When You Struggle To Empathize With Your Anxious Child

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 
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“Mom…” my daughter pleads, her voice shaking. “I’m too nervous.”

She shakes her hands a few times as if she’s trying to throw her anxiety off of them. She breathes deeply through her nose, exhaling through her mouth as she’s been taught.

I take my own deep breath. “It’s going to be okay,” I try to reassure her. “You’ve done this before, remember? You’ve got this.”

We’re taking a road trip to visit family 14 hours away. We’ll be gone for a week, then we’ll make the same trip home. Such trips are nothing new for our family. We spent a year traveling around the country a few years ago, driving hundreds of hours and thousands of miles. We’ve spent weeks and months away from home. At that time, travel wasn’t an issue for her. At that time, our daughter’s anxiety was only confined to specific areas. At that point, she was just worried about getting sick. It’s only been in the past year or so that she’s panicked about being away from home.

I give her all the usual platitudes, knowing how completely ineffectual they are. “Don’t worry,” I say. “Everything will be fine. It doesn’t do you any good to worry.”

I say things like this every time, even though every article I’ve read about anxiety has confirmed that telling an anxious person not to worry does no good. My own daughter has told me this as well, and yet I can’t seem to help myself.

I rarely use the word “hate,” but I hate anxiety. I know that flies in the face of all of the inspirational gurus, but I really hate it. I hate what it’s done to my bright, creative daughter. I hate how it tries to control her, how it tells her not to do the things she wants to do, how it holds her back. I hate that it doesn’t respond to logic and reason, my two biggest weapons against my own comparably mild anxious thoughts.

Anxiety is a big, stupid, lying liar, and I don’t always handle it well.

Besides saying things that simply don’t help, I’ve occasionally lost my patience with my daughter when she’s in the throes of an anxiety attack. I’m not proud of it. But when panic hits at the most inopportune times, when it keeps our girl from doing something she really wants to do, when it feels like she’s losing the battle against her own brain, I sometimes put my frustration with it all in the wrong place — on her.

The problem, of course, is that I’m human. So is she. Neither of us does everything we’re supposed to do to manage the stupid, lying liar. But we’re trying. She started seeing a therapist, but it wasn’t a great fit, so we’re on to a second that seems more promising. So far, so good. If cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work in the long run, we won’t rule out medication. We’re doing what we can, and we’re seeing some improvements.

But it’s really freaking hard. And it sucks. If you’re not a person who struggles with anxiety or depression, it’s really difficult to empathize with the daily battle of people who do. And because it’s a struggle that most people can’t see, it’s hard to explain.

Anxiety can manifest itself in odd physical ways, like dizzy spells and headaches that have no physiological explanation. And because everyone has some anxiousness sometimes, it’s hard for many people to understand the qualitative difference between a normal level of nervousness and debilitating levels of anxiety.

As a mother, I just want to take away my child’s suffering. I want to be able to take anxiety by the throat and tell it to leave my daughter the hell alone. I want to be able to fix it, to nurture it away, but I can’t.

So I have to educate myself about how I can help and explore every avenue for getting her the professional assistance she needs. I have to keep my frustrations in check because they certainly do not help. I have to give my daughter my strength and support and save my anger at anxiety for my pillow. And I have to remember that as frustrating as it is for me, it’s 100 times more frustrating for my daughter.

Solidarity, parents of anxious kids. We may not always handle it perfectly, but we’re handling it as best we can.

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