Loving and supporting an anxious son
Reprinted with permission from AnxietyBC's STRIDES newsletter, April 2004, pp. 2-3
There is hope.... There was a time not so long ago (five years ago to be exact), when I thought my 10 year old son would be sleeping in our bedroom for the rest of his life. It's not that he did not have his own room, he was just too worried to sleep there. He never really could name what it was he was afraid of, and most of the time he would just say he could not sleep in his room, or that he slept better in our room. We knew they were excuses, but we also knew he was genuinely afraid.
We couldn't understand what he was afraid or worried about and we couldn't seem to take his fears away. We tried play therapy, counseling, family therapy, acupuncture, naturopathic remedies, audiovisual and somatic-sensory stimulation, and even hospitalization. Nothing worked.
Our days and nights were painful. Painful because we had an 11 year old son who wasn't going to school or sleeping in his own bed. He was unable to be left alone with anyone other than us, take a shower with the door closed, or leave our driveway unattended. Everyone was held hostage by his fears.
What changed our life was the Youth Day Treatment Program where a kind, patient (and I mean very patient) therapist made our son feel safe as she taught him to change the way he was thinking. We believe that our son's progress is due to our luck in finding not only someone that our son 'connected' with, but also that she practiced what we now know to be cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Others who worked with our son may have also been going down the CBT road but, we believe, it was the combination of a 'connection' with a therapist and CBT that worked. We were to learn that our son had been afraid and worried about a lot of things for a very long time and it was going to take some time to help him manage his fears.
Our son is now 15 and not only is he sleeping in his own room and bed, he is also back in school after a two year absence and is doing well.
What we learned that may help other parents: Connect with several people at the Student Support Services Department in your school district who can offer advise on counselors, mental health support and programs. Sometimes the person you 'connect' with won't be the first person you talk to but they can help point you in the right direction for finding others who can support your child's needs.
Consider couples counseling from a professional you trust. This isn't the same as parenting courses. My husband and I needed to have someone help us deal with our different thoughts and feelings on how to deal with our son and we needed to have this decided before we were in the moment with our child. We wanted to keep our marriage, and knew that it was not going to be easy with the incredibly hard situations we were experiencing.
Medication has played a part in our son's recovery but it is only one piece. Our son often said 'can't they just give me a pill to make it go away?' For a while we hoped for "that" simple solution as well but the reality was — there isn't a magic pill.
Don't underestimate the power of anxiety. When our pediatrician first told us he thought that our son had anxiety, I left the office and thought "this has to be more than anxiety". We had no idea that it was why, as a baby, he didn't settle like other babies. He was always more serious than others, and didn't like noise or crowds. As a toddler he'd sit in a corner by himself at preschool and often fall asleep. We were to learn that he had been anxious and afraid for a long time and the symptoms had become severe enough to be an anxiety disorder.
We learned it's better to walk away than to get frustrated and yell when trying to manage an anxious child. I cannot name any other thing that I have come across as a parent that has required more patience than our son's fears and anxiety. Professionals need to help parents learn more about anxiety and its devastating effects when left unmanaged. Parents need to know that it is critical they practice patience and allow time for learning new skills. Get help in managing symptoms when the symptoms are small and the child is young.
Get involved with early intervention programs in your schools and communities like 'FRIENDS'. These programs teach both the kids and the parents how to manage anxiety. Having been through a CBT anxiety program with our daughter and son, we know the importance of educating parents so they can support the skills being taught to their children.
Don't allow the stigma of mental disorders and the stigma of 'typical parents of those kids' stop you from believing in yourselves or your children. We made a decision to speak openly about our family's struggles with mental health as we felt it was important that families get equal support and recognition for all the struggles their children experience, including mental health issues.
Kids are the future parents of the world. I have hope that we have helped create one of those future parents who, because he knows the pain of anxiety, the power of hope and the joy of recovery, will be better equipped than 'typical' parents like ourselves who were thrust into managing something we knew nothing about. Dealing with this felt like being thrown into the ocean without knowing how to swim.
About the author
Keli Anderson is the Executive Director of the FORCE Society For Kids Mental Health Care. The FORCE represents the needs of parents, families and youth coping with mental health problems. Many of their members are parents of children with anxiety disorders. For information, visit the website or call (604) 878-3400.