What is it like to be a parent of a child with severe anxiety?
You should have an unlimited supply of patience. Dealing with an emotionally unstable person is never easy. Some topics, as well as the tone of your voice, can trigger their panic attacks. Their reality is often different from your reality. And TBH, they can sometimes be annoying.
But if you're having a hard time dealing with your anxious child, just think about how hard it is for him/her to deal with his/her own condition. Every person suffering from an anxiety disorder, no matter how old or smart he/she is, tend to be vulnerable. They struggle, trying to shush their paranoia. They find it difficult to control their thoughts and behaviors, and to calm themselves down during attacks characterized by sweaty palms, pounding chest, and tightened muscles. The battle is real.
If you have an anxious kid or teen, keep in mind that there are some remarks they don't want to hear. Though they may seem comforting and harmless, anxiety patients may perceive the other way around and increase their sense of panic.
Here are some of them.
“Did I do something wrong?”
No. It's about me. It's about what's wrong with me.
There are times when you feel like you are responsible for his/her feelings and actions. But according to Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, it's crucial to remember that panic and anxiety disorders stem from something bigger than just one particular or minor event. So it's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. Saying this to your child may evoke feelings of guilt.
Accept that you have no control over other the other person's emotions. You'll just get frustrated if you try. However, it's important to remind your child that overcoming any anxiety or panic disorder is possible. There are ways to become happier and more functional. And never forget to tell your child, how you love him/her.
“You just need to calm down”
Mom, I'm trying. But I just can't.
Telling someone with an anxiety disorder to "calm down" is no different from telling someone who's in the midst of an asthma attack to "stop the wheezing." Though it seems like a caring remark, it's emotionally invalidating. They wish they knew how, but the disorder keeps them from doing so.
Ask your child how you can help and support. Does he/she want to go for a walk? Or eat a sundae? Try to ask these things when him/her is relaxed and not in the midst of a heightened anxiety. If your kid doesn't feel like opening up, communicate through actions. Put your arms around your kid and help him/her breathe.
"Don't sweat the small stuff"
You don't understand. It's a big deal to me.
Remember that it is difficult for the sufferer to stop buying into the anxious thoughts their mind is telling them. With this, you don't determine whether the person is anxious about is a big or small stuff. Whether it's about failing the finals or "just" about stepping inside the bus, their fears and worries might be important to them. No matter how irrational they may sound, their struggles are real.
Try to enter the person's world by listening to his or her concerns in a compassionate manner. Listen to understand, not to prove them wrong.
“There's nothing to be afraid of”
I want to believe you. But I just feel that there is. There will be.
Likewise, this phrase can be useless to someone whose physical and mental state demonstrates a real response to fear. Even when you say, “everything is going to be fine”, they won't believe you. You know why? Anxiety initiates a fear alarm inside your kid's mind and body. In the anxiety response, the prefrontal cortex, or the logical part of the brain, gets put on hold while the more emotional part of the brain takes over.
Soothe the nervous system with a visualization exercise. Ask your child to visualize a tranquil place and let your child tell you what's on his or her mind. Then, ask him to breathe in and out to calm the nerves down.
“I know how you feel”
No, you don't.
It's tempting to utter these words when you just want to extend your support to your kid and make him/her feel that someone understands him/her. But the truth is unless you have a personal experience of struggling with an anxiety disorder, you don't know how it feels. Fear and anxiety are part of life and you might've experienced them in the past, but it's a false comparison to the anxieties of someone with a disorder.
Learn more about the condition. Research. Talk to experts. Instead of saying you clearly know how it feels, tell your child that you may not understand what it must be like to have an anxiety disorder but you support and care for him/her. Remind your child that he/she is stronger than this, and he/she is loved and heard.
In a nutshell, people with anxiety regardless of age, just want a validation that there's someone who cares. That there's someone who won't judge, and who is always ready to listen, help, and support especially during their weakest points. That there's someone who is willing to understand them when they couldn't even understand themselves. Yes, they could get help from their friends but I believe nobody could encourage them better than their parents.
Carmina Natividad is one of the writers for The Relationship Room, a couples psychology institution specializing in relationship counseling and therapies for couples and families. When she's not using her pen in writing self-help articles focused on love, dating, and relationships, she spends her time creating poems and screenplays, painting, and making music.