It was just a few weeks after pulling my two children from public school when my son stopped what he was doing, looked right at me, and said: “Mom. You know what the best thing about homeschooling is? I don’t feel sick in my stomach every day now.” So matter-of-fact, so calm, he was just making an observation. He went back to what he was doing as if nothing had just happened. As if he hadn’t just rocked my world. As someone who has spent her whole life coping with anxiety disorder – I had NO idea that I had an anxious child myself.
Until the day he himself made the realization that life now, just weeks into our journey as new homeschoolers, already felt safer and less scary than the days when he was going to public school. And now that we had brought it to the surface, and could confront it head on, we began the journey of figuring out how to nurture our anxious child.
Recognizing the Anxious Child
Life for my oldest child was always…interesting. He was an intense infant, an even more intense toddler, and a very serious preschooler. We struggled with language issues – mainly speech delays and processing issues. As we worked on those particular concerns, I had a nagging feeling that there was something…more…going on with him. After screening for Autism Spectrum Disorder and getting a no-diagnosis result, things felt overwhelming. Having a child that was clearly struggling, and yet there seemed to be no clear reasons why? Well, that kind of helplessness can be heartbreaking to a mama.
None of our doctors or speech therapists ever mentioned the possibility that my son was dealing with anxiety disorder. I was always told that it was behavioural, and that changing my parenting tactics (we’d always leaned towards the ‘gentle parenting/gentle discipline’ model) was all that was necessary. That never sat quite right with me, but I truly would do anything to help my son. We worked hard, we made a little progress, but always there was something lying just under the surface that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
As time went on, and my son entered Kindergarten, he seemed to balance out a little. I thought things were getting noticeably better when his teachers all gave him glowing reports and always had such kind words to say about him as a student. Even as our parent-child relationship was tense and difficult, he was apparently excelling in school and the apple of all of his teachers’ eyes. I thought we were past the hump.
Until that day, a few weeks after we had decided to try this homeschooling thing, when he came to me and said he had felt SICK almost every day that he had to go to school. I was floored! When I asked him why he hadn’t said anything before – his reply brought tears to my eyes: “I just thought that’s how it felt to go to school. I thought everyone felt like that. So I just did my work and didn’t say anything.”
I couldn’t believe that I had totally missed the signs. I have lived with anxiety for as long as I could remember – and it never occurred to me that my son could have been experiencing it himself. That day, when he told me about that knot in his stomach that never seemed to go away, it was like all the years leading up to it all zoomed through my mind and it all made sense. I knew what we were dealing with now.
Dealing With The Overwhelm – Yours AND Theirs
One thing is for sure, parenting an anxious child can be an overwhelming and frustrating experience. Anyone who lives with anxiety will have different triggers, different symptoms, and different coping mechanisms. Learning to spot those, recognize them, and then work through them – it’s a long-game, and there are no quick or easy solutions.
For me, I had a child who had severe separation anxiety. That was his main trigger. [We would later come to find that writing would become a massive trigger for my son, and I wrote about that here] Being alone, or away from me, particularly after we pulled the kids from school – would send him into some of the most intense panic attacks I had ever witnessed. There were definitely times I did not react well. It was exhausting and it was tiring and it felt like he would be stuck to my hip for the rest of forever. And I didn’t handle that well some days.
But harder to deal with than MY overwhelm? Was helping my son deal with how overwhelmed HE felt. He knew, especially as he got older, that his friends didn’t react like this when their parents left them at a class or dropped them off at a play date. He knew how he ‘should’ feel or how he ‘should’ act, but he just couldn’t. And knowing myself how suffocating anxiety can feel, I knew that on the inside he was feeling far more frustrated than I was.
So how did we deal with that?
- Self-care for Mom – this was imperative. I needed to refill my OWN tank so that I could help fill his. When I was feeling my most impatient and incapable of dealing, was also when I had been neglecting my OWN mental/emotional health. Taking care of yourself is one of the BEST things you can give your child, especially a child who will need so much of you the way an anxious child can.
- Professional help – This probably just goes without saying. If you suspect that your child might be struggling with anxiety or showing symptoms of anxiety disorder, make sure you get them in to see their health care provider or therapist. My son was able to attend a support group for children in his age range who all dealt with some form of anxiety. And he still says that going to that group was the best thing he could have done – the best part, he says? Is seeing that he’s not alone and he’s not ‘weird’, that lots of really awesome kids all deal with the same things he deals with.
- Believe them – this may be a strange bit of advice, but one of the most powerful things you can do for your anxious child is to BELIEVE THEM. When they say something is too much, believe them. When they say they are physically exhausted, believe them. When they say they need to take a break? Believe them. This can be incredibly difficult – especially as homeschool moms with plans and schedules and goals we want our kids to accomplish. But one of the best ways for your child to learn to be self-aware and to learn to self-manage is to believe them when they tell you what they are experiencing.
- Meet your child where they are – this goes hand in hand with my ‘believe them’ advice. Like I said, this anxiety thing is a long-game, you won’t find quick fixes or overnight solutions. So trying to force your child to be at some arbitrary place in their education or in their anxiety management? Is just going to frustrate everyone, and very likely will set your child back quite a few paces in his anxiety management. Take some time observing your child, find out where they are right at this moment and meet them there. Stand beside your child and move forward in partnership – instead of trying to drag them through to where you are.
I am not a professional, I am not a mental healthcare provider. But what I am is a mom who has spent 11 years working and struggling and fighting to understand what my son needs. I don’t have any magic solutions, but what I do have is empathy, grace, and understanding for you – the overwhelmed homeschool mama. These are just a few of the ways that I’ve learned to help when I’m feeling overdone, touched out, and frustrated.
Recognizing the Positives Of Your Anxious Child
One of the things that I feel very passionately about, both as a person living with anxiety AND as a mother to someone living with anxiety – is that it’s not all bad. I KNOW it can be overwhelming and I know it can be trying. But if you really look, you and your anxious child may actually find that their anxiety brings some positives with it.
For me, personally, my anxiety makes me really skilled at thinking about many possible outcomes of a situation VERY quickly. My tendency to overthink means that I very rarely do something that I haven’t carefully weighed all sides of. Learning to manage my anxiety has meant that I have had to be very self-aware and able to really identify my emotions and my triggers. It makes me empathetic towards people who are nervous. It has made me a strong partner to MY anxious child as he walks his own journey to better mental and emotional health.
So take the time to spot the good things that come with your child’s anxiety – and share that with them. Let them know that this doesn’t always have to feel so heavy all the time. Let them know that this is a part of who they are, and it is part of what makes them amazing. They may not ever ‘cure’ their anxiety – but they can embrace who they are, be proud of who they are, and they can learn to live their life authentically and fully.
So – I see you, overwhelmed exhausted homeschool mama. I know that your days can feel weighed down with so much worry and fear for your anxious child. And I am here to walk beside you. You’ve got this, I know it.