Coping with Obsessive Anxiety in 2e Children
Most 2e kids suffer from generalized anxiety problems. They tend to think in abstractions and worry about things that are too big for their young minds to cope with. In other words, they perceive far more than they understand, and what they don't understand, they fill in the blanks with often false or inflated information. Here are some ideas of how I helped my son Connor overcome some of his troubles. Connor still suffers from anxiety problems, and he's 17 now, but he's got much better coping skills and he gets a little bit braver every day. I can hardly believe what he's NOT afraid of now!
When Connor was 6, I took him to a playground and he saw a kid fall off a swing and get a bloody nose. The child was immediately cared for by his father, and was fine moments later, but Connor was not fine. He asked me non-stop "Is that little boy okay, Mommy? He got hurt. Did his daddy take care of him? Is he going to be okay? That little boy got a bloody nose. He was hurt...." This was all my husband and I heard from him for... guess how long? Not hours, not days, but WEEKS! It finally went away, only to resurface again months later for another few days. My poor son! He just couldn't process what happened to that little boy and it truly frightened him. Connor's most recent fear, and this was like, a few months ago, was that he was going to get arrested because a porn sight had popped up on his computer. Every time he heard a siren he tensed up and thought they were coming for him. But he can watch horror movies now, blood and guts galore, and not flinch. I'll leave the room because the film is too violent for me and he'll say, "It's only a movie, Mom! It's not real." This is a huge HUGE change from a little boy who couldn't sit through the animated Aladdin because it was too scary.
So take heart, parents. It does get better over time.
The key is to remember these things:
1) Anxious children come from anxious parents. We're nervous as hell because our kids are so fragile. They're so helpless and vulnerable and frightened. But if we look at ourselves, we can see that we obsess about fearful things too. We're just not so verbal about it. We worry that we might have cancer or that we're never going to make enough money to pay the bills or that our partners are falling out of love with us... We are anxious people because we're gifted and/or 2E as well. Yeah, we may think we were never as bad as our kids are, but when I think back to how I was as a child, I had obsessive nightmares, and I was so afraid of the world that I suffered from asthma and pneumonia all through childhood. The more we learn to deal with our own anxieties the better we'll be able to help our children do the same.
2) We have to be very conscious of not overreacting to their little mishaps or their anxiety attacks. If they fall and we worry they've hurt themselves, we have to laugh and get them to laugh with us, even if the injury is worrisome. It's a hard thing to learn to do. We want to scream "Oh my god! Are you okay?" but instead, we have to say, "Oops! That was funny!" You can't be afraid and laugh at the same time. Try it. It's impossible. Don't forget how connected our special children are to us, how empathic they are. They'll sense our anxieties and just add them to their own. My dad always cured my childhood nightmares by turning them into something funny, like a silly cartoon in my head. If your child is feeling anxious, watch something funny together. Humor is your best weapon.
3) Empower your child any way that you possibly can. Most anxiety comes from feelings of helplessness and being out of control. The more you rely on someone else to do things for you, the more vulnerable and afraid you feel. Our 2Es struggle with feeling powerless in so many ways, from the inability to hold a pencil right to difficulties with reading and math to trouble finding a misplaced toy to feelings that the entire world has gone mad and nothing makes sense on the news... our children feel powerless. So, maybe there's many things they struggle with and can't do well, but you can always focus on the things they CAN do well, and really boost their confidence in those things. Teach them little adult skills of independence at a young age so they can feel like they're in charge of something grown-up. I taught my sons how to do their own laundry at 9 years old and they've been taking care of their own clothes ever since. I also taught them how to cook some basic things, how to start up the car and get it warm in the mornings, how to fix little things around the house, etc. The more Connor knows about how to control his environment, the braver and braver he becomes. He's so much more confident now! I can't stress to you enough how much every little success your child has adds to his defense against anxiety!
4) Make sure your child knows it when you make mistakes. Step yourself through your mistakes out loud so he can see that there is a way you go about correcting problems. There are strategies that get you from step A to step B. For instance, let's say you forgot a key ingredient for dinner at the grocery store. You think in your head what to do about it. Do you want to change the recipe or do you want to go back to the store and pick up what you need? Say out loud to your child, "Oh no, I forgot the noodles! What should I do now? Let's see, my options are, I could use rice instead or I could go back to the store and get noodles. Maybe we have some noodles hiding at the back of the pantry. Can you help me look for them?" Let your child see you make mistakes and watch how you cope with them so he can learn the strategies necessary to overcome his own shortcomings.
Above all, remember to breathe and take care of yourself. Your child will learn from your example how to cope with things when he feels out of control. And don't forget to laugh! This isn't OCD, ADHD or anything else the professionals want to label it. It's anxiety that our children have for obvious reasons and we as parents can help them more than any medication or therapist out there. Be patient, understanding and strong, and it'll all work out.