you probably didn’t sign up for the cheap crappy insurance and your kid’s therapist would probably be a lot more reasonable.
First she had Bug make a Buttefly Jar. This could be any kind of receptacle really. I’m sure you could use a mason jar and fill it with colored circles and call it a Bubblegum jar or cut out fish shapes and call it your fish jar… it doesn’t really matter. It’s just something nice that is decorated (because kids love decorating) and inside you put little pieces of papers that you write down coping mechanisms. You basically ask the kid what they can do to make themselves feel better when they are having an anxiety attack. You can see from the picture that Bug labeled some “breath,” “smile” “think” (about a pleasant memory, like going to Catalina Island etc etc…), “ask for help,” “use your imagination” etc etc.. And then when they are having an attack they can take the jar down from a shelf and sit with a butterfly and try to do that thing. Or you can even take the jar to school and keep it in your desk.
Bug never took it to school but I have caught her fingering her butterflies while she hides out in her bunk bed sometimes. So it works. It’s something quiet that they can go to on their own for reinforcement.
The therapist also had Bug make a “Feel Better Bag” or “Feel Beter Bag” if you’re seven and still not spelling everything correctly. Inside Bug put things that made her feel better. A squeeze ball, a postcard from Catalina, a small stuffed animal, a note from her dad… just things that made her feel happy.
And while I’m sharing this picture, I’d also like to say that stuffed animals ARE HUGE in Bug’s comfort arsenal. She loves her stuffed animals. In fact, I could easily buy her a whole entire store full of stuffed animals and she’d still ask for more.
I remember when Bug was really little, I wondered why she didn’t have a “lovey” as most of my friend’s kids did. I think when she was that young she just used me as her comfort but as she got older and had to go to school and sleep by herself… she’s now turned to stuffed animals to shower with love. And apparently they give her love back because she clings to them. They have elaborate costumes and personalities and even at eight, I hear her talking to them when she thinks I’m not listening.
Journaling is also very helpful. I personally use journaling as a way to deal with my anxiety and Bug sees me doing this. I’m afraid for the day when she reads my journals because she’ll see that I’m actually not the happy strong mother I pretend to be. My journals are FILLED to the brim with negative thoughts. But that’s how I deal. If I can put the thoughts down on paper they cease to rattle around endlessly in my hamster wheel brain. They have a beginning and an end and most of the time they are no longer than a paragraph–which is so much more manageable.
Essential oils are an interesting tool that I never really believed in until Bug started using them. Our friend Leah Peah set us up with a small kit. Leah lovingly explained each bottle to Bug and what it was for. She has a vanilla spray that she sprays on her pillow before she goes to bed. She has two roll-on oils that she puts on her wrists before school and one super-duper powerful peppermint dropper that she hides in her backpack for emergencies. Bug loves them. She uses them on good days and bad. I think just having something that is pleasant to smell can interrupt your normal thought cycle and help you break out of a bad thought pattern.
Prayer is huge in our house. We have all kinds of methods. I like to pray for ten things, counting off one finger at a time. Bug likes to clasp her hands together and pray anywhere and anytime. We’ve both found prayer beads to be really helpful.
I was raised to take everything to God when I was a child and I’ve taught Bug the same thing. We’re not the faithful get-on-your-knees-and-pray-every-night-before-bed types (though I wish we were) but in times of need, we know that we can always pray. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. I think anyone of any faith can pray. Prayer is a powerful mind trick. You can either worry about things or you can pray. Like my friend Susan likes to say, Worry is a prayer for something bad to happen. So stop worrying and pray instead. If you don’t believe in God, stop worrying and say a positive mantra over and over. It’s amazing what can happen when your brain takes a vacation from thinking bad things are going to happen. Sometimes bad things stop happening!
And last but not least: changing your environment. If you can’t mentally take yourself out of your anxiety attack then physically take yourself out of it. For kids this can mean doing jumping jacks, running around a tree, having a tickle fight or simply being picked up and held upside down. It seems really silly when you do it but this can stop a panic attack. I’ve done it with Bug even at eight years old. She’s getting a little heavy for me but it works.
So tell me, what do you do for anxiety? Do your kids have anxiety and what are your tricks?
EDITED TO ADD:
I forgot to add earlier that a reward system can work sometimes too. If anything, this helped me to understand how bad Bug’s anxiety was from day to day. I offered her grand rewards like a trip to Legoland if she managed to go a whole month without going to the nurse’s office at school with a tummy ache. She never could agree to that one but a frozen yogurt after school sometimes got her through days that might normally have gone south. I like to think that maybe it helped her to get through the afternoons, knowing that if she held it together for just another hour or so she’d have something yummy (and not too terribly unhealthy) to look forward to at the end of the day. It also gave us some bonding time to sit and talk about the day. And since I shared these moments on Instagram, it was a fun way for friends and family to cheer her on as they saw the happy frozen yogurt treats pop up on my feed.