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Four questions you get asked when you have a child with an anxiety disorder

July 4, 2019
by Becky Ferrigno

Humans are curious by nature. At the most basic level, it is that innate curiosity that has kept our species alive. We just cannot help ourselves. When every fiber of our being wants to know something, we seek answers

Parents of anxious children come face to face with this curiosity on a regular basis.

When we were still in the throws of diagnosis, I used to get upset by the questions. I didn’t know the answers to the queries. I just knew something was wrong and we needed help. Now two years later, I don’t mind the inquiries. I have answers and I see these moments as an opportunity to teach. To change the perception around mental health and our children one curious onlooker at a time.

Question 1: How Do You Know she’s anxious?

If she wore her disability on the outside, I would not need to answer this question. Anyone who sees her at home, after she lowers her guard of perfection, instantly understands something bigger is going on in her little body.

Many people believe social inhibition and anxiety are the same things. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The world is full of naturally inhibited peopled we refer to as introverts. While they may be slow to try something new and are very comfortable in a predictable routine, they may not have anxiety.

How do I know my daughter is anxious and not just an introvert? First of all, let’s begin by dispelling the myth that only introverts can be anxious. Extroverts can also be anxious. Anxiety does not discriminate. It is a bully that tells you you are not safe, and that you can’t and shouldn’t try the new thing. This one thought drives an anxious person’s whole life and it outweighs every voice including those of his/her friends and parents.

My daughter is an anxious introvert. At first glance, she is a quiet, reserved, very cautious rule follower. But underneath the quiet surface, rapids exist where those routines are treated as rituals that have to be followed perfectly and fear paralyzes her daily. My daughter is afraid of everything. At six her fears interrupt her daily life and paralyze her in place.  She tells me everything and she truly has the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Question 2: Couldn’t you just wait and see how she does? Won’t she outgrow this?

If your child has been sick and the doctor decides he or she has Type One Diabetes, you might go and get a second opinion. When all of the opinions agree on the diagnosis, the child begins insulin therapy. If parents wouldn’t choose to “wait and see” how things go before giving life-saving treatment, why would parents of anxious children?

For my daughter, this anxiety diagnosis was the final piece of the puzzle. My husband and I truly feel like we have landed on the root of all the other diagnoses. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. Anxiety is prevalent on both sides of our family. Anxiety is in our DNA composition. I have watched it torture my loved ones and I have visual proof that without treatment it does not get better. I pray every night that by starting so soon, we will have the best chance to convince my daughter’s brain that worry is a liar.

Question 3: What do you do for them when they are so young?

You, as a parent, do a lot of hard work. You find an incredible psychologist who does cognitive behavior therapy and you make a plan. Then you roll up your sleeves and dig into the work. Currently, we are knee-deep in “mess up” experiments. My daughter started with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It extends to the pool, bugs, clothing, friends, and changes at school. Since starting Kindergarten the rigor has increased and now she is exhibiting OCD tendencies. It manifests most clearly in her room right before bed and when she gets up in the morning. If you move one book in her room, she flips out. She has a physical and visceral reaction. One book on the floor makes her room a “pigsty.”  

So we take one fear at a time and work very hard to entice her brain to quit believing in it. Working through this process is like having another full-time job. During anxiety flare-ups, we are exhausted. It’s hard to look at someone so smart and not help to think “Why can’t you get this?” But worry is a hard voice to drown out and we are all doing the best we can.

Question 4: How do you know so much?

Research. Lots and lots of research. What little time I have, I spend researching ways to help my child or planning the next exposure therapy activity. Because here is the reality. I have a small window of time where her little brain is malleable. I have to do everything I can to convince it that worry is a bully. That changing the color of her night light will not result in the total collapse of her world. That she has the skills to get in the water and play with her friends. That she is strong. After the age of 8, your brain becomes less flexible and more solidified and the work will become that much more challenging. It could eventually need to include medicine. I study research journals, new books and listen to podcast after podcast because I am fighting for my daughter’s life.

So there you have it. Hopefully, your curiosity has been quenched. If you want to read a heartbreaking recount of what it is like to live with OCD, check out Ryan Salter’s eulogy for his friend Mark Ross.

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