When a child is riddled with anxiety should we push them to face their fears and find their way through day after day? Or should we acknowledge that a change may be in order and allow them to take an easier, more comfortable route....and have faith that in the long term there will be lots of life situations that will provide ample opportunity to work through their discomfort in smaller increments? These sorts of dilemmas have always been my parenting nemesis.
This post is going to be about anxiety....school and social anxiety, to be exact. The roots of "My Girl's" struggles began so many years ago with social anxiety and depression. Fast forward to today and Little One is now battling similar wars within herself. She has given me permission to write about it here. These two sweet girls who look like twins that are 12 years apart, also share this genetic brain chemical glitch.
Little One has struggled with going to school since she was tiny. Actually with leaving the house.....she would walk around as a two year old asking the big kids if they would be home to babysit her while I went out to do errands. She has always loved being at home the most. Then came preschool..."surely she will outgrow this." Kindergarten was fine (she had a teacher that was like a grandpa and had been at the school for years) then first grade...again, "surely she will outgrow this." Second, third, and finally in fourth grade, the sobbing meltdown outside the class, the worrying and obsessing for entire weekends about classroom seating arrangements, tears, begging, refusing....until one day I told her she didn't have to go back. It wasn't working. She wasn't outgrowing it and she was miserable and so was I. So we changed things up a bit. She homeschooled 3 days a week and went to school 2 days a week. A perfect blend of both worlds. The relief we both felt was tremendous. Her teacher was of the opinion that I was indulging her. I was of the opinion that I was meeting her where she was at and ensuring her emotional needs were met for the time being.
We used this schooling option until the 7th grade when she went back to school full time and again, the anxiety hit. We limped along through the year....not ideal, but she made it.
This year, the 8th grade...her best friend has gone on to high school, her favorite teacher got promoted to principal, and her big brother moved several states away. Three significant losses of people that were her touch stones, her security.
Soon after the school year began it all came to a volcanic and emotional head and we decided to stop simply putting out fires and slapping band-aids on the hurt spots and urging her along because "surely she would outgrow this." We began to acknowledge fully and forthrightly what she has battled for so long. It was like we took the cork out of the bottle and it all came spilling out all over the place. It was hard, and scary, and sad, and I was so afraid it wouldn't ever get better. But we looked it in the eye and eventually the bottle's flow slowed and we could catch our breath and begin to formulate a plan to nurture her into functioning at her optimum and true self....which is a magnificent human being I might add.
So what does social anxiety feel like? "Bad. Stressful. Like you can't sit still. Like everyone's watching you. Like everyone's judging you," says Little One. I would add shortness of breath, heart beating fast, lack of focus, limbs feel like they weigh a million pounds and you just want to lay down and sleep.
Fortunately we have a tremendous support system of doctors and school staff who truly care and are doing everything possible to help her through this time. And she has the dad....and me of course. I am here to tell you that really, it can be very advantageous to have at least one recovering co-dependent on your side. I am recovered just enough to know to step back and give her space to figure her own stuff out, but not quite enough to not jump if she stumbles and love her and hug her and clap as she finds her way and tell her how awesome she is, and of course she is able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound!
We have spent a lot of time learning who Little One truly is. How she operates, what works for her and what doesn't and accepting that it is what it is and its ok. Each of us are created individually, with beautiful strokes of color and texture, none the same as the other. Sometimes we have to learn how to work with and how to appreciate the unique traits that make us who we are. Even when they are challenging.
So during this latest episode, it was brought up over and over again that she needed to stay in school. She wanted to stay in school and find a way to make it work, but I did present the idea that if it wasn't working, we could always find something different that really did work for her. I am the guru of alternatives to traditional schooling....charter schools with a certain educational focus, farm schools, Waldorf schools, part time schools, virtual schools.
There is the side that says she needed to push through, overcome her anxiety, dig deep, stick with it until it isn't uncomfortable anymore. Exposure therapy-ish.
Then there is my thinking that if its not working, there are many ways to skin a cat! Lets find something that does work. If I was stuck in a job that I was miserable in, I would move on and find something that suited me better. If my kid is an octagon shape then I refuse to shove her into a square spot. However I am seemingly in the minority...."you must be a part of the whole" is the mantra.
So where is the balance? Personally for Little One, things are settling down and going much better and through avenues I never expected. Bless her brave and courageous heart, she gets up every morning and heads out to do what she needs to do. She doesn't complain, she will discuss what she is feeling, but there is no drama. She is insightful and articulate beyond her years. She co-operates and we work together toward solutions. She is a joy. She is finding her way in her own time and in her own way. For me, that is more than enough.
One resource that was very helpful and helped her to share her needs was this website.... Worry Wise Kids. I printed up this page and had her highlight the things that she thought pertained to her and we shared it with the school staff. She has a volunteer job at school helping the developmentally and physically handicapped children, that they gave her more time to commit to, they took away time limits for assignments and tests, they gave her the freedom to step outside of the classroom if it became too much, to visit a teacher friend's room and either help or sit in the back and read. She has a scheduled check in each week with her two teachers. I LOVE these people for loving my child and making themselves available over and beyond what is expected. It has been a team effort in the truest sense.
I am so grateful that we as a society are learning how to gently meet the needs of kids and acknowledge their reality and teach them coping skills and strategies to be successful within the realm of their abilities.
So that's our story for today....
Bless us all, each and every one of us, whoever we are, whatever our struggles and our strengths.