We were reversing the car down the driveway, headed off to enjoy New Year’s Eve fireworks, when my then two-year-old asked from her car seat, “How many years do you think it will be before I die?”
My husband and I looked at each other but didn’t answer. What kind of parent engages in a conversation about mortality with a toddler, a still-in-diapers kid whose mind ought to be on Elmo or the imminent pyrotechnics? It turns out I was exactly that kind of mom, though not by choice.
It’s taken me years to accept that my daughter’s question at two was not an unsettling aberration, but a preview of things to come, of the anxiety that sometimes paralyzes her and sometimes manifests as anger or depression. Over the years, I’ve gleaned ideas of what to do (or avoid) to optimize my whole family’s health, techniques that might help other families in need.
1 | Don’t try to talk them out of it
This was a regular pitfall of mine for years. I wanted to explain to my daughter that chlorine was not going to permanently damage her eyes and that she wasn’t going to be poisoned by her acrylic paint set. When my son is worried, we reason through his fears and he moves on. But for anxious kids, the worries run deeper and are more persistent. Trying to talk my daughter out of her feelings has never helped her, or me. As Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish note in “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk”, a “steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids.” Ultimately, it can teach kids to bottle up their feelings. I’ve learned that my daughter doesn’t need correction. She needs to feel heard.
2 | Active bodies make for easier minds
When she’s feeling particularly down or anxious, my daughter is inordinately drawn to screens. Pulling her away can be a struggle, but the payoff is worth it. Physical activity gives her an opportunity to channel the nervous energy in a healthy direction. Climbing, running, even swinging on a swingset all help. An overbooked schedule stresses her, so we minimize formal sports and favor time at the playground, hikes in the woods, bikes rides through town. If she’s busy working her muscles during the day, she sleeps better at night. Being out in nature and getting those endorphins flowing puts us all in a better frame of mind.
3 | Eat well to feel well in body and mind
Living with stress taxes the immune system. Germ season especially can be hell! When my daughter’s feeling stressed or down, it’s tempting to give into her request for sweets or processed snacks. But as addiction expert Kathleen DesMaisons points out in “Little Sugar Addicts: End the Mood Swings, Meltdowns, Tantrums, and Low Self-Esteem in Your Child Today”, kids are especially vulnerable to the mood imbalances caused by excessive sugar intake. When my daughter’s on edge, I do my best to pick healthy, whole grain meals and snacks. I sub carob for chocolate to avoid the caffeine jitters. Naturally sweet peppermint tea eases stomach aches caused by rattled nerves.
4 | Establish a routine (and be open to revising it)
Predictable schedules make us all feel more anchored against the stressors of life. Setting out clothes the night before can make the morning routine easier. A set time and space for homework minimizes battles on that front. Bedtime at our house is usually preceded by some reading under a comfy blanket, a cup of chamomile tea in hand. That said, an overly rigid schedule can be as harmful as none at all, so it’s essential to be flexible and recalibrate throughout the year.
5 | Anticipate assistance, but be ready to advocate
Though my daughter does well academically, school has always been challenging for her. Testing anxiety, a myriad of interpersonal relationships, a host of adults with different rules – it’s a lot to deal with. In trying to keep peace in the classroom, well-meaning teachers may dismiss a child’s worries, telling them everything’s fine, just go sit down. School counselors can be a useful resource and a chance to get some one-on-one time during the school day. But if the school doesn’t get it, stay the course. Mental health needs are special needs. Anxious kids may need extra help getting in the right frame of mind to learn. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) estimates that “one in five kids experiences a mental health condition, but only 20 percent of them actually receive services.” Talk to teachers, principals, school boards. Advocate for training and resources.
6 | Know when you need professional help
This is easier said than done. I dragged my feet getting my daughter the help she needed. Though I blamed the delay on insurance complications and waitlists, behind those excuses was my own reluctance to admit we needed help. What did it say about me and my parenting? It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of blaming yourself. In “The Worried Child”, Dr. Paul Foxman provides clear advice on when to seek therapy. His checklist helped me see that it was time to reach out to a professional.
7 | Practice self care
When my daughter’s anxiety is most acute, it can be difficult to fulfill professional obligations or even get a decent night’s sleep. My own mental health ends up taking a hit. The best way to stave that off is to keep up with hobbies and be protective of personal space and time. To care of your child, you first need to care for yourself. Though at times I’ve thought of my daughter’s anxiety as a liability, I see more clearly as the years go by that anxiety is, after all, a symptom of an active mind. The key is pointing that mind power in a positive direction. With love and help, anxious kids can thrive.