3 things the parent of an anxious child should know

Being the parent of a child struggling with anxiety can be difficult, especially when you cannot relate to their situation. Here are 3 things that will give you a glimpse into their world.

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  • Constant panic.

  • These two words describe life with an anxiety disorder. It is a life of endless worry, doubt, stress, and fear. It is a life no one should have to live. Yet, many people do.

  • Having personally battled with anxiety from the age of 8, I know that life well. I know what it is like to feel bound by fear. However, thanks to hard work and the love of my parents, I finally found peace.

  • Reflecting on my childhood, I see three things I wish my parents had realized about anxiety disorders. Being so young at the time, I did not know how to express them or even understand them myself.

  • I would like to share these three things with all parents of children struggling with anxiety disorders, hoping to offer a little glimpse into their child's world of worry.

  • 1. Your child's brain is sending mixed signals

  • Has your child ever shown signs of having irrational fears? Spiders, crowds, small spaces, etc.? When you ask your child why he or she is scared, have you ever received the answer, "I don't know"?

  • Though this not knowing may seem ridiculous to you, it is perfectly normal for someone struggling with an anxiety disorder. The truth is your daughter really has no idea why she is suddenly terrified. Deep down she probably knows having the blinds open is a silly thing to be afraid of. Yet, she feels like something horrible will happen if she doesn't make sure no one outside can see her.

  • What is going on in your child's mind?

  • What your child can't explain or doesn't even know is his or her brain is sending mixed signals. Something in the mind is broken. The brain's "wires" have been crossed and normal situations have been paired with abnormal emotions.

  • Let's use an example to illustrate this better. Say your son, David, is terrified of answering the phone. The phone rings and David is standing right next to it. You ask him to answer it, but he just stares at the ringing device. Or maybe he goes so far as to pick it up, trying to obey your wishes, but he can't seem to push the button. You are fed up with this silly fear and start to yell at the kid for missing the call when the phone was right there.

  • This is your side of the story. What is David's?

  • Imagine what you would feel like if you were alone in the woods and came across an angry bear. When that phone rings, your anxious child's brain is sending the same signals it would if he were being chased by an angry bear. So when David says he feels like something bad is going to happen or he is going to die if he picks up that phone, it is the truth. While this action may seem ridiculously easy to you, David's brain is telling him he is in mortal danger.

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  • 2. Your attempts to comfort can be more hurtful than helpful

  • While you have most definitely experienced fear or some form of anxiety in your life, if you don't have an anxiety disorder, you don't fully understand. Normal healthy anxiety and abnormal unhealthy anxiety are completely different things. Trust me, I have experienced both.

  • What is going on in your child's mind?

  • Surprisingly, the words, "I understand," are usually void of any form of comfort. The child knows unless you can magically be him for a day, you can only understand a small percentage of what he feels. Telling your child you understand, actually often causes feelings of isolation and frustration. Your child already feels scared. He doesn't want to feel alone too.

  • This isolation is most likely the reason your child becomes angry or reserved when you utter those well-intentioned words. Instead, try asking your child questions about what he is feeling. If you want him to feel your love, tell him although you may not understand exactly what he is going through, you still want to do whatever you can to help him.

  • 3. Your child has made a mask

  • As I mentioned earlier, I have had an anxiety disorder since I was eight years old. However, my parents did not even realize there was a problem until my sophomore year of high school. Now, you might be thinking, "How in the world could something like that go unnoticed by your parents for so long?" The answer is simple. It is because I didn't know I had a problem either.

  • What is going on in your child's mind?

  • Your child probably has no idea what she is feeling is abnormal. She looks around and sees happy, carefree faces. Instead of interpreting she has a problem, she will most likely conclude everyone is just better at covering up fears.

  • This is when the mask forms.

  • Your son or daughter will go to great lengths to perfect this mask. And yes, parents, your child will create a mask that can fool even you. Most people with anxiety disorders are people you would least expect.

  • However, I will let you in on a little tip for distinguishing a mask from a face. Although we may look calm and collected on the outside, on the inside we are constantly panicked, running through lists of worries over and over again. We need a way to get it out.

  • Look for nervous ticks such as wringing hands, a bouncing leg, tapping the table, hair twirling, etc. Your child may be using these things as a kind of release or way to channel all of the anxiety.

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  • Above all, remember anxiety is an illness, just as real and dangerous as cancer. Unnoticed and untreated, it can lead to depression, unlived dreams, and even a life cut short. Help your child get the medical help he or she needs to fix that "wiring" and remove that mask. It is hard work, but so worth it when you see your child freed from the bonds of fear.

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Emily is a member of the FamilyShare.com content team. She is a huge advocate for family, laughter and all things happy.

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