"My anxiety and I have just learned to live together. She is the longest relationship I have ever had." ~~ Jae Nichelle, from her spoken-word poem, "My Anxiety is Like a Friend-With-Benefits"
How do we avoid being "that" parent or "that" teacher -- the one who plants the seeds of anxiety in the early years?
I mean, we can't pretend that none of us is this kind of adult. Otherwise, why do half of all anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8?
I understand Ms. Nichelle's poem, having been raised in a pretty anxiety-producing home, myself. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, my adult PTSD symptoms came in a lot of shapes and sizes. The more overt and obvious ones were the first to wane and leave me (thank you, therapy). Nighmares, fear of leaving the house, panic attacks.... Those were the "good" trauma symptoms -- the ones that made it obvious to others that I was wounded in some way.
But the anxiety.... As a symptom of PTSD or as a stand-alone, anxiety is invisible. Well, not entirely invisible, but it doesn't come across as visibly or sympathetically as nightmares and panic attacks.
When I'm anxious, I cancel plans with you. I don't show up for commitments I make. I don't answer your calls or texts. I isolate at home, and those I love don't hear a peep out of me for days...or weeks...or months. You might think I don't care about events that are important to you, because I'm not there. Anxiety makes me look more like a snob or a b*tch, not somebody who invokes your compassion.
How does anxiety look in kids? When your kids are anxious, fearful, or tense, are they a joy to be around? I doubt it. They're probably resistant or outright obstinate. They avoid you, maybe, or shut themselves up in their rooms, or in their minds. They won't speak with you or won't stop chattering on about nothing, they under-perform or over-perform with crippling perfectionism at school, they act out with risky or agressive behavior....
Wait. Did you think they were just being "bad" when they did that stuff? Not really. If only it were as easy as saying some kids are good and some are bad, or even that sometimes kids "act bad" and other times "act good." Truly, kids' behavior often looks bad to us, when what they are is angry, hurt, or anxious.
How do your kids act when they're scared?
More importantly, how can you -- how can we all -- avoid being the parent, teacher, or caregiver who increases their panic, feeds that anxiety?
I say it begins and, mostly, ends with helping children mine the Childhood Treasure of Trust, starting from birth. In developmental theory, the capacity for Trust comes from having our needs met. We learn that the world we live in "has our backs" or that it doesn't, when our needs are met -- or not met -- starting as newborn infants.
Luckily, young children's needs are fairly simple for the first few years. Very young children need:
Then, throughout their lives, children of all ages need:
Do any of these sound too difficult to you? Or "too much?" Can you -- do you -- meet these needs of children? If not, can you imagine doing it?
Can you also imagine what it would have been like to have all these needs of yours met when you were a young one? Well...that's what I write about on the "Just Be Your S.E.L.F." blog, so come on over there, if you haven't visited!
Consider joining my "We Want Sparkle Kids!" group, where we discuss the ins and outs of mining Trust and the other Childhood Treasures.
Coming soon: video recording of my 2018 TEDx Wyandotte talk, "Never Lost Forever," on the Lost Art of Dreamiing.