I started my family coaching business because of my eldest's struggles whilst going through the assessment and diagnosis journey for his adhd. My focus was on building him up and supporting his mental health, so it came as a shock when I realised that my youngest started to show signs of anxiety.
My youngest has always been a happy soul with a smile and a hug ready for everyone. He is good at school, kind-hearted, well behaved and takes instruction well. Really well in fact, to the point where I can rely on him to do what needs to be done fairly independently. Which is a phenominal help to a mother with adhd trying to parent a child with adhd! He is the steadying neurotypical rock in the morning chaos of 2 adhder's trying to get ready for school and work. Bless his heart! So “Joyous” has always been the perfect word to describe him.
However, a couple of years ago, my happy-go-lucky boy started to fear going to bed and needed us to sit with him until he fell asleep. Now for a child who'd been super happy to fall asleep alone since birth without much in the way of fussing - he hated being patted or stroked and much preferred being put in his cot and being left alone to sleep! (Genuine wonder baby!) - this abrupt and extreme change was a shock to the system. All of a sudden we we're lying with him in his bed for around 2 hours each night so that he felt safe and calm enough to fall asleep! So what happened??!!
Well, I think that this unexpected onset of fear had three sources;
• The first was when we went to Disneyland as a family and as great a time as we all had, I think there were a few rides that he wasn't quite prepared for and for the first time in his life, he felt genuine fear. Which is a huge emotion for a 6 year old brain.
• The second was when two older girls decided that telling horror stories about insects, snakes and kidnappers (and other scary things) to the younger ones in their group was great fun. Not fully realising the effect it was truly having and once told, they we're very upset.
• And lastly, his developmental age hit the time where his 6 year old brain began to recognise that he is his own being independent from his parents, along with his imagination being strongly activated. Both normal developmental milestones.
It was a perfect storm of experiences and natural phychological development. But it took us by surprise.
Having started with bedtime anxiety it then developed into not wanting to sit with his legs under the table properly and being terrified of not just wasps but even the tiniest of harmeless flies to then all insects. That first Summer was a difficult time, he would only wear long sleeves and trousers and preferred to stay indoors just in case there were any insects.
He's now quite shy in general, scared of the dark and won't go upstairs by himself or take a shower alone, still needs us to stay close by for a while at bedtime and tucks his pyjamas into his socks. More recently he has developed anxiety attacks.
I'll be honest and admit that it took me a while to see his behaviour as anxiety based. I thought he would grow out of this phase if we helped to show him he was safe. My own childhood anxiety symptoms was a dry mouth and convincing myself I was going to be sick, so at first this looked different.
To my son, his anxiety attacks looks like feeling itchy all over so he scratches and pulls at his arms/sleeves. Then not being able to speak other than "it's itchy" and "I cant explain". He now gets very distressed with tears streaming down his face and struggling to catch his breath. He is so lost in this feeling of fear that he can't hear the instructions to take a deep breath, nevermind follow them. This was when I realised it was anxiety.
So what do I do? How do I help my child who's lost inside his own imagination, eyes wide, body itching with his thoughts so focussed on fighting off an invisible danger?
I am his calm.
I reassure him telling him he's safe and that I'm here for him, I'm not going anywhere.
I'll stimulate his proprioceptive senses - which simultaneously over-rides all other sensory input and helps to calm the mind - so I'll pull him into a hug if he allows me to and if not then I'll hold his hands firmly.
I steady my breathing into calming breaths whilst encouraging him to follow suit; In 2, 3, 4, hold 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or breathing in the flowers and blowing out the candles or any other breath work that works. Sometimes I just breathe deeply without saying a word.
And we wait.
Clinging to one another with me breathing deep, calm, steadying breaths.
After a while, his breathing begins to match mine and his little body begins to soften.
yet we still wait.
It's only when he pulls away from me do I know that he's calmed enough to return to the world.
He wipes away his tears and gives me a vulnerable smile. However this is still an important part, the recovery. He still needs me, needs to know he’s secure and still loved in having shown such big emotions. So I reassure him that he's safe, that I'm here always and that I love him no matter what. I also point out that, once again, using our breathing helped to bring our brains back to calm. He needs to know just how important breathing is in helping his anxiety because this is going to be his go-to tool for as long as he's anxious.
It’s only when he begins to laugh and talk and play again, that I know that he’s 100% ok.
I don't know what comes next. I dont know if he'll always be anxious like me or if his brain will eventually develop out of it.
All I DO know is that I will be there everytime to hold his hand and ride it out together.
He is NOT alone.