The Day I Learned I Wasn’t a Bad Parent
It was a partly sunny morning, rays of sunshine periodically sneaking through the clouds. The kids and I were waiting for the school bus to arrive. Two of my three children were chattering about the day ahead. Is it pizza day? Will we go outside for recess? But in the shadow of their chatter was my oldest child, visibly thinking through his day in his mind. The look on his face wasn’t happy anticipation but despair. While the girls talked, my son had a few questions of his own. They were the same questions he’d asked yesterday, the day before yesterday, and the day before that. Though we were well into the school year, his every day felt like the first day of school. What if the bus doesn’t stop to pick me up? What if I trip getting on the bus? What if I get hurt? What if I miss the bus on the way home? And on they went. I answered each question with a reassurance that all would go well. But I had a pressing question of my own. What have I done wrong?
He is my firstborn. He didn’t come with instructions. Had I unintentionally created the ultimate “mama’s boy”? Or perhaps it was my husband’s fault. Or had we both coddled him too much? Should we be pushing him harder? These questions and others swirled through my head every day as I sought a reason for, and a solution to, his unrelenting worries.
Things that are supposed to be exciting, like birthday parties, playdates and sleepovers, were incredibly difficult for him to even think about, let alone attend. My girls couldn’t wait to pack their bags, pick out their PJs and head out with their friends for a sleepover. When my son would receive an invitation, his face would freeze. Even with monstrous encouragement from his sisters, friends and parents, the thought of attending these events was overwhelming for him. What if I’m lonely? What if they don’t talk to me? What if you forget to pick me up? Though we did our best to reassure him that all would be OK, ultimately he would refuse the invitation or beg that I go with him.
Other parents noticed his hesitancy and would offer advice. “Get tough, mom.” “Just drop him at the door and he will get through it.” “Stop babying him.” And the one I held on to the longest: “He will grow out of it, give him time.” After several years of struggling, it was evident he wasn’t growing out of it anytime soon, further confirming that we were babying him or simply parenting all wrong. At that point it was time to face my own fears and reach out to a professional who could help. And yet, I was worried about the stigma. It weighed heavy on my mind every day.
One day, I had lunch with my best friend since sixth grade. These get-togethers were few and far between, as we were both working moms. She was several years ahead of me in having children, so I enjoyed hearing stories of her kids and the milestones they had reached. Despite the time that often elapsed between our talks, we never had a problem catching up where we left off.
During our visit, her phone rang several times in a row. She glanced at the number but didn’t answer. Finally, after more rings and with frustration on her face, she said, “Excuse me, but I have to answer this.” I overheard her providing the caller with her timeline for the day and reassuring them she would be home on time. Soon after she hung up, the phone rang again, and then again. She sheepishly revealed that her son had anxiety, which she had been grappling with for several years. The behavior she described was akin to my own son’s behavior, and it sparked a life-changing conversation.
Hearing that she sought professional help for her son somehow granted me permission to pursue that same option. Though her son continued to have anxious moments, she described great success with a child psychologist. The positive outcomes sounded glorious, and I felt a glimmer of hope that my son might also find relief. Then, the stigma cloud reappeared, trying to complicate the situation even more. What will the neighbors say if they find out? What will my family say? Will we be judged for being bad parents? Those real but selfish thoughts lingered, but they fell to the background as I longed for my child to enjoy his childhood without the weight of his worries. After contacting our pediatrician, we were referred to a child psychologist who changed our lives.
It was determined that our son had generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. They said his symptoms were a result of his brain racing, feeding him unhelpful, worry thoughts that clouded his ability to see positive outcomes. So when most kids were thinking about recess, my guy was thinking the bus might crash or get lost on the way to school, as the worry thoughts led him to disaster every time. That certainly explained his grim face, and his many missed playdates and birthday parties. Our hearts sank, learning the burdens that were pestering him each day. But it was also the day we learned we weren’t bad parents. The explanation gave us all a new lease on life. We had information now that would let us tackle the beast, and we did. We learned how to coach him through his anxious moments, and he learned how to manage his worries. It changed his life. It changed our family life. It changed our world. And now, years later, the strategies still work for him. Yes, the black cloud of worry still tries to overcome his blue skies, but you would never know it. He learned how to be bigger than his worries.
I almost got sucked into the mental health stigma. But when I saw my child struggling to make sense of his emotions, feelings and reactions to certain situations, how could I not seek relief for him? When do the opinions of others count more than my child’s well-being? Is it the word “mental” that freaks us out? When an arm is broken, we go to a bone doctor. When our eyes don’t work, we go to an eye doctor. When our hearts don’t work, we go to a heart doctor. But when our minds need care, we are judged and labeled as weak, and we don’t seek help. Simply reassuring my son that everything would be OK didn’t stop the worry in his head. He needed strategies to teach him how to see past the worries. That’s what a mental health professional provided him. That’s what they do. They teach. They’re knowledgeable. They don’t judge. They heal, just like the rest of the medical profession.
The reality is, at some point, anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents. Of those, it is reported that 80% never get help. The impact of anxiety is broad: it can affect kids’ school performance and social relationships, lead to depression, and put them at risk for substance abuse, among many other effects. When your child’s worries begin to interfere with their everyday life, when simple things become harder, and when they avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, don’t spend your time wondering if you’re a bad mom or rely on the advice of others who may not understand your situation. Spend your time wisely and seek out the help of a professional, just as you would if your child fell off their bike and broke a bone. You’ll be amazed at how brave your child is, and how they can fight the beast called anxiety.
- Carol Wulff, author of William, The What-If Wonder On His First Day of School