Anxiety comes in many different forms. For some, it's nervous twitching or chewing fingernails. For others, it's worrying to the point of physically manifested ailments, like stomachaches or migraines. I've endured all of the above, and I've noticed my children enduring much of the same. Now, I'm not a perfect parent, by any means, but I pride myself on my fierce love for my kids, and when they're anxious that means taking a step back, assessing the situation, and remembering what I need when I'm feeling anxious. Because the one thing you can do for your anxious kid that will change the rest of their life isn't obvious, unless you've battled similar anxieties.
When I was in elementary school, I became increasingly more anxious with each passing day. My environment at home wasn't stable, and I didn't know how to control or manage what triggered my anxiety, or how I reacted to it. So I would pull at my skin and cry when I watched the news every night. I suffered from debilitating migraines and nausea that would last days. I was afraid of everything and anything, and struggled to establish a set of coping mechanisms that wouldn't completely interfere and derail my life. I was at the mercy of anxiety from an early age, and sort of accepted the fact that my life could never feel or be better. That is, until my grandmother stepped in.
My grandmother — frail-looking on the outside, but strong as hell on the inside — became my source of comfort the moment she sensed my anxiety building. Medication and talk therapy aside, there was one thing she did that still helps me manage my anxiety, to this day. It's not that she reminded me to breathe, or acknowledged my worries as something normal, though those things helped me feel less alone. No, what truly changed my life was the moment she showed me how to translate those feelings into something that could help others. I could, in fact, turn those anxious feelings into positive action.
What truly changed my life was the moment she showed me how to translate those feelings into something that may help others.
Now that I have children, I'm regularly faced with the challenges of managing my anxiety, while also helping my kids confront, and cope, with their own. My son is pretty easy-going, follows the rules, and is generally introverted. He won't open up to you until he believes he knows you, and all of the aforementioned has kept him from being an anxious child. My daughter, however, worries about the steps she'll need to take to get to her brother after school. She'll stay awake at night obsessing over the next day's route, panicked at the thought of going the wrong way or not getting there in time or, somehow, leaving her little brother alone.
When this happens, I try to think about what my grandmother would've done. So I sit my daughter down, ask her to walk me through her fears, and together we write down the order of events she need to take so her fears don't become a reality. That seems to consistently alleviate one part of the anxiety. Then I plot a course for her to get out of her own head, by thinking about someone else's. For example, when I ask her who she can befriend and help (say, whose books can she carry) on her way to her brother's class after school, her attention redirects to helping someone else.
Sometimes our children need to feel like they're contributing something to make the world better.
You see, I used to worry about a lot of things that were beyond my control. Wars, horrible crimes, poverty, starvation — things a child shouldn't have to think about. My grandmother would prompt me to write letters that she'd send to those affected by the things I worried about (I don't know if she ever really did), and when I was old enough, she encouraged me to volunteer my time at places like the local animal shelter or soup kitchen. Maybe turning anxiety into action isn't the only answer, and there are plenty of things you can do for your anxious kid that are therapeutic and healing in different ways. But sometimes our children need to feel like they're contributing something that makes the world better.
Now, when my daughter worries all night about not making friends at her new school, I ask what we can do to keep those fears from becoming a reality. It might mean allowing her the freedom to invite another anxious kid over to our home so they can bond, or it could mean having her make an action list of things we can do together for someone else, so she can turn that stress into empathy.
If we can utilize our insecurities and fears in a way that benefits someone else, we're putting our anxiety to work.
Of all the things I've been taught through a whole life managing anxiety, doing for others is the one that's worked every time. If we can utilize our insecurities and fears in a way that benefits someone else, we're putting our anxiety to work. Doing this for my kids, just as my grandmother did for me, may not erase their anxiety, but through their actions of service I know they're taking back control.
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