Springfield High School
25th April 2019
I am grateful to have this opportunity to share my story with Anxiety and facilitate this discussion on a topic that I believe touches all families.
I am a Coach by profession, initially focused on Executive and Life Coaching, but increasingly working with parents. I personally identify most strongly with my role as a parent.
Coaching is essentially a way of working through life scenarios and building the insight and skill that will help you improve an outcome to any given situation. It provides you with an objective sounding board or thinking partner and focuses on where you are at “now” and where you want to go. It is usually a finite process and very much solution-focused, so it is not therapy or counselling, but works alongside both of these critical roles.
As I said, my most important qualification for standing here is that I am a parent. I am a parent who has always been curious about and studied Human Behaviour, but also a parent whose children could both be considered ‘atypical’ (although I am not sure that there has ever been such thing as a ‘typical’ person).
I have also been very privileged to have step-children and surrogate children who ‘belong’ to other parents, but lived with us for varying periods of time during their adolescence. On the whole, they would have been considered ‘neuro-typical’ teenagers, basically alternating between unplayable, unmanageable adolescents, and blossoming, colourful young adults.
My two biological children have both, over the last 10 years, been diagnosed with mental disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression- and Anxiety-related Disorders (including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Adjustment Disorder and Social Anxiety), as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). It sounds like a lot of stuff. It is.
While I initially struggled with them being labeled, I have come to realise that a label can in fact be very useful in encouraging us to focus our attention on addressing the causes and symptoms of the diagnosis. We label the condition, not the person.
Anxiety in Play
Anxiety has played a role in all of ‘my’ children’s lives. At its best, it is a healthy response to change or pressure and is vital for survival, especially if we find ourselves in what feels like a threatening situation. Most of us experience some of the symptoms - fear, worry, nervousness, a knot in the stomach, nausea, etc - which is normal and most definitely considered healthy and constructive, as it generally initiates positive action.
It shifts into being a medical issue when the response to the perceived threat becomes excessive, and instead of being helpful, it becomes debilitating and the anxious person cannot function. I have been told that when a person starts becoming anxious about being anxious, the anxiety has shifted into being a result of a disorder.
Identifying when the anxiety is uncomfortable, but still healthy, can be extremely challenging. Often, it can be healthy, as it forces us to prepare for a test, race, or presentation, but when it becomes disabling and prevents us from performing at all (let alone our best), it becomes unhealthy.
In my family’s case, coming to terms with the reality of the challenges facing my children, and therefore me too, did not happen overnight. I think I went through the whole grief cycle numerous times: denial, anger, bargaining, depression (my own this time) and finally, acceptance. Seeing my children struggling is so hard.
The Value of Acceptance
I will share some of the biggest lessons I have learnt - mostly from my children - over the past few years.
It is essential to treat the struggling as valid, no matter how hard it may be to do so. I admit that thoughts of ‘’he is faking it” or “she is just looking for attention”, amongst others, came into my mind numerous times. However, in reality, who would fake something so stressful? It would be so much easier to write the test or say the oral, no matter how uncomfortable, than to put on a ‘performance’ that is going to make people withdraw from you or make nasty comments? Who would really choose that? Equally, writing it off as “just looking for attention” is not helpful. If they are looking for attention, they clearly need it. Severe anxiety in the form of a panic attack, or possibly being unable to make themselves eat, is often the body’s way of expressing what a person does not have the words for, so I have learnt to pay attention. What appears to be the child ‘being manipulative’ is very often a desperate need to have their ‘safety’ reinforced. Pay attention, there is a very high probability that they are not being naughty and if you think they are, still pay attention, preferably with compassion, but ultimately, be sure to pay attention. As much as I tell my children that this time will pass, I have to tell myself the same. It does, but in the mean time, and as hard as it can be, it helps to be open to hearing what they are (or are not) struggling to tell you.
The thing is, that in many ways, we are flying blind. What worked for previous generations - “go to your room and don’t come out until you can be nice” or “pull yourself together, there people who have it much worse than you” or “a child of your age doesn’t have nerves” - may have been seen to work then, but has not worked for me with my children. I have tried it. Life is too different.
Most of us didn’t grow up with the stimuli our kids are growing up with, and no amount of lamenting about how much time we shouldn’t be allowing them on screens, for example, is significantly influencing how much time they spend on them. I for one, always lie about how much time I have allowed them to be on screens, because I fear your judgement. Yes, I am fearful of how much they are exposed to, but the truth is, while screens overstimulate my daughter, they are the best tools I have to calm my son. I have found it important to acknowledge that screens are part of the reality of the world in which they are being raised, and to ensure that we have open conversations about what they are seeing.
We also all talk incessantly about the amount of pressure our children are under, and often blame each other. As parents, we often blame the schools, but the schools do not determine the curriculum. Sometimes, we deliberately or inadvertently add to the pressure, too, and are often blamed for the anxieties that children have. In my observation, it really doesn’t matter who or what is to blame. I think that what matters is that we find ways to reduce the pressure and anxiety for ourselves too, which will help us to reduce it for our kids. We need to be conscious of the role we play, of the things we may do with the best of intent, but without being conscious of how they are being received. We are also under huge pressure, and in my experience, if I am tense, the whole situation is exacerbated. The pressure is there, we have to find ways to reduce it for all of us.
Recognising my own anxiety has been the most helpful breakthrough. I get most frustrated, angry or desperate when my strength is low, and that exacerbates any crisis. I have, at times, acted out based on this anger or frustration, but it has never improved the situation, as much as I have tried to justify it. I am, however, human, and try not to lash myself too much, as doing so is equally as unhelpful, as it makes me defensive and perpetuates the cycle.
There are things that I have learnt to avoid saying, especially when my child is extremely anxious or having a panic attack:
“calm down” - rather ask “where are you feeling it?”, “what does the feeling feel like?” or, my daughter’s favourite, “what colour is the feeling?”
“just breathe” - rather be specific: “match my breathing: in for 4, hold for 4, and out for 6” It’s worth trying, especially before the anxiety has reached a climax, but often if my child is having a full blown panic attack I just have to sit through it with them.
“stop panicking” - rather, “I believe you will get through this”, “you have gone through this before and come out the other side”, “even if you don’t believe it now, try to remember that, based on evidence, it does get better”.
I have also found that what works one day, does not work the next. Holding my daughter tightly, for example, would either be very soothing for her or set her off completely.
What I have learnt as a result of times when I wasn’t able to cope, is to work out a back- up plan with the child (ie. someone else to call) when the going gets tough and their safety is at risk. This plan, including the details, has to be jointly agreed on, preferably not in the heat of the moment, but rather beforehand.
Most importantly, ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. Even if there are two parents in the family, dealing with mental disorders in a child can cause tension between partners, as they may have different approaches. Often a 3rd party, who is not emotionally or situationally close to you, can relieve the pressure and help with seeing through the noise, even seeing the value in each others approach. While it is critical that my children have access to specialist skills, it has also been critical for me to have someone to talk things through with.
The more people I talk to, the more clear it becomes that anxiety is prevalent. However, while it may be common, and many adolescents and adults battle with it, each situation is unique. We can learn from each other, but there is no one ‘right’ way. What works for me may or may not work for you, but it is always worth a try and often sharing alleviates much of the distress.
The most important thing I have learnt, is to be present. I have learnt to be able to ‘dance with the dancers’, but also, to stand back from the dance floor and watch, at the same time.
Over the years, I have learnt how strong and fabulous my children are. I marvel at what they manage to overcome, more and more often without me. I have learnt that I am not the worst or the greatest parent alive and that is okay. I am the parent they have and I will be the best I can be, for me, too.
I have also learnt that compassion is the answer to almost everything. If I replace guilt, envy, resentment, desperation worry, and sadness with compassion, I always feel much better and can dig so much deeper.
Stories and Questions
As I’ve said, anxiety is rife. There is a uniqueness to each of our experiences but also some similarities and what would probably be most useful now, is for other parents to share, if you are willing, some of your stories, as well as what has and hasn’t worked when it has come to coping with and combatting anxiety. We are also happy to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you to the School and School Counsellors for this initiative.