Monday, June 30, 2014

Escorting Children Through Anxiety (And Surviving Yourself)

Whether it's anxiety brought on by circumstances--a medical diagnosis or procedure, or a significant life change like the death of a loved one or a divorce--or the brain's unreasonable, disordered response to normal life, most children will experience anxiety at some point in childhood. They need a parent to be right there, escorting them through it because anxiety is not just fear. Rather, it's a bodily response to fear that blocks out common sense. Thunder can't hurt you--that's common sense, but it's lost on your anxious child and repeating it over and over only makes your child feel abandoned, rather than comforted.

If it's merely a childhood fear (sometimes the case before age 7), then maybe explaining the science of thunder is in order, but if your child is inconsolable, then you know you're dealing with anxiety, not fear.

This whole process can make us feel helpless as parents, so it helps to clarify our role. We're not there to convince her she's being ridiculous. We're there to hold her hand and love her unconditionally.

My job is to accompany my child along this path that God has chosen, while pointing her toward Him. I am not the crutch, but the escort to the throne of Grace.

What every suffering parent needs to know:

1.  This is not your fault. This disorder is a result of the sin curse, and something that right now, God is choosing to allow in your lives.

2. You and your child will grow closer than ever as you walk through this together. You will both feel intense stress and doubt and pain, but you will experience them together and the shared experience will bond you uniquely. Your relationship will be both deeper and sweeter, and for that you will be thankful.

3. You will recite the 23rd Psalm over and over, and every Psalm about fear will speak volumes to you. Anxiety is a spiritual battle as well as a physical one so fight it with the Word.

4. You cannot fear and pray at the same time. So pray and then pray some more. Together. Keep your role of escort always in mind. You must teach your child to take all her burdens to the Throne of Grace, and never has she been more desperate to do so than now. Take advantage of this training opportunity and escort her to the Throne daily. Both of you close your eyes, and slowly talk her through that walk to the Cross, where you take off all the burdens you've been carrying, and drop them at the foot of the Cross, where all the healing begins.

5. Anxiety is part of your (and your child's ) story and you are not writing it. God is. So trust Him for a glorious outcome because he only writes glorious outcomes. Repeat that over and over, with your child. Use a more child-friendly sentence, if necessary.

I trust you, Lord, because all your outcomes are glorious. 
I trust you, Lord, because all your outcomes are glorious. 
I trust you, Lord, because all your outcomes are glorious.

6. Whatever your child is anxious about right now, don't project it into the future and expect disaster. Take the circumstances one day at a time. This too shall pass is definitely true for the specific fears, if not for the anxiety disorder itself.

I have escorted a child through elevator anxiety and separation anxiety, both of which are gone now, but were intense at one time. The disorder hasn't gone away, but the different manifestations have. So don't assume if there is driving anxiety right now, that your child will never learn to drive, or if it is thunder anxiety, that your child will never leave the house on a cloudy day.

7. If your child's quality of life has slipped considerably, consider medication for anxiety, even if only for a season. Realize that in the lowest doses available, your child probably won't deal with side effects. Most doctors will start with the lowest dose available, rather than go by the weight of child, but if not, demand the lowest dose to start.

Studies show that when difficulties such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder are not diagnosed and treated, children and teens are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs and get into unhealthy behavior patterns, which persist into adulthood. Find out what is going on with your child by taking him or her to the doctor as soon as a problem arises, and especially if it is still present 6 months after onset. Most conditions have to be present for 6 months to meet diagnostic criteria.

Disregard the unhelpful, judgmental opinions you might receive regarding medications for children (from extended family or friends). No one can truly know what your child and family are dealing with, or what you have already tried as remedies. Sometimes medication allows a child the courage needed to start over and halt all the negative thinking and self-talk. Medication gives them a fighting chance to beat the disorder. They still have to come up with coping skills, but they need a calmer brain to start that process.

8. If anxiety runs in the family, realize that this may be one time you need medication yourself, especially if exercise and proper sleep have not worked to improve your own anxiety. Don't feel guilty or ashamed, because watching a child go downhill emotionally and physically is extremely painful and terrifying. It affects both their sleep and your sleep, exhausting both of you physically as well as emotionally. You must also keep up with caring for the rest of the family, along with the house and meals. Your children will take cues from you, and if you are completely angst-ridden, you will only increase their anxiety, and that, in turn, will make things worse for you. So put your own oxygen mask on, so to speak. If you have definite bodily signs of excessive stress and anxiety, see your doctor.

9. You and the affected child should share a gratitude journal. Write in it at the same time every day, perhaps right at tuck-in time, to make the bedtime transition easier. Your minds need to dwell on God's power and faithfulness...on what is right and beautiful in your lives. And don't forget to give thanks for your relationship!

10. Educate yourself about anxiety disorders, especially those in children, including age of onset. Find books appropriate for your child to help him understand what is happening to his body and mind. He needs to know he is not going crazy, and that this is not his fault. Balance the reading of Scripture with the reading of technical books, so that your child understands that God has ultimate power over everything, including the brain. Siblings can benefit from hearing the information, too.

11. Let your church know that your child and family need prayer. Don't keep this hidden. Nothing good can come from shame or a false smile. Again, watching a formerly happy, healthy child go downhill is extremely painful. You really do need prayer, my friend, as does your child. So put out the word.

12. If anxiety is causing weight loss, arrange to always have your child's favorite foods on hand, so that on good days you can sneak in some extra calories (being careful not to let your child use food as a form of manipulation).

What has worked for your family in dealing with anxiety? How has God weaved anxiety into your story?

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