Monday, November 1, 2010

Anxiety and Children

Lola is terribly stressed. She has a circumstantial problem with anxiety, meaning that she isn't anxious in general, but when a truly stressful situation does occur, she can't move past it at the same rate as most children. She gets mired in stomach aches and headaches and separation anxiety and problems falling asleep. The last time this happened was about a year ago when she saw part of a scary movie at her friend's house. She came home, cried and told me all about it. I talked to her, told her the right things, and fell asleep with my arms wrapped around her. She woke, and cried. She went to bed and cried. Repeat, for days! It took her a good two weeks before she stopped obsessing on it, and another week or so after that to be close to her old bouncy self. She didn't want to go to any of her friend's houses for a while, not just the one where she saw the movie. She spent a lot of time with a very adult stress line running down the bridge of her nose and her eyes brimming with tears.

The last week, I've gotten a call from either Lola herself in her classroom, or the school nurse, just for some calming effect because she is crying in class. I have had her visit the very sweet and kind school psychologist three times in the last two weeks, and Lola loves to see her. Mr. Curry and I have both sat and talked with Lola about her stress, saying all the right things ( as far as we presume to know ) and asking the right questions, being good listeners and offering solutions, reassuring her this to shall pass. At night she goes to sleep and I have her pick out three good things to think on as she falls asleep. I have taught her how to breathe for calm, deeply in the nose and out the mouth. I am re-reading ' Stress and Your Child' to see if there are any important pieces I'm leaving out. In the morning I cuddle her before taking her to school. And still she can't eat more than the two bites of the breakfast I make her eat.

Most of you know I have anxiety, which sounds almost innocuous in today's society, where everyone seems anxious and popping Xanex or drinking too much wine. But my anxiety has been, at times, severely disabling. I spent most of my childhood in a state of fear, constant fear. I began having full fledged panic attacks in elementary school, complete with running away from school in kindergarten. I walked into my backyard, backpack on, and watched my mother gardening with my baby sister before I softly announced my arrival. In my teenage years, the panic grew worse until I was eventually hospitalized at 17 for severe anxiety and depression.

To see Lola struggle with the feeling of anxiety is to face my own demons in the eyes of my innocent child. This is the hardest and most entangled of tasks; to parent your child effectively and from a position of strength and reassurance when your heart is screaming for you to just make. it. stop. I look at Lola's face and want ridiculous measures to be taken- I want to rip her out of school and keep her wrapped in hot chocolate, art projects and my arms until she is done being afraid. I tell her 'the only way through this is through it', and I mean it...kind of. I also believe there is a balance for a young child, and I ask myself daily if I am providing enough ballast and comfort against the worry and pain she is feeling.

I know as a young child, I was anxious because I was in a chronically sad and dysfunctional household with a father who terrorized all three of the women in his family with his lying, temper and abuse. There is also surely some kind of genetic propensity for anxiety in our family, as I can think of three members who have struggled with severe anxiety over the years. Lola's anxiety seems to spring from a specific situation and then multiply viciously without further provocation. In this case, we had the last two months of family stress, with a few loud fights between Dakota and Mr. Curry and I to wrap it up. Mr. Curry and Dakota got in one last loud and scary fight later at night when Lola was sleeping, and she woke to it, afraid and upset. Mr. Curry apologized to her the next day and reassured her that things were OK with himself and Dakota, but that had set her off. She began struggling with anxiety, and then another stressful situation- unrelated to our family life or members- occured, and then before we knew it the baby was due to be born in five weeks, and that just did it. The nightly stomachaches and crying and inability to concentrate at school began.

So far I believe I have been unflappable in my response to her generalized fear. I hold her a LOT, and we are already a very huggy family, so that is quite a bit. Mr. Curry and I are paying more than our usual amount of attention to her, I'm making sure her eating habits are good, she's getting exercise, keeping her routines stable, and reminding her daily of her coping mechanisms, ( such as giving herself three minutes to feel upset, and then 'putting it away' until after school ) as well as making sure she has a constant outlet to talk about her feelings. We listen and nod and reassure, repeat. The closest I come to cracking is when she is nodding, listening to me, and then crying tells me she is just so tired of feeling like this. I want to weep. I so understand.

She rallied for a week, seemed to do better, and then this past weekend was hard, as well as today, Monday, when another call came from Lola, her voice cracking. My last day of work is tomorrow, so I told her I would volunteer in her classroom for reading time, and be spending more one on one time with her. The schedule since Dakota began his program and Mr. Curry began often working 6 days a week has been hectic, no way around it. We have been a very busy ant hive, with Lola in school and Girl Scouts, Dakota in his program ( 3 days a week from 4-7pm, a 20 minute drive to and home, with my work schedule having been moved around to accomodate this driving ) and myself working full time and being pregnant, Ian in football and trying to keep any semblance of Friday Night Family Night when Mr. Curry and I are both so exhausted we can barely stay awake.

So slow down. Slow down, I am telling myself. My reaction to Lola's anxiety is to become the antidote to anxiety, which is calm, peaceful movements and energy, confident hugs and eye contact, and a constant reassurance that Mommy and Daddy know how to help her through this. She's very worried about life after Ever's arrival, and I don't blame her. She is a huge Daddy's girl, her and Mr. Curry have a very special relationship and she, despite being so excited, is also afraid that her special place in his heart and attentions is going to be moved. Ever heard that funny saying about ' how would you feel if your husband told you he was taking on a second wife, but you should be excited about it because it's just one more person to love! one more person to play with! ' ? There is a lot of truth to that. Children can't bank on the life experience we have to tell us that these things might be hard and intense, but with willing members, they also end up with everyone's needs getting met, and the change becomes the normal.

So tomorrow, last day of work.

Any suggestions for helping my girl, I'm listening.
Mary said...

All I can share is what I do with my own Margot Mary (a variation on Maggie may I just realized )

I put her to bed with something that smells of me - a tee shirt, a scarf. I place my red laughing Buddha (the child version) by her bed. Important scents and symbols to soothe her to sleep.. She is not anxious but suffers from occasional nightmares.

With my anxious boy I quietly encourage him to talk out his anxieties with me. I tell him those anxieties will only get worse if locked inside him. And I tell him I totally understand his anxiety...share little anecdotes from my childhood which I know are not going to make it worse for all of us it is easier to cope with anything when you know you are talking with someone who gets it..

Elisabeth said...

I suspect Ever's arrival is a worry for Lola, as you are aware. Perhaps you can keep it in mind, as you do and try to remember what it was like for you when you were Lola's age when the strange world of adults impinged upon you in unfathomable ways and it all felt overwhelming.

Maybe it's a good time for thinking and feeling, for being aware without any need for knee jerk reactions. Knee jerk reactions add to anxiety.

I agree with you - be still. But it's hard, isn't it? You have your own understandable anxiety to contend with.

Your family is about to change all over again and little Ever is about to arrive and turn your world -temporarily at least - upside down. It'll be all right.

Here's a quote I've found helpful as a mother, and as a writer:
“There is a child crying in a room and the mother comes in and picks it up and says ‘There, there. Everything’s alright.’ Outside there might be bombs and starvation. Is she lying? The answer in my opinion is that she is not. No matter how corrupt, wicked, cruel, disastrous the world is some little tributary of feeling says ‘It’s alright’. That is where writing comes from.”
(my italics)
Dennis Potter quoting an unnamed American theologian

Leslie said...

I don't have any suggestions, I'm sorry. :( My kiddo is only 17 months so it's a whole different ballgame. His worries are soothed and forgotten very easily at this point.

Just wanted to let you know that I am reading and thinking of your family.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

I have no suggestions but wanted to say I found your post very moving It sounds like you are doing everything absolutely right, and that you are a fabulous mom. Hugs to your little girl.

Sarah said...

I just wonder how my life might have been different (read: better) if I had had a single adult who recognised the crippling anxiety than plagued me my entire childhood.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for the wonderful job you are doing - loving, reassuring, accepting and proactively working towards helping your little love through this time.

You know as well as any of us that there are no magic answers - just understanding of what's happening, reassurance that it won't kill us and won't last forever, and (if we are really lucky) tools to help us through the worst of it.

Just keep doing what you are doing. You are a wonderful parent.

Ms. Moon said...

When my eldest was in elementary school and I was freshly divorced and going to nursing school and life was chaotic and different at our house sometimes, he would get stomach aches all the time and yes, I would get those calls from school and it was so awful for him and for me. Oh, yes. I just wanted it to STOP!
Finally, I told him that if could manage to stay in school for an entire month without calling me, we would have a special day. He could stay home from school and we would have fun together all day long.
And you know- it worked.
I think that the promise just gave him something to look forward to and we kept this up and I let all of my kids stay home with me sometimes when it could be arranged.
Not perfect, but it surely helped.
I know this is so hard for you but it sounds like you're handling it very well, Maggie May. You are an amazing mother. Don't forget that.

Jaida said...

I experienced a lot of anxiety as a child and my mom got me some Worry People to whisper your worries to, so they can "hold them" for you. It was strangely comforting, although perhaps she is beyond this (both in age and depth of her feelings).

I am absolutely NOT advocating for medicating a child unnecessarily, but is there anything they would prescribe for her at a low dose, on a situational basis?

Elizabeth said...

It sounds to me as if you are doing all the right things and everything possibly to help Lola. Each of us has a path, and Lola has her own path. You are there, walking with her, but she essentially has her own path. There is so much love in your family that I can't imagine there is "more" to do.

Blessings to you in these final days before Ever is born!

Marion said...

I think you're on the right track by being as calm as possible and making Lola feel safe. My childhood was one big horrific drama after another with the drunk relatives, including Mama. I was lucky in that I was able to escape completely into books and leave my stressful existence behind. I've said this many times, but books have saved my life more than once.

I was in a motorcycle wreck when my older daughter was about 8 years old. I had about 10 broken bones and was laid up for 2 months. She developed an ulcer. I'd never known that a child could get an ulcer. Children seem like such strong, pliable little creatures, but they're as vulnerable as anyone else,even more so...

You're doing great, Maggie. It's good that Lola can talk to you and tell you her feelings and not hold them in. Blessings!!

Drax said...

What about psychodrama? Maybe allow Lola to physically conquer some element/representation of her fear/anxiety... Because even though she knows the soft and reassuring words of comfort you offer are real, the words aren't as real as the anxiety that's clawing at her insides. Maybe an effigy of some sort? I dunno. Poor baby. Hang in there, MM.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Aw--it sounds like you are giving her all the support in the world. And allowing her to feel her feelings, which is tremendously helpful (for her to feel like her feelings are valid, I'm sure).

I'm sorry she feels this way.

Rebecca said...

That is so sad that Lola is having so many problems with stress and anxiety.

Isabella has a friend in school who talks at home if it's only mom/dad/sister at home with her but she will not talk if anyone else is there and she won't talk at school. Selective Mutism or something is what her mom told me. She said that her daughter is on medication.

So so sad. **HUGS**

Elizabeth-FlourishinProgress said...

Cal isn't overly anxious regularly, but during stressful situations, she get nervous and anxious and she too takes a long time to get over it.

When she feels this way, we stick to a strict routine which helps her find comfort in knowing what she can expect and we try to keep the "surprises" to a minimum. Harv and I also cut down our schedules so that at night, we can spend more time with her just hanging out. Within a few days, she is back to normal.

It's not always possible to build our schedule around her, but we try to do what we can.

Sending good thoughts your way.

Peach said...

sorry no sugestions, but i can relate. i was an extremely anxious little girl. i used to get terrified that i couldn't breathe on my own so my mom would lay in bed with me for hours helping me get in a rhythm of natural breathing. just know that the only thing that helped me was having my mother's support.

Caroline said...

Maggie, Lola sounds like me when I was a child. I once had a panic attack in the 5th grade after seeing a movie in school assembly about tornadoes. I then obsessed about tornadoes for the next year or so frequently staring out of windows on my own little "tornado watch".
Here's what helped me: at night visualizing a happy place (for me it was fields of flowers). My aunt taught me this. She would just say over and over again, "You are walking in a field of beautiful flowers, the sky is blue.." etc etc. Also, does she like to draw or paint? My artwork saved me during some of my darkest times. Being able to use my right brain helped me to escape. Reading often made things worse for me (plus, I couldn't concentrate). Being able to paint or draw made me feel free.

Hope that helps.

You are an awesome mom. Sending love your way.

Still Life With Coffee said...

Oh I'm sorry to hear Lola is going through this. I think it is wonderful that she loves her school psychologist. That is a great resource.
I don't have any extra wisdom beyond what you've already written about. Hugs to you both.

Phoenix said...

I was a very anxious and sensitive little girl, but then I also grew up in a very violent household where there was sexual abuse on top of physical, emotional, and mental abuse. My father was also ex-military, I had only brothers, and my mother worked all the time. So I didn't have any of the resources Lola has.

A lot of what helped me was a change of scenery to help put things in perspective. When I was younger and couldn't drive I would rearrange my bedroom a lot (my parents never noticed) and rearrange a lot of things around the house. This would calm me because I knew I had control over changing even very small things in my environment. As I got older, I would drive myself down to the beach and that helped a considerable amount, and now I take very long walks or hikes when I'm feeling very anxious.

The change in scenery really does help me get a bigger perspective on things and helps me feel a lot less trapped, and as though I have options and choices and a way out. (A lot of anxiety is caused by feeling powerless, trapped, and as if they're aren't any choices.) Try it with Lola - ask her if she'd like to go on an evening walk with you, or down to the beach, something, ANYTHING, to break the hypnotic spell that anxiety casts over her mind. Hell, if she has trouble sleeping, have her build a fort in the living room and sleep there.

Let me know if it works. Don't tell anyone but Lola's my favorite :) (Okay, you can tell her some random stranger in LA thinks Lola's my favorite, if it makes things better.)

Bethany said...

I wish I had some suggestions. But I think you are doing most everything you can. I was entranced as I read and found myself wishing I had that kind of balance of comfort and boundaries when I'm lost in my own anxiety. You are doing everything you possibly can. I'm sorry you all are going through this. She will come out of it. All I can say is hang in there, which is what you are doing very well actually.

Brigindo said...

No real advice as it sounds you are doing exactly what you need to do. Unfortunately it can take a long time before you see the real fruits of your labor (no pun intended). Angel was an extremely anxious child--trouble sleeping, obsessive thought patterns, hitting himself (mostly in the stomach) because he couldn't stop feeling that way. Basically it took many years of me teaching him coping skills, as you are doing, and being calm and reassuring with him and around him. Now he can still get anxious but he knows how to deal with it. He barely remembers the way he used to feel.

I know it is hard but trust yourself and Mr. Curry. You're great parents and she'll get through it.

Kalen said...

As a counselor (that has worked with children) there are a few play therapy techniques we would try with your sweet Lola.

One would be roleplaying the situation she's most scared of. For example, if that day she is scared to eat her breakfast, we might practice telling the breakfast how scared she is. I'd sit a chair across from her and put some breakfast food in it, and sit with her in the other chair.


Model the behavior for her and then let her take a turn. Another way of roleplaying this is by you (the safe person) letting her have some transference on you. If she's scared of going to school, pretend you're her teacher and let her tell you how much she hates sitting in class because her tummy hurts, etc.

Other than roleplaying, another technique we would use is the "shield" technique. We get a plastic shield and allow the child to hold it. We then roll up socks into balls and ask the child what they're scared of/what is hurting them. For example, if the child doesn't like being called a name, we'll tell them the sock ball is that name (maybe SHORTY) and throw it at them. Their job is to protect themselves with their shield every time we throw the "word" at them. (You could use anxiety as the enemy in this game).

Another thing we would try is eliminating some of the nervous energy. This might happen by playing a fast-paced game of catch (physically wearing them out), or racing to complete a puzzle first (mentally wearing them out).

TBG said...

It also might be helpful to explain to her that she's not alone in being anxious. Many people including myself suffer from occasional anxiety, and it might be helpfull for her to know that it gets better and that you, too had anxiety.

Julia said...

You sound like you are being a magnificent mama, calm and sensible and empathetic. You're doing what you can do, and it STINKS when we can't speed up our kids' recovery time.

Hopefully when Ever is a reality in Lola's arms, some of that fear will be melted away. Because no matter what we do to ease anxiety, the only real antidote to fear is love. Fortunately you are a powerhouse with that.

Therese said...

Oh, my heart is sending love and strength to Lola. I'm sending an email some thoughts as well...

C.M. Jackson said...

hold her close and let her know that everything will be ok--peace

Maggie May said...

I knew I would be very smart to ask you guys for some ideas, and so I was. I'm literally taking notes, writing down the ideas that we are not implementing, and will use them as they seem suitable. Obviously we don't want to overwhelm her with 'fixing' her all the time, but if I am going to give her coping mechanisms, I want them to be the best of the lot. THANK YOU all so very much, this is invaluable, to be able to have so many intelligent and kind suggestions.

Annie said...

Hi Maggie,
I came to the discussion late. Everyone has given you loving support and many useful ideas. As I was reading them, I was thinking about the art someone mentioned; and how writing and art are excellent ways to define our own emotions. If Lola likes to paint or write or play music, these would be healthy outlets for what she is feeling. Someone else mentioned the issue of control, and getting a "change of scenery." Lack of control definitely makes us anxious. You are so good, Maggie, and so sensible. You recognize you are not there to "fix" Lola, but to help her. I'm glad you'll be off work. You'll be able to give yourself a little time, and some more one-on-one time with Lola and the boys. You're doing all the right things. Sending hugs and love.

Petit fleur said...

It sounds like you are doing all the right things Maggie.

I have severe anxiety too and a few things pop to mind:
--A small soothing object she can keep in her pocket to feel when she starts to get "that feeling" to remind her she is loved and all is well.

--A special time out/thinking place where she can retreat to in school if/when she needs. (Harley, my son gets over stimulated at school and there is usually a quiet classroom where he is directed to when this happens so he can regroup at his own pace).

Those are the only two additional ideas that ran through my mind as possibilities. We never know what is going to resonate with someone, so the fact that you are doing what you are doing, AND asking for ideas makes me think that something will click with her. last thing... maybe you can suggest she talk to some children with baby sibs so she has a better idea from a peer stand point what to expect..? Here where I live there is a big brother/sister class that is offered by La Leche I think that explains all about new babies and what the kids can expect, what fun and challenges lie ahead, and that their role is important to the baby too. At the end of the class they get a nice certificate and a pendant or something that says I'm a great big bro or sis. It's a cool idea and makes them feel part of the process.

You guys are incredible parents. Sometimes it's just plain hard and that's all there is to it.

I'm sending good soothing wishes for everyone there. xo pf

YES Gallery + Studio said...

Great mommying, as usual, Maggie. Very inspiring to read how you handle this. I don't have children, but do have my battles with anxiety. One of the best things for me has been gaining more and more tools I can use anytime, anywhere. A breathing technique that really helps with acute attacks (so maybe not totally relevant for Lola) is to inhale as slowly as possible to the end of the breath, hold it as long as you can then exhale as slowly as possible to the end of the breath, hold it for as long as possible, etc. Also, when I was a school teacher I had a lot of anxious students and plenty with ADHD. I taught them several slow Hatha yoga poses which really helped, especially the corpse pose where you do a body scan from head to toe consciously relaxing each and every body part. I thought the gal who suggested the visualization technique was spot on, too. Sending good vibes to all of you!

Kate Moore said...

It sounds to me as though you're doing everything right. Well done you. High fives to you and Mr Curry. You know. YOU KNOW that anxiety can't be soothed and smoothed away. It is irrational. Be the safety net. The always. The "I am here". In the end it's all we've ever been able to do for our anxiety-riddled teen girl. All.

Anonymous said...

Love all of your ideas and many of the others ideas- to the party late as usual! I like the "worrystone" and the worry people ideas, I am a firm believer in teaching breathing skills and mindfulness exercises/meditation/imagery to kids, also I am not against the idea of meds in teeny doses, especially with such a strong biochemical background. My neice struggled with perfectionism and anxiety for years until around age 12 they put her on some SSRI for a brief period and she has been great for years now.
You are doing great girlfriend!

Allison the Meep said...

Poor sweet Lola. I just want to hug her. That's so heartbreaking to think of a tiny person having such severe anxiety.

Julian started showing signs of stress right before Audrey was born, and began acting up a bit in school. That was always his way of dealing - by just being really naughty. When we moved to NC from L.A. he was so angry and so bad for months and months. It's so hard for kids to deal with big changes, even happy ones.

I know that Lola is a few years older than Julian was when Audrey was born, but it really helped him to get some small gifts in a time when there was lots of attention being given to this small new intruder in our family, who had broken up the perfect threesome we had. I bought him a few small action figure guys, and my mom would send him packages of things in the mail. His favorite thing from that time, even now, is a teddy bear he has named Lishy Lashy, and he must sleep with her every night.

You're a great mom. Sweet Lola will feel loved with whatever you choose to do, and will probably settle into the role of big sister so nicely.

37paddington said...

So much love here. You are doing the most important thing, holding her, cuddling her, loving her, helping her name what she feels, and helping her not be scared of what she feels. What she feels is so appropriate to the situation, the unknown of a new baby sister, and all the rest. She will probably be an artist like her mother, so she perceives everything very intensely, she takes it all the way in, she is just extraordinarily special and wise in that way. It's not easy to feel everything so acutely, but it is still a gift. She will be more than okay, because she has you. You have each other.

S said...

The closest I come to cracking is when she is nodding, listening to me, and then crying tells me she is just so tired of feeling like this.

poor sweet girl.

my training is in psychology, and what i've found is that cognitive-behavioral approaches to treating anxiety work unbelievably well.

good luck. i was a terribly anxious child, and my heart is with your daughter right now.

mosey (kim) said...

I'm a worrier and was also quite anxious as a child. My daughter, although much more happy-go-lucky than I ever was, is showing signs of anxiety occasionally. From your latest post it sounds like you've found a technique that is helping Lola -- so so glad. I'm going to pick up the book you mentioned... thanks...

Sabine said...

This has been our guiding light all through parenting, there is no better source of advice:

Sarcastic Bastard said...

No suggestions. I don't have kids, so I don't presume to know. Sounds to me like you are doing all the right things.



Tricky said...

I wish I knew... For now I only know the pain of watching your child struggle with demons I never really bested. My heart is with you while you try and guide Dakota and teach Lola to feel safe. My only hope is that the "Care Bear Stare!" really works and that loving them can make it better.

Evangeline said...

Oh Maggie. My heart goes out to you and Lola. I get this. This is where my son Elliot and I have been since the beginning of the summer. Things are far better now.
One thing that has really helped us has been "worry time". A time several hours before bed, where you sit down together & talk, write, draw about the child's fears. The theory is that you spend a lot of time getting used to the the bad images and ideas. So used to them that they are drained of their mystique, and even becaome boring and commonplace. And then you even make fun of the fears, push the bad thoughts back a bit, exert your own power over the bad ideas (think the riddikulous spell in Harry Potter, where you associate something comical with your boggart as part of the spell!).

I don't know if that is useful to you and Lola at this point, but I sure hope she feels better soon. We surely know what it is to struggle with anxiety around here. And it sucks.

Evangeline said...

Oh and books...of all the child anxiety books I've read this one is worth its weight in gold:

Freeing Your Child from Anxiety
Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias
by Tamar Ellsas Chansky

Anonymous said...

My daughter Zoe is going through the same thing as your Lola. Tears, stomachaches, calls from school, not wanting to be separated from me. I have found that Yogi calming tea and Calm Drops help Zoe to cope with the morning anxiety. Part placebo effect, part natural medicine, in my opinion. She still has her moments but this really seems to help. We also plan fun stuff for the evenings even if it's just watching Coraline for the 25th time. I also tell her to try to find joy in the day, focus on your friends and what you are learning and the day goes faster. I think having at least one person who cares and understands makes all the difference for anxious kids, sounds like Lola has many.

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