Anxiety is nothing new for me—I’ve suffered from it most of my life. I’ve made myself sick with anxiety, dealt with panic attacks and kept myself awake at night.
But until recently, my five-year-old daughter, Anna, rarely worried about anything. Even when we moved, she adapted well. As a toddler, she was fine with attending new daycares and adjusting to new staff. She barely said “bye” to me before she bounded into her junior kindergarten class for the first time last September.
This summer, that all changed.
Anna’s anxiety symptoms didn’t seem like a big deal at first. At the beginning of summer, we registered her for soccer and she told me she was nervous about going. Turns out, she loved it and was sad when it ended. Next, she was nervous about a one-week day camp. Again, she wound up loving it and asked to go back.
But by the end of summer, she did another single week at a different day camp. She was crying every afternoon when I came to pick her up. She kept saying she missed me, which—albeit adorable and heartbreaking—seemed unlikely. I figured she was overtired, overstimulated and possibly overheated. She still made a few friends and enjoyed a couple of field trips, but her crying bouts stood out to me because they were the first time where she didn’t instantly love a new place or activity.
And it didn’t stop there. She was anxious about spending the night at my co-parent’s parents’ house. She was exceptionally anxious about going back to school this year, despite loving it last year and not wanting to break for summer. That evolved into meltdowns over the new 15-minute supervised outdoor playtime where she comfortably spends her days with teachers and friends before the morning bell. She freaked out about gym because of a particular activity they wanted to schedule. She was hysterical when I hadn’t checked in on her sooner the other night while she was falling asleep. She recently woke up reporting nightmares. On the occasional time when I am out at night and call to check in, she cries that she wants me to come home.
Rather than consulting books, websites and experts, I decided on a whim that I’d teach Anna how to name her anxiety. I asked her if she knew what the word “anxious” meant and essentially explained it as “when you get so worried that you start to feel scared.” Since we’ve started talking about it by name, she’s been able to tell me more calmly when she’s feeling it. We’ve also been able to discuss the difference between not wanting to go somewhere or do something and feeling nervous about it but wanting to feel less nervous and still give it a try. I’ve also implemented a policy of having her try it a number of times and, if it’s still a problem, figuring out solutions (for soccer, it was three games; for school, it was two weeks). As well, we look at past examples of activities that have gone well and I ask her to recall why she liked them. I myself wouldn’t be happy if I was pressured into playing sports or doing something I really didn’t want to do, but the truth is, Anna often winds up doing well and feeling good in those situations.
Anna has always been sensitive, but why the sudden cause for this shift? Generally, she’s been consistently adaptable, so while I guess there’s no need to feel anxious about my kid’s anxiety, it’s pretty hard not to sometimes.
How do you handle sudden anxiety symptoms in your kids?