“Mum?” came a small voice from the back seat.
“Yes, bud?” I replied, glancing the rear view mirror to catch his eye. He looked pensive, and quickly turned his gaze to the cornfields whizzing by to our left.
“Sometimes, I think that when you are worried, breakfast doesn’t taste so good,” he muttered.
“I think you’re right, buddy. Food doesn’t taste good when your mind is on other, heavier, things,” I replied, as I switched on my directional and prepared to turn right.
Inwardly, my stomach did a flip-flop. The Worry Monster was back, and – as usual- his timing was terrible. We were almost at camp, where I had expected to drop off my 7-year-old alone. We now had an unwelcome visitor.
We’ve conquered so many worries in our son’s seven short years on this planet: crickets, thunder, television, automatic toilets and hand-dryers, swimming, tsunamis, war, fear of his sister getting hurt, the dark, concern over the dog getting loose, wolves, mourning doves, fire alarms, boats…
As I pulled into the camp parking lot, I was suddenly worrying, too.
What was this one about, exactly?
How long would it last?
How would he do at camp?
Thankfully, I had signed my son up for the camp week with his former preschool teacher. She has known him since he was three, and she’s helped us to conquer the Worry Monster before. Thinking of this, I relaxed a bit.
His teacher greeted the students at the door and I could see that my son had visibly relaxed a bit, too, if only for the moment. Once he was off and running inside the building, I quietly warned her that the Worry Monster had just reappeared.
“Well, of course!” she smiled, “It’s almost September. It’s that time of year!”
And, do you know what? She’s right. It is almost September, and we always have a worry surge in September.
On the drive home, I thought about this September worry spike. We had been doing so well! We had a great worry-free streak going. Why now? How did the dreaded Worry Monster sneak up on us this time? You would think, by now, after all these years, we’d see him coming.
Was there a subtle shift?
Was it the result of too much summer fun?
Did my son sense that a new season is on the horizon?
Is my son anticipating – or perhaps yearning for- the restoration of a more normal, predictable routine?
Is it something I’m doing? Are we too busy? Am I slacking on worry-prevention? Are bedtimes too late?
Riding the wave of anxiety is exhausting. If you are the parent of a little kid with BIG worries, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I am, by my very nature, a patient person. Yet, when that Worry Monster rears his ugly, sneaky little noggin’ in our home, he disrupts everything. The Worry Monster is invasive, all-consuming, and destructive. When we are in the throes of a swell in anxiety, I find myself so incredibly exhausted, worn to my very core. I used to believe I had infinite wells of patience but the Worry Monster has taught me that my well can run dry… and it can run dry very quickly.
As a school psychologist and mom to a world-class worrier, a worrier who has conquered many fears, I already know the steps. I know what we should be doing when worry hits, and also during those blessed lulls in between the waves. And yet, when you are riding the wave of anxiety, it can be extremely challenging to remember these strategies, to keep your eye on the prize, and to power through.
Tips for Riding the Waves of Anxiety
If you are the parent of a child with BIG worries, here are some useful strategies for riding the waves of anxiety brought on by the much-dreaded Worry Monster.
Make sure you are covering the basics
If you are going into battle with the Worry Monster, you must be prepared! Worry takes up so much mental energy, folks. It is important to ask yourself if your child is…
Eating a variety of nutritious foods
Getting enough exercise
Getting outside daily
And then, once you’ve gone through that basic needs checklist for your child, go through it one more time for yourself. You are going to need heaps of energy and patience in order to kick the Worry Monster to the curb!
Talk about it!
Let’s face it: the Worry Monster is hard to ignore. Your child notices him, you notice him, and when you are out and about in public, other people notice him. You cannot ignore his presence so don’t. Talk about those worries! Do not bottle them up inside- get them out in the open.
Whenever my son’s worry starts to rise, I remind him that
- Everyone experiences anxiety
- Anxiety is protective; it is part of the fight-or-flight response
- Anxiety is temporary
- Anxiety can be managed and significantly reduced
- He’s conquered anxiety many times before and he can do it again
Even though he has heard me say these things before, he never fails to relax a bit when I repeat them. And we both find solace in that last one: we have done this before, and we can do it again.
Try to identify anxiety triggers
It can be helpful to identify worry triggers. Sometimes, triggers are easy to identify. When my son was two, he was extremely anxious at bedtime. When we asked what he was scared of, he quickly told us that he was afraid of crickets. Once we knew the trigger, we were able to send the Worry Monster packing by closing his windows and turning on a sound machine.
Sometimes, it’s more challenging to identify triggers because they aren’t as obvious or easily identifiable. It may take days, months, or even years to identify the trigger for a given anxiety swell. And, sometimes, there is no discernible trigger. This makes things trickier but not impossible.
It took a while this time, but I have identified our most recent trigger:
A few weeks ago, my children were horsing around on our couch. They were playing The Shark Game, a game that they invented together and one that they play often. To play the game, two children sit on the couch and pretend to be sailing a pirate ship while the third child is the shark. The shark jumps up and uses his or her arms to “chomp” at the ship’s passengers. This game never fails to elict tons of belly laughter and fun, but on this particular day the energy level was extremely high. All three children were wilder than usual and, as I went downstairs to switch the laundry over, I called out, “Please take it outside before someone gets hurt!”
But, kids will be kids.
I had no sooner descended the cellar stairs when I heard a loud crash and a scream. This was not your normal pain cry, this was different. I ran up the stairs to find my daughter clutching her wrist. When I asked what had happened (even though I already had an inkling), she replied – tearfully- that she had fallen off the couch.
It was broken. She was a trooper at the hospital and came home with a lovely pink and purple waterproof cast. We left for vacation that day and everyone seemed to be in great spirits. But, in retrospect, I can now see the little hints of the Worry Monster’s return. Hindsight is 20/20.
It took my son a week and a half to tell me that his sister had not fallen off of the couch. One night, a week and a half after the injury, he tearfully confessed that he had caused the fall. When he was playing the role of the shark, he had “chomped” on her leg while she was bouncing mid-air. The shark chomp caused her to fall forward on her arm, rather than landing on her feet on the couch.
A week and a half!
The poor kid!
Naturally, I swooped him in my arms and told him that these things happen.
Kids get hurt.
His sister was fine, fantastic even!
We love him.
But, you see, the seeds of worry had already been planted. He had been keeping his worry to himself for a week and a half and that is a long time in the word of a worrier. The Worry Monster had been let in, and by not talking about it, his power had snowballed.
Talk about coping strategies
Some people worry more than others, but we all worry. Stress is a part of life so it’s best to learn to manage it early. Coping skills are among the most important of life skills!
It can be extremely helpful to talk to your child about coping strategies. Coping strategies are unique to each person. What works for one person may not work for another. I know that when I am stressed out, I benefit from exercise, alone time, nature, reading, writing, and music. Talk about your coping strategies with your child and then help your child to identify his or her own. Great strategies include, but are not limited to
- Guided relaxation
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
And don’t be afraid to try something new! One time, we had great success with a calm down spray at bedtime, and another time my son loved a calming play dough. But, what worked before may not work this time, and it’s always a good idea to add more strategies to your worry toolbox! Currently, my son and I are re-reading Dr. Dan Peters’ books together, trying some tried-and-true strategies, and testing out new strategies for this latest wave.
SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY!
I cannot tell you how important simplifying has been in our family. Whenever our son’s worry spikes, we cut back on everything else and re-focus. We clear our calendars and make sure we are focusing on the most important things: family, quality time, exercise, quiet time, nutritious meals, and sleep.
If your child is struggling with worry, cut back. You’ll be surprised on how much better you all feel with this one simple act.
Do NOT be afraid to seek help
Sometimes, a child’s worries are just too BIG to conquer alone. If your child’s anxiety is significantly impairing his or her functioning, daily living, family functioning, and/or happiness, and/or if you have a family history of anxiety, it is important to seek professional help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and play therapy can be life-changing for many. Call your pediatrician or ask around to find a wonderful mental health care provider. It can take time to get an appointment with a good therapist, so the sooner you seek help, the better.
A Final Word
I’m going to be completely honest with you guys: I almost didn’t write this post.
Because writing about what to do when you are in the throes of anxiety – when your family is in the throes of anxiety – feels a little fraudulent to me. After all, it’s not like our family has permanently conquered the Worry Monster. He’s back again, and I know from experience that this won’t be the last time he shows up.
Here’s the thing… For the majority of people who suffer with anxiety, it is not a one time thing. Anxiety ebbs and flows over time. One must learn to manage anxiety. And, unfortunately, our family has oodles of experience riding the anxiety waves and working to manage our son’s anxiety swells. Sure, we might be riding the wave right now, but I have faith and hope that we will dig into our anxiety tool box and push that Worry Monster out the door. I can’t wait until we reach that lull, folks!