Tag Archives: supporting anxious children

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Last week, I almost slapped my daughter.

The brutal urge chilled my guts. The image came through crystal clear. It seemed nearly real.

Shaking, I stepped away from my girl. I retreated to my room and paced. My heart raced, but my head was surprisingly clear. I watched myself buzz back and forth, feeling the dust on the carpet as I pounded with my bare feet. I heard the air scrape in and out of my chest like a blacksmith’s bellows.

At the same time, I replayed the awful mental scene in my mind. I felt lightning flash from my belly to the tip of my hand. I heard a brittle crack that brought a sting to my palm. It felt horribly good, as though the hot, tense energy from weeks of escalating frustration was suddenly released.

In my mind’s eye, I saw my girl’s head snap to the side and back. I saw her mouth open, fingers splayed in shock. I watched her little face crumple as she lifted her gaze to mine and raised her hand to touch a red patch blooming at the corner of her mouth. I saw her shrink away from me as a scream began to peal from her throat, so high-pitched it barely made a sound. Then, the noise suddenly swelled, and the piercing wail made my brain tremble.

I couldn’t watch anymore. I came back to myself in my room and looked at my hands. They had almost done The Really Bad Thing, something of which I thought I was incapable.

On seeing the truth that yes, I was indeed capable of striking a child, my first thought was, “I am a monster.”

But luckily, I know better. I can thank a really filthy bout of prenatal and postpartum depression, and the counseling that got me through it, for teaching me how to see through this shattering mental spiral.

Peace and security, knowing that my children are safe in my care and that I can cope with this frustration, comes from peeling back all the layers of the truth. The process is ugly, but it is only by facing the ugliness in my heart and mind that I can deal with it and stop it from lashing out through my hands.

These are the layers that I found:

Truth: I am capable of violence. I am essentially no different than other people – my father who spanked, my mother’s father who went further. We all encounter pain, helplessness, and rage, and we all have a limit beyond which we can lose control.

Truth: I can hurt the people I love. Loving does not shelter us from that possibility; it only makes the consequences more devastating.

Truth: I am responsible for how I handle my fear and rage. No one else can see it, tolerate it, and process it for me.

Truth: Rage can be resolved, but it requires determination. It is uncomfortable and it takes time, energy, and humility.

Truth: It is hard to admit that I need help, but doing so is the only way to save my relationships, my soul, and my life.

As I remembered this, the blood in my face started to cool. My eyes welled up, and I admitted to myself that it had been a hell of a couple of months.

The stress between my daughter and I had reached titanic proportions. She and her baby sister kept taking turns getting sick, each receiving a handful of sleepless nights, while I volleyed, bleary-eyed, between them. This began at the end of January, and is just waning now, in the middle of April.

The big girl and I have been a mess. We both struggle through our mornings, slip-sliding on the slop of our brains. We constantly fall off track and our tempers spew out of nowhere, scalding each other like treacherous geysers. Every breathless, clenched-teeth late arrival to preschool makes both of our hearts sink in shame.

Week after week, the misery has been rising. My big girl’s behaviour has become increasingly defiant and demanding, and she melts down like Fukushima over the tiniest denials and disappointments.

I have been gripping the shreds of my patience desperately, but they keep slipping.  I snap and yell. I keep getting filled with a scorching desire to put my fist through the wall. I keep shoving it back down into the darkness, but it keeps bobbing back up.

The image is so satisfying – a bang of exploding paper and plaster, a white mushroom cloud of dust, a delicious burn in my scraped knuckles and stony-clenched fist – I think I might have been secretly harbouring it, while letting myself think I was letting it go.

Everything came to a head last Thursday morning, when I had finally coaxed, cajoled, threatened and reprimanded the four-year-old into the bathroom. I asked her to open her mouth to let me brush her teeth, and she flopped down onto the floor with the fiercest, “Nooooo-ooo!” that her thin little chest could produce.

My fantasy-self wound up and let loose on her, as though ridding me of all of her infuriating reflexes, throwing all the stress she had caused me back into her face. My punishing-self thought that pain would finally teach her, where firmness and explanation had failed. I thought it would end our war.

My rational self knows that it wouldn’t work, but like many burnt-out parents before me, I felt the destructive compulsion.

Why do these poisonous impulses surface when we experience anger?

I think it’s because violence sells. It gets our attention. Anger has a message for us; something is threatening us and we need to act. If we ignore our anger, it swells into rage. Rage speaks through visceral images and urges. Like a dream, it can access all of our senses and transport us into a vivid scene. It is like a waking nightmare with a warning. Also like a dream, we need to dig deeper into our dark visions to decode their message.

The fury that slashed my brain wasn’t really shouting, “that kid needs her bill slapped ‘round backwards like Daffy Duck.”

It was whispering, “Laurie, you’ve got to do something about your girl’s stress and behaviour. It is pushing you toward violence. You need to change it. Find a way.”

It was a hard truth to take, because I felt overwhelmed and at a loss for a plan. But seeing where our path was leading, all I could say back was, “Hell, no. We are not going there.”

It made my overwhelm and doubt suddenly unimportant. That horrifying view of my darkest potential gave me strength. It opened my eyes and made me determined to choose a better outcome.

The next day, I did some things I had been thinking about for a long time, but kept putting off.

I emailed my daughter’s teachers and admitted we were struggling at home. I asked for their input; were they seeing the same anger and anxiety from her at school?

I had been avoiding asking them. If they said no, I was afraid they would think I was either a neurotic, overreacting parent who saw problems that weren’t there, or worse, a hot-headed, incompetent one who was causing her own problems with her child.

I was afraid they could be right on either count.

If they said yes, it might mean there was more going on with my daughter than typical childhood boundary-pushing, something that needed more attention. Where would I possibly find more attention?

Next, I sat with my husband and told him about my chilling moment, and the email to the school. It made him freeze up, like I knew it would, because he is even more fearful than me of how people see us, and of receiving bad news about our children.

To his credit, even though he was distressed, he didn’t walk away. I eventually managed to reassure him that reaching out for help would gain us information, and possibly resources, that could help our family.

We are moving forward.

What I learned from that Dickensian vision of my darkest potential is that I need to get over my self-consciousness and find concrete answers for my girl. If that means revealing my imperfection to her teachers, so be it.

Perhaps, though, with them seeing me come panting into the class with her, late, day after sweaty, grimacing day, I think that particular cat may have already left the bag.

Of course, this blog is out there, too, proving to the interwebs that I am a messed-up mom. I don’t mind, though. I know I am going to do something productive with this mess.

And I trust you all to take my stories and see the truth, that there is strength and hope for you, too, in your darkest, most honest moments.

Don’t be afraid of the dark; see it, hear it, and take care of it.

There is Always a Way

My oldest daughter, a four-year-old so opinionated she will probably launch her own blog before I get this one off the ground, recently had her first nightmare. At least, it was the first one she shared with me.

The dream involved volcanoes. As she related it, several things struck me. First was the sense that this moment was critical, my first attempt at open surgery on her anxiety. There was a hush in my ears that blocked out the breath of the furnace and other murmurs of the night. I wanted to be there and get my reaction right.

Second, I noticed my little one’s tone. It wasn’t hysterical or dramatic, like I would expect from a small child confronting the limitlessness of imagined fear.

Her voice was quiet, and surprisingly sad, like she was resigned to a crushing inevitability. I realized that she had not come to me for comfort after her bad dream. I might not have known about it at all, if I hadn’t been woken by her baby sister and noticed her sitting awake as I passed.

“Mommy,” she whispered when I asked what was wrong, “I’ll never go back to sleep. Never.”

I took her in my arms and could feel the weight of sadness, her chest pressing into me with more than her little body’s mass.

I held her close, rocking her, breathing words into her hair, willing the warmth of my chest to radiate into her. Her trunk was stiff and her limbs were limp. It felt out of sync.

I pushed my worry down and pulled my knowledge up, all the things I knew about childhood emotions, managing anxiety, and the role I wanted to play in her growth.

I listened quietly until she was done. I reflected back the feelings she described, and admitted that sometimes, I had bad dreams, too. I said I knew a trick that helped me feel better, and would share it if she’d like.

She sat on my lap, turned her back into me, and looked out into the darkness. Then, she nodded.

I said, “My trick is to close my eyes and imagine the dream again, but this time, I imagine myself solving the scary problem. I might fix it with magic, or by talking, or fighting, or calling someone who can help me.

Maybe you could wave your hands like Elsa and make all the hot lava get frozen, so it’s not dangerous anymore. Maybe you could make it turn into chocolate syrup, and eat it all up. Or maybe you could imagine a great big butterfly that appears and picks you up and flies you to safety.

All you need to remember is that there is always a way to get safe. Every scary dream has a way out: a secret door, or magic spell, or fairy godmother who will come to help when you call her. No matter what, there is always a way to get safe.

When you wake up and feel so scared and can’t get back to sleep, start telling yourself, ‘There is always a way to get safe.'”

We repeated the words together a few times. At first, my girl was reluctant, then she got into it, and finally, she started to seem a little bored. She rubbed her eyes.

“Great job, Honey, “I said, kissing her soft hair, “I’m so proud of you.” I laid with her a little while, and when her breath got slow and even, I crept back to my own bed.

Ironically, now I couldn’t sleep. I was happy with how we handled her fear, but bothered by what I saw behind it. That quiet shift she made, from fear to hopeless resignation, bore the signature of my personal monster. That is depression, in a nutshell.

This was my biggest fear, the reason why I didn’t want to have kids. I hated the idea of bringing someone into the world who would grow up tormented like me, and many others in our family.

I felt tangled in smothering blankets of guilt, shame, and doubt. I looked ahead and saw my gorgeous girl struggling, growing up emotionally stunted, sabotaging herself both purposefully and unwittingly. I saw her in my place, fighting dark urges that never completely go away, especially when near a high railing.

I sneaked down to the bathroom, where I could tremble and cry without disturbing my husband. I did that for quite a while.

What finally brought my breathing back was a particularly sharp slice of shame. It poked me between the ribs, harder and harder until I could barely breathe. When I finally paid attention to it, I realized it was not just garden-variety shame at my brokenness, but something more focused: it was shame at my hypocrisy.

I realized I would never be able to sell the whole, “There is always a way to make things okay,” shtick to my anxious daughter unless I lived it, too.

My nose stopped gushing and my chest stopped heaving that very second.

I won’t say that I haven’t had any moments since then of sorrow and fear for the journey ahead of my sensitive kid. I have. However, I can say honestly that recognizing the need to take my own medicine in order to help my child has made me ready to commit with all my soul to winning the war inside me.

Fighting depression through every strategy imaginable has dredged a rusty ton of useful tidbits from the bottom places of my life. The knowledge is there to help me and my girl; I just need to trust it and use it, to wave my magic hands and call upon the wisdom to resolve each nightmare as it comes.

If you see me looking in the mirror, or watching my star-bright, complex little girl with a smile on my face but a wrinkle in my brow, you will know that I am whispering to myself, “There is always a way.”

And there is. For you, too.