Mrs. Roosth was tall and gaunt, uncomfortably quiet, with small eyes and angry hands.
I leaned back too far in my chair and landed with a thump on the classroom floor. She wrapped her bony fingers around my arm, yanked me up to my feet and just about threw me into the nearest corner to stand for the rest of the day. A few hours. I was in the first grade.
My stomach hurt. My muscles spasmed in my back. My chest grew tight. I thought I might die. But I didn’t say a word.
That’s my earliest memory of serious anxiety. But not my last. Or worst.
I missed a Homecoming dance in high school because anxiety so debilitated me that I couldn’t stand and walk.
I was so heavily medicated on my wedding day that I slept through the first night of the honeymoon!
I turned down my first offer of a record deal because I fear traveling. And just the worrying about it doubled me over in pain and sent me to bed for the better part of a day.
But since eventually signing that record deal, I’ve traveled to around 100 cities every year for twelve years. As a musician and speaker I’ve stood on stage and done my thing in front of tens of thousands of people. Sometimes all at once. As a spokesperson for Compassion International, I’ve traveled to ten developing countries with questionable airplanes, eaten grub worms and guinea pig, and lunched with posh dignitaries and mobs of slum children.
No more debilitating anxiety. How’d that happen? And how can we as parents stave off the anxiety of our children?
My mother is as close to a perfect parent as there is. But even she made mistakes. Just two.
When I became anxious she made it worse by doing two things:
Telling Me To Stop It
I couldn’t stop being anxious any more than I could stop being a boy. It didn’t feel like a choice. Telling me to stop being anxious made me feel defective, abnormal, like I couldn’t do something everyone else could. Telling me to stop worrying gave me more things to worry about! Does my mom think I’m a weirdo? Will everyone else think I’m a weirdo? What’s wrong with me?
Telling Me What Would Happen If I Didn’t Stop
My mother is a worrier too. And when I worried to the point of dysfunction, she worried out loud. On my wedding day: What if you don’t get better…people are already at the church…we can’t move a wedding…you don’t want that do you? And of course I didn’t want that and I didn’t want my mother to worry either so I tried to reassure her, which is quite the opposite of relaxing.
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography
Today I have four children and one of them is anxious. Here’s what I do when her anxiety prevents her from fully living:
I don’t push her to play in the piano recital that has her in knots. Making her feel like a lot is riding on her getting over her anxiety will only make it worse.
I ask her what she’s feeling and listen. When she takes a breath I hand her a tissue and listen some more. The feelings are the effect. I want to listen until I hear the cause.
People with chronic debilitating anxiety are often ruminators. They are people whose thoughts get stuck in a groove like a needle on a record, going round and round playing the same anxious thoughts again and again until it’s all they can hear. So it’s important to interrupt my daughter once I think I understand her feelings and what’s causing them. I tell her what I think she’s said to me and ask her if I’m right. If she says I am but then tries to restate it all again – ruminating some more – I cut her off.
Imagine The Worst
This is counterintuitive but I ask her to imagine the worst thing that could happen at the piano recital. I’ll freak out and forget my music and everyone will stare at me and I’ll be embarrassed.
I ask her if there’s anything she could do to prevent this from happening. In the case of the piano recital, does she have to play the music from memory or would the teacher let her have sheet music nearby just in case?
We figure out together what we’ll both do if the worst actually happens. I promise I won’t laugh or be embarrassed or love her any less or think she’s any less talented. Recitals are bad measures of talent. And talent isn’t why I or anyone else in that concert hall loves her.
But what will she do is the worst happens? She may decide that she’ll take the sheet music with her and use it if she forgets the notes. She may come up with a self-depreicating joke she can make to ease the tension and get the audience on her side (I still do this all the time). If she can’t come up with a plan, thenI help out but I really want this to be her idea, because I want her to be able to do this for herself when I’m not around.
When the piano recital ended without disaster we talked about how brave she was, how proud I was of her for facing her fears, and we had dessert. We celebrated the success. For me, successes, even the smallest ones, give me confidence that the worst rarely – if ever – happens.
Parenting myself this way over many years has destroyed anxiety. There are still things I’m afraid of, worried about – especially when bills are due. That’s normal. But I’m no longer disabled, half-living because of severe anxiety.
The next time your child is too afraid to live fully, please don’t push. Instead, help them understand their fears, make a plan and move forward. Who knows what kind of life is waiting on the other side of their anxiety? Help them get there.
Do you struggle with anxiety? What has helped you break free?