Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Raising a Child with Anxiety

It was about a year ago that I needed answers. I was at the end of my rope, as they say, except my rope was now a frayed and worn out piece of thread. I knew being a mother had it's challenges and struggles, and  starting out, I was more than willing to sacrifice and roll with the punches, however, my difficulties were proving to be too much for me. I realized one day, while in a painful, crying fit of frustration, that I lacked the skills and abilities I needed to raise my eldest child. I needed help, I needed answers, and I needed them now.

Our oldest son  is brilliant, creative, and impeccably righteous and pure. He loves his mom and dad more than anything else, and is very loyal to his family, his beliefs, and his passions in life. I love so many things about him, and cherish his playful nature. Since he was a baby he has always been right by my side, never very far from the security and protection of his mother. He was the baby that nursed constantly, never letting go of the nipple even for a moment while napping. He wanted to be held constantly, even while asleep. If I put him down for even a second, he would scream and fuss so badly, I couldn't help but scoop him in my arms again, soothing him back into happy, dream-land. Needless to say, I had my arms full! Yet, as first-time mother I was more than happy to do this. I will never regret those months spent holding and nursing my firstborn baby.
The months went by and soon he was a toddler. He learned how to do everything so quickly, excelling in all the right milestones, before his time. By the time he was 18 months old he could talk in full sentences, ride a tricycle, put on puppet shows, and chop wood with an ax. The joys and excitement of watching your first child grow is unmatched by anything else. I relish those memories with joy and excitement!

It was about this time, however, that I started to feel terribly worn down. Amid these exciting toddler years, I also started feeling a deep frustration for my lack of space, and for his increasing neediness. I started to wonder if I was doing something wrong; if I had held him too much, scooped him up too quickly, or nursed him longer than I should have. I didn't want to regret those precious moments that I cherished so much, so I cast those thoughts aside and focused on the here and now.
 As our son grew, so did his caution and anxiety for the world around him. I noticed that while other kids wanted to play and socialize, he wanted to curl up in my lap and cling to me.  I took him along with me to playgroups, LLL meetings, and library story times, only to have him cry and resist going through the door. It was becoming a struggle to get him to go anywhere, and most days I just gave up. I didn't have the energy to constantly try to convince him that it was okay to go play at a friends house, or that nobody would harm him if he came Visiting Teaching with his Mama.  At home he was happy as a clam , but once we crossed the threshold of our doorway, the world became a big and scary place for him. This was about the most frustrating, most stressful thing that could happen to me, being his sociable, out-going, love-for-people and parties, Mama.

 I started reading parenting books that I'd heard about at LLL meetings. One book I read that resonated deeply with our situation was "Raising Your Spirited Child" by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. She talks about the child that is "More intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent and energetic." She talks about how to take the personality traits that are most frustrating to you and then putting a positive spin on them; to turn them into strengths for your child. For instance, our son is extremely sensitive to smells, sights, sounds and touch. If there's a string hanging inside his shirt, he knows it and it bothers him terribly. If I'm cooking something and he doesn't like the smell, he'll feel miserable until I finish and put it all away. If he sees a bug that frightens him, he'll have nightmares for weeks. His sensitivity to the world around him can be really hard on all of us, as we often have to stop and take care of many tedious issues that he finds for himself. However, in Mary's book she convinces the parent that having a highly sensitive child can also mean a highly smart, alert and perceptive child. When you are constantly aware of the world around you, you take more in, absorb information like a sponge, and your brain grows rapidly! Our Zadok is smart as a whip! I was grateful for this book and all it taught me in the toddler years.

As our son began to grow older, however, the toddler clinginess and neediness just wasn't very tolerable for me, anymore. Now I had a 3,4, and then 5 year old clinging to my leg, anxious  about the world around him. I really tried hard not to compare him to other kids, yet I couldn't help but feel frustrated that he wasn't as independent. There were so many normal activities I assumed we'd be doing, that we had to completely opt out of. Going to other people's houses was the hardest. I couldn't often convince him to go anywhere. I'd tell him in a cheerful voice,"Hey, today so-and-so invited us over for lunch and playing!" And the response was always a screaming, crying,"Nooo!! I'm not going anywhere!" And it was true, I couldn't get him to go many places, or to even get out of the car when we got there. This cancelled out many play-dates, and Visiting Teaching days, as it was just too hard to get him out the door. I was starting to compile a list of things that he absolutely couldn't do without completely melting down and feeling terrorized: Getting his haircut, trying on clothes at a store, attending weddings or parties, going to people's houses he didn't know well,  attending primary classes by himself, getting his picture taken, joining a sports team, swim class, or any sort of class, going #2  in a public toilet, eating a new food, and going to a friends house without me.
The list goes on and on, and continues to grow. Some of these things he's learned to tolerate, but more things have been added on.
Kindergarten was completely out of the question. Although we had already decided that we liked the idea of homeschooling, it became clear that he wouldn't go to school even if we signed him up! Being away from his parents was (and for a large part still is) the single most terrifying thought for him. It took very special friends to come into our lives for him to feel comfortable enough to be away from us. The first time he stayed with a babysitter, other than a visiting grandparent, he was 3 years old. Yes, I was in need of some serious head-space and alone time with my husband. Thank goodness for friends.

For many years I labeled our son as shy or introverted, which he sort-of is at times. For many years I compared him to his dad, who hasn't always been very outgoing or social by nature (however teaching public school and being in the Bishopric can change a man). My frustration and stress with our son's shyness, was often combated by compassion for our differing personality styles. I knew that I couldn't expect my child to be exactly like me, and I knew there would be no amount of begging, pleading, or convincing, that could change him. There were moments where I would be pulling my hair out in anger, begging him to do something, trying to convince him that it's okay, when my efforts were so very futile. For example, one time we had to go back to our church for a baptism, on the same day that we had already attended Sunday services. I asked Zadok if he could please go get dressed in his Sunday best for the baptism. "No, I'm not going!," was his answer. "But we're all going. You even told me you really wanted to go," I responded. "What changed?"  "
"I just don't want to go and I'm NOT going!!"was his response back, which then turned into a huge crying, screaming, anger-fit, none of it foreseen by me. Finally, after the storm calmed down, I come to understand that he didn't want to go because he didn't like the idea of putting his Sunday clothes on twice in one day. He didn't just not like the idea, he was terrified of it. It worried him to think he had to do something that he already did, that he wasn't even expecting.
In this situation, like many others, I was so angry with him, and felt at a loss for what to think. This is when I really realized the fine-line I was walking, distinguishing between defiance and fear. On one hand I felt he was being very disobedient by not getting dressed when I repeatedly asked him to, on the other hand he was so terrified, that he physically couldn't do it. So, where do I draw the line?
How do I know when to take him in my arms and calm his fears, or when to be stern and unmovable in my discipline?

Like I said, It was about a year ago that I needed answers. Even though I know my son so well, even knowing all the little things that set him off, and all the little things we had to avoid and do differently in life, and knowing all the things I had to accept for myself, I still needed help. I was exhausted, stressed out, and searching for someone to validate my concerns. My husband was very focused on starting his new teaching job, and I was home with the kids for the most time, so It was me that felt the brunt of the stress of our kids. We were living in a new place, starting out a new life, and still, I felt stagnant and stuck. I didn't want to stay home anymore. I didn't want to cancel play-dates and parties because our son was too upset to go. I needed answers to his crying fits, his anger spells, and why he was so resistant to leaving our home. It used to be fear of going to another persons house, now it was fear of leaving our own house. I couldn't handle his yelling and complaining any longer! I couldn't handle giving in and watching him play computer games all day. I needed an angel to help me.

My angel came in the form of Patricia Dana, licensed play therapist and mental health professional. When my friend told me about her and how much she had helped her child who suffered from PTSD, I was still so scared to go meet her. I resisted the idea for several weeks until the whispering of the Spirit turned into full-blown yelling at me to make the darn appointment! I never wanted to label or diagnose my son with an illness. I never wanted to turn him over to the medical world, or have someone psycho-analyze him. I wanted to be the strong, able-minded mother, who could handle anything, even the challenges of her toughest children. But I couldn't do it alone anymore, and I knew I needed to go and find out for myself.

Pat, as we call her, is warm, caring, loving, nurturing, and calm. She reminds me of a Goddes-grandmother who has love and compassion for all the children in the world. She took to Zadok immediately, and he warmed right up to her, too. Her office is full of toys, crafts, and games. Her number one rule is to play with whatever you like, and have lots of fun doing it.
The first day when I went in alone to meet her, I knew she was exactly what we needed. She listened warmly as I spilled out all my frustrations on her lego-covered desk-top. She was empathetic and caring, yet professional. She knew what I was going through. She had seen it all before. And after just a few sessions with Zadok she confirmed what we needed to know: He is a special soul with special needs. His needs are different and more challenging than other children his age. He carries with him a (possibly genetic) tendency  for Social Anxiety Disorder. 

Awww, answers, wonderful answers. I felt a bittersweet feeling of relief for what she was telling me. Finally, a diagnoses for what we were experiencing, and new opportunities to validate our immediate concerns. No, I didn't nurse him too long or abuse my baby sling, and no he isn't just shy, or have an introverted personality. From what I've learned, children with anxiety disorders match  Zadok's struggles  almost to a tee. Yes, this is what I needed to hear, however much it hurt to know that my son has to face these challenges in his life, as least we know what to do now to continue to help him. We can move forward, with the help of our new information, and our angel.

What helps the most:

  • Schedules help him the most. Waking up in the morning and knowing exactly what is happening for the duration of the day, keeps him from having panic attacks if anything changes. He knows what to expect because it's all written on the calendar. We've just started doing this more consistently, and it's a huge step forward. 
  • If any changes happen during primary classes at church, we ask that the Presidency calls us ahead of time to let us know, so we can prep him ahead of time.
  • Setting expectations for certain situations, and then setting specific rules and consequences if the expectations are not met.
  • Schedule more one-on-one time with each of his parents. Alone time is very important to him, helping him feel less chaotic and more secure.
  • Don't expect things to change overnight. Be patient and appreciate the baby steps.
  • Let go of things like swim lessons, primary programs, karate classes, or soccer teams. He isn't ready or willing to consider them, so just let the ideas go.
  • Get a handle on my own anxiety, so I can set a positive example for appropriate responses and behaviors. (which I've been working hard at, thank you!) 
  • Continue to love him, and try to understand him as a person. Focus on his good traits.
  • Feel compassion for this burden that's been placed in his life.
  • Help him to make sense of his world by helping him understand what he feels and experiences.
  • Be consistent in discipline, consistent in rules, and consistent in consequences.
  • Stay calm when all hell breaks loose.
  • Pray, pray, pray.
I knew that becoming a mother changes a person, but this is not how I expected it to change me. I have stretched myself so far, in directions I didn't know I could even stretch. In so many ways I have had to  change who I am, in an effort to be who I need to be for my child. I've had to force myself to think differently, to act differently, and to make different decisions, much like I did when I got married. It's isn't easy to change yourself, but God lessens my burdens when He shows me how I've blessed my family and myself, through my choices. Miracles have truly happened for our family this past year, as we've continuously prayed for our children, that we can be lead to find answers, and that we can find the strength to follow through with what we need to do.

I hesitated to write this post because it is so deeply real and personal, and it is about my son. One day he won't be six years old anymore, and he'll have access to the internet to read this. I hope he knows how much I love him, and that It is because of him that I am a better person today. God gave us this son because he knew I needed to change my heart, and come even closer to who He needs me to be. My son has been the greatest challenge, but the greatest blessing. Thank you Heavenly Father for my sweet Zadok. I wouldn't trade him for all the "normal" kids in the world.

Yes, he's trying to lick me! Don't worry, I got him back! ha ha!


arianne said...

Zadok was sent to the perfect mother for him. I've seen all his good qualities and also how much energy he can require. You've stayed loyal to him and I'm glad you wrote about it. I think writing about things helps process them and make them more manageable. Know that I care.

Sally Jackson said...

Thank you so much Arianne.

Wendy said...

Thank you so much for this post! I needed to hear so much of this today. Makes me realize the challenges my kids face are theirs and that I am here to help them. I can get frustrated with them for little things that they can't help. Thank you for helping me see another side of them and teaching me about compassion, sacrifice and listening to the spirit for guidance.

Sally Jackson said...

Your welcome, and thank you! I was surprised to hear that my post was helpful to YOU when I felt like it was a form of venting for me. I'm so glad it was. I appreciate your comments. I love every one.

Zen Mama said...

Thank you for being so honest about your experience. It gave me a lot to think about and I believe I have to re-evaluate some of the things I've been doing with my children. Thank you.

Sally Jackson said...

Thanks for your comment Zen Mama! I've been wanting to write this post for a long time. It needed to come out of me. Now that it's out, It feels easier to handle for some reason. I'm glad I'm not the only one constantly re-evauating my parenting! xoxox

Sally Jackson said...
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