When a child has a cold, flu or a time-limited illness, parents often put a lot of effort and energy into getting their child well again, usually placing their own needs last. Most parents are able to do this because it is a temporary situation and the parent knows once their child is well they can resume self-care.
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Anxiety is not a cold, it can exist for months to years. As a result, parents need to be able to balance caring for their anxious child with caring for themselves (and other members of the family). As the flight attendants always say, "Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others."
Excessive stress from working long hours at a job or taking on too much and then returning to an anxious child and a tense household can quickly sap you of energy. When we are low in energy, we can become irritable and find it almost impossible to do the things we used to do with ease. Limiting what you do each day when you are in the midst of helping an anxious child, is critical to your well-being.
Grabbing small amounts of time to care for yourself each day and each week can help balance the stress of raising an anxious child. Even small breaks can help, such as taking 5 minutes to talk to a friend, getting some fresh air, or having a cup or tea, can provide a small release. Consider doing part of an activity, if you cannot do it all. Going for a 30 minute walk, while not the same as an hour hike, counts for something.
Talking with friends, meeting with a counselor, or consulting with a secular member can provide tremendous support. Knowing there are others who can provide empathy or give you something to laugh about can often turn the day around. Consider joining an online forum. There are many terrific websites dedicated to anxiety that provide parent-to-parent connections, allowing you to talk to someone who really "gets" it.
Eating well and getting the daily nutrition you need can provide you with the essential energy to cope with the stress of parenting your anxious child. Avoid skipping meals and then crashing later, or devouring a bag of chips from the vending machine because you've gone 6 hours between meals. While you may not always have time to cook a complete meal or eat fresh fruits and vegetables, try to add healthy choices in one meal at a time. Take some time each weekend to shop for healthy foods that can be grabbed on the go in the week, such as yoghurts, pre-packaged veggies or nuts, or fruit shakes. And, if possible, consider asking family or friends to cook for you one evening a week as a way to help support you during a stressful time.
Although sleep is often the first thing to go, remembering the importance of quality rest is key. Consider addressing your "to do" list or returning emails first thing in the morning rather than last thing at night. Often when these tasks get addressed at night it can take longer than we think, eating up precious hours we could otherwise be sleeping. Delegate tasks. Have the kids empty the dishwasher or make their lunch so you can grab that extra 30 minutes for bed. Finally, ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep with minimal noise, light, or intrusions (e.g. kids! See Sleeping Alone, and Coping with Nightmares).
While it may seem inappropriate or even unkind to seek fun when your child is in an anxious crisis, it's not. You need to have a little bit of fun to recharge your batteries. Consider going out to the movies with friends, or getting a babysitter so you and your spouse can have a date. It's okay to say to your child, "I need to get out and have a little fun so I have lots more energy to help you." This is good modeling. You can even include your child in this excursion now and then. Why not suggest a trip to the mall for a makeover or dinner at your child’s favourite restaurant just for fun once in a while. This can help you AND your child remember that anxiety is not the only thing going on.
About the author
Anxiety Canada promotes awareness of anxiety disorders and increases access to proven resources. Visit www.anxietycanada.com.