Empathy into Action: Finding the Best Way to Help Our Daughter with Anxiety

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I wrote a letter to my daughter a few years back on her 8th birthday. In it, I captured my struggle to help her with her anxiety and my feelings of frustration around only having empathy to offer as I too, struggle with anxiety.

What we once thought was just performance related anxiety (school work, testing, activities), we later realized was transferring to other areas of her life. She suddenly was unable to fall asleep independently most nights – sometimes because of tangible fears (nerves before a big event) and other times because of perceived fear (not being safe). She started assigning herself responsibilities like managing her sisters and keeping tabs on things like our schedule, communication with school, consistency with discipline. You know…things a child should NOT be preoccupied with. 

Because of this, we started noticing bigger and bigger swings in her moods and overall demeanor. If she had a stressful day of school, it would manifest itself in heightened anxiety at home. She was also much quicker to meltdown if we tried to redirect her behavior, was less able to diffuse conflict with her siblings, and in general, just experienced big emotion for not so big scenarios. Recovery from imperfect situations became longer and longer – sometimes hours before she could return back to center.

As she is our oldest and we often “learn” new realms of parenting with her, our approaches ranged from patience and empathy, to avoidance (don’t poke the bear), to tough love. We had moments where we felt like we were getting through and helping her one day, only to be met with an intense swing of the pendulum the next. She had nights where she would cry that she didn’t want to be like this anymore which as a parent, was so very hard to hear. 

So we got to that point where we knew we needed help. SHE needed help. We, as a couple, had been going to counseling for some time at that point so why we didn’t jump to that option sooner, I am not totally sure. Maybe because as her mother, I wanted to be the one to get her through this? Perhaps it was the guilt of feeling like I did this to her…my anxious behaviors modeled this her entire childhood and now she, too, could not navigate things in a “normal” way.

Whatever the case, we eventually got a referral from our therapist and scheduled an initial session. We were very intentional about how we discussed this with her – we wanted to provide her a safe space to talk to someone about how she was feeling that was neutral (not mom or dad or a family member) who could help her process her thoughts and come up with ways that she could work with her feelings and not feel at odds against them. She was very open to the idea and almost seemed relieved that she could actively do something.

We all went to her first session together. The focus was definitely on her, but my husband and I also got to share a little bit about our experience. Her counselor was warm, inviting, and made her feel like she was conversing with an older friend (vs. something more clinical as I was expecting for some reason). She helped us create a plan with goals, a tangible way to action what they discussed and something we would revisit as a family at the end of her sessions. We always knew generally what they discussed, but also gave her space to keep specifics confidential if she wanted. 

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) an instant fix. We remind her often of techniques and ideas that have come from counseling when she has rough moments. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn’t and we just have to work through it. 

Her performance anxiety is better managed and her sleep issues are very infrequent at this point. Like any kind of mental health work, we know there isn’t a specific destination we are trying to get to but instead, equipping her with skills that can carry her through her journey. My hope for her is to feel more confident in herself, especially as we move into these formative years of junior high and high school. 

If you have wondered if counseling might be a route your child would benefit from, I encourage you to give it a chance – both for them and for you. We need to remove the stigma around seeking help with this aspect of our health and the health of our children. I am so proud of my girl and thankful for the positive impact counseling has made in her life.

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