If You Have An Anxious Child, Don't Hesitate To Seek Therapy Right Away

by Annie Reneau
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

My daughter wasn’t always anxious. At least I don’t remember her being a particularly anxious kid. I might have described her as sensitive, but anxiety was something that sort of crept in under the radar.

She’s 16 now. It’s been a few years since we started recognizing her irrational fear for the anxiety disorder that it is, less than a year since we pinpointed the exact condition, and about six months since it began spiraling totally out of control.

I feel like we should have seen it coming. We just didn’t know the extent of her specific illness or expect that it would become so debilitating so fast. But looking back, there were warning signs all over the place that her anxiety was taking over.

We’ve always been a traveling family — in fact, we even traveled around the country as nomads for a year a few years ago. Our daughter loved that experience. Last year, we took a two-week road trip through Washington, Oregon, and California, and she was pretty anxious during that trip. A mere six months later, she found the idea of traveling farther than a couple of hours away from home totally undoable. A few months after that, she was barely able to get herself to go to class or on a simple trip to the grocery store. Even being outside of her bedroom in our own house for too long would send her into a panic state.

Our daughter was plummeting down a hole of fear and anxiety, and we didn’t know what to do about it. We had found a counselor for her to see when her anxiety began to affect her daily life, but that therapy didn’t seem to help much. We found another counselor who dealt with anxiety, but again, it didn’t seem to help much.

We were desperate to help her.

Then one day, I thought through all of the things she was anxious about. She obsessively checked expiration dates on food and asked us for reassurance that food was handled properly. If someone said they’d been sick or were sick, she’d immediately panic and ask, “What kind of sick?” She always wanted hand sanitizer after being out at a store.

I finally put two and two together and asked her, “Sweetie, does all of your anxiousness revolve around being afraid of throwing up?” She thought about it and said yes. She wasn’t dealing with generalized anxiety like we’d thought. She had a very specific phobia that required a specific kind of treatment. Her counselors had missed it because she had become so afraid of vomiting that she wouldn’t even talk about her fear of it. She didn’t want to say the word.

I wish we had figured it out earlier and sought help before it became totally debilitating. We live in a small town, and finding a therapist who had experience treating this specific issue was a challenge. Phone call after phone call, and no dice. Everything we read online about emetophobia (the clinical term for a fear of vomiting) said it was treatable with the right therapy. We were ready to drive five hours and stay in the big city for two months when we finally found a local counselor who had treated it before.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when that counselor told me over the phone that she could help my daughter. There’s no more helpless feeling than watching your child suffer and not knowing what to do about it.

I can’t help but think if we’d sought help sooner that some therapist would have been able to stave off the spiral that led to my daughter becoming functionally agoraphobic. I think if we’d addressed that fear before it became so deep and all-encompassing, maybe we could have saved her months or even years of struggle.

The good news is that she’s almost halfway through her therapy and we’ve seen vast improvements. We’re watching our vibrant, fun-loving, interested-in-everything daughter come back to life before our eyes. We see the light at the end of the tunnel, and when it’s all said and done, I might have to build a monument to her counselor or name a child after her. I’m seriously that grateful.

If your child is exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or depression or a phobia or OCD or any other mental disorder, please get help sooner than later. Don’t wait to find out how bad it can get. Don’t assume that because a child or teen seems to keep it under control most days that they’ll continue being able to do so. Many mental disorders peak through adolescence, and the more complex and challenging life becomes, the more difficult it can be for them to manage their mental health.

There is no shame in getting help. None whatsoever. In fact, I wish more people would talk openly about seeking therapy for mental health issues to help remove the stigma and show how common it is to need and receive professional help. If you don’t find a good therapist fit at first, keep trying. A good therapist can save your child a great deal of suffering, and may even save their life.