We have a child who has anxiety. This is beyond worrying about things from time to time. Looking back, his anxiety was evident from the time he was a baby. He has always been a creature of habit. Changes to his routine caused outbursts, meltdowns, and lots and lots of tears. When he was two years old, and we had a second baby, there were many days when something would overwhelm or upset him and he would scream and cry for six hours a day. This isn’t an exaggeration. Transitioning to preschool was tough as was kindergarten and grade one and… This continued into grade five where we started to notice that his anxiety was having a significant effect on his performance at school. His teacher was not seeing what we were seeing as our child was good at going through the motions at school. He was in many ways the invisible kid in the classroom. He followed the rules. He worked diligently when he was supposed to. No one was the wiser that he would come home after a day of holding it together at school and have a meltdown. In fact, when we brought this up with his teacher at parent-teacher interviews, our comments were met with disbelief. His anxiety was starting to affect his ability to complete assignments and study for tests as the demands of school increased. Because his struggles were largely invisible at school this meant that he wasn’t getting the support or accommodations he needed. We decided to seek additional support from a psychologist.
My husband and I both work in the field of education and we know that pursuing this additional source of support and information is a good thing for children, families, and educators. There can be a hesitation to go this route as some people fear that a diagnosis or a label can be negative for a child and prevent them from pursuing their dreams and will limit their opportunities. In fact, from our professional experience, the exact opposite is true. Seeking the insight, support, and expertise of a psychologist, which can sometimes lead to a diagnosis, provides strategies that families and teachers can implement to best support the child. As well, ultimately, it can teach a child how to better understand himself/herself as a learner and how to effectively advocate for his/her learning needs.
As parents, it is always important to engage in dialogue with teachers and to keep the lines of communication open when things are going well and when things are not going well. Education is a partnership and is most successful for all students, whether or not they require additional support or accommodations, with a collaborative approach when everybody is “in the know” and on the same page. Despite both my husband and my educational backgrounds, we have found it challenging to navigate this road. This is largely because people look at our child and see a compliant student and they don’t see the struggles that he is having inside. At home, we see it in his emotional reactions, his behaviour, his inability to fall asleep, and in the negative way he talks about himself as a learner and as a person. There is a huge disconnect. It is really tough for him and for us as his parents. As he gets older, we struggle with encouraging him to self-advocate and balancing that with recognizing those times when we need to step in and help.
It is encouraging that mental health is something that is discussed more openly these days. Bell Canada, for example, has their “Bell Let’s Talk Day” on January 30 with a great media campaign highlighting the fact that people with mental illness look like all of us. We can’t tell who is struggling just by looking at someone. Maclean’s magazine had an interesting article (Feb. 9, 2016) entitled: “How Universities are helping students with “invisible” disabilities”. In the article, it describes how 56% of Canadian post-secondary students, surveyed in 2013, reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. It is encouraging to read in this article that even in university, supports can be put in place for students who struggle with mental health so that they can find success if university is the path they choose.
“We can’t tell who is struggling just by looking at someone.”
Over the years there are a number of strategies and resources that we have found effective to help us in supporting our child:
- Worry Box: Having our child write his worries on a piece of paper and putting them in a box at bedtime so that these worries are acknowledged but can be dealt with at a different time if they can not be “fixed” in that moment.
- Thoughts vs. Feelings: Helping our child realize that we can’t change how we feel but we can change our thoughts about things and how empowering that can be.
- Asking Questions: Instead of worrying about the unknown, asking questions can give us answers and less to worry about. (E.g. having our child ask his teacher about the types of questions on a test)
- Belly Breathing: Taking a slow breath in for five seconds concentrating on having the air fill his belly, holding his breath for five seconds, and then exhaling for five seconds.
- Physical Activity: Having a physical outlet, has been a huge help in managing his anxiety.
- Anxiety Canada Website has tons of resources for supporting both children and adults with anxiety.
Anxiety is likely something that our child will struggle with his whole life but we are confident that he will be incredibly successful and happy with tools and strategies to manage it and the confidence to advocate for himself. It is a part of who he is but it doesn’t define him.
Teacher | Author | Mama x3
Tiana Fech is a mom of three boys ages 12, 10, and 8 who has been navigating the world of part-time work since becoming a mom. She is addicted to coffee, popcorn and getting up at 5 AM on weekdays to ensure that she has her “me time”, which involves a swim at a local pool or a workout in the basement. She enjoys volunteering at her kiddos’ schools, cheering on her two oldest boys at their hockey games, and practicing piano with her youngest. Tiana has worked in the field of Education in a variety of capacities including as a classroom teacher in both Junior High and High School, a Curriculum Developer, an Early Learning Coordinator overseeing the programs for and providing support to young children with developmental delays, and, now, as a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary in the Werklund School of Education working with future teachers. In her spare time, she is building a community and village of support of moms who work part-time with her blog The Part-Time Jungle.