My eldest daughter has always been anxious. As a baby, she was scared of lots of things: loud noises, men (especially ones with beards), dogs. I can vividly remember the first time I realised she was actually scared of something, and wasn’t crying because she was hungry or tired. She was about four months old and sitting happily in her baby bouncer. I was changing a bin bag and when I shook it out to open it, her eyes grew wide with terror and she started howling.
Her fear grew so that by the age of 18 months she was scared of hoovers, motorbikes, drills, lawnmowers. Pretty much anything that made any kind of noise really. If we were walking down the road and someone was mowing their lawn she’d scream and scream, covering her ears and cowering in fear.
Now she is four and a half years old and that anxiety manifests itself in other ways. She’s no longer scared of lawnmowers or motorbikes. These days she’s scared of more complicated things – things that she can’t always explain. Things that, to you and me, would seem like ridiculously odd things to be scared of.
Frog goes through phases where she worries about something continually, like an obsession. At the moment it’s all about splinters – “Do I have a splinter Mummy? I think I have a splinter? Is that a splinter? I need a plaster!”. Recently it was the vents on swimming pools – “Will it suck me in Mummy? I’m too worried about it to go swimming!”. Today she worried for most of the afternoon that she would need an operation because she had a sore arm, so I expect operations are going to be the new anxiety trend this week.
Being the parent of an anxious child is exhausting, frustrating and heartbreaking in equal measure. For example, when I collected her from school a couple of weeks ago to hear she’d spent the morning sobbing over an imaginary splinter in her thumb, I could have cried. I hate to think of her being upset about something like that when I’m not there to help her deal with it. And then there’s the worry (ironic, I know) that other kids at school will ostracise her or mark her as being a bit of a “cry baby” for crying about such random things. But it’s also tiring having to constantly deal with whatever new phobia presents itself from week to week. And it is constant – whatever the current obsession is, it’s mentioned around a hundred times every single day.
The thing is, I can completely relate to Frog’s anxiety, because I was an anxious child myself. There’s one moment from my childhood that I can clearly remember and, looking back on it as an adult makes me realise I was probably very much like my own daughter. I was in a swimming lesson, waiting in a line of kids to jump into the water. I felt happy and calm. But as soon as I realised that I was happy I started searching through my head for things I needed to worry about. I was about eight years old at the time. When I couldn’t find anything I settled on the one thing that always loomed large – the BCG vaccine I would have at the age of twelve. Standing in that line of kids I thought, “After I’m twelve I won’t have anything to worry about because I’ll have had my big injection and that’ll be it.” Weird, huh?!
And it’s not just me either. My dad was an anxious kid too. He was terrified of moths and, as an extension of that, feathers. He recalls being chased around by his brother and sisters brandishing those white downy feathers that look like bits of fluff. He was terrified. He also used to worry whenever he’d get a new toy that it would get scratched, putting a piece of straw on it before he went to bed. The idea was, if he woke up and the straw was gone, he’d know his toy had been messed with. Told you – we’re a family of oddballs.
As an adult I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety. Looking at me, it might surprise you to know that I’m a worrier. I probably come across as confident, chatty and relaxed. And I AM all of those things, and I always have been – the anxiety was just this secret thing I kept close to my chest much of the time. Anxiety isn’t cool, after all.
I was in plays and performed on stage in dance shows growing up, I wasn’t scared to put my hand up in class and I certainly wasn’t shy. Just like my own daughter in that respect. The anxiety only became a problem for me when I let it stop me doing things. I pulled out of a piano exam once because I was too scared, for example. I very nearly gave up driving lessons because the whole thing terrified me. As I got older it was about talking myself out of applying for jobs or putting myself forward for work opportunities. But, each and every time, I managed to face my fear and (to coin a cheesy motivational poster) do it anyway.
As a mum, I feel sad for my daughter that she’s going to have to face all of these hurdles herself. I know the horror of a panic attack and the stomach clenching nerves of lying awake at night worrying about something so small that by morning you’re a nervous wreck and can’t stand the sight of yourself in the mirror. I really, really don’t want her to go through that too.
Unfortunately though, the signs are there that she probably will. I expect her anxiety will be a burden that, like me, she’ll have to learn to deal with. For now, all I can do is to remain patient with her and keep helping her to talk through all of her worries, even if they seem like stupid things. I need to remember that her response to a worry will often be a physical one, so no amount of reasoning will help her “get over it” straight away. I need to keep empathising with her, using language like, “I understand you’re worried about that – I sometimes worry about things like this too” etc.
And, above all, I need to make sure to celebrate the positives that come with being of an anxious nature. The sensitive, bright, articulate, imaginative side that my daughter has wouldn’t exist without its dark and anxious undercurrent.
Tell me, do you have an anxious child or suffer with anxiety? Can you relate to any of this at all?