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Thursday, June 23, 2011

What To Do When Your Child Worries Too Much

by Seattle Jon (bio)

We were on our way out the door when my ten year-old daughter reminded us that our nine year-old son, Will, had to give a talk in primary. I quickly looked at Will, didn’t see a change in his demeanor, and thought, “Wow, he took that incredibly well.” I did a quick Google search for primary talks and found a suitably short talk on the restoration. “This isn’t a good start,” I thought, “we should have done this earlier in the week.”

I had him read the talk several times during sacrament meeting, pointing out words he had trouble pronouncing so we could practice them. His primary class meets first, so I had him check to make sure his regular primary teacher was in class. He was, so Will smiled at me to let me know it was okay to leave.

According to the pre-arranged plan, I showed up ten minutes before his talk was to start. I sat down as close as I could get to him and had one of his buddies pass him his talk. I searched his face for clues, but saw nothing. His primary leader asked him to sit up front. “Here it comes,” I thought. He sat down. I was optimistic as I saw him taking deep breathes to relax himself. His fingers were nervously playing upcoming recital pieces on his right leg. I noticed he was talking to himself, which was okay because I knew what he was saying. His turn finally came, and when he walked slowly up to the stand, unfolded his talk and started speaking, tears came to my eyes.

What I just described would have been impossible nine months ago, which was when Will started exhibiting signs of severe anxiety. He has always shown concern for schedules, for example, often asking the same question three or four times if he didn’t feel completely comfortable with what we were doing that day. He has always been close to his older sister, relying on her for both structured and imaginative playtime to the point of experiencing mild depression when she wasn’t around. Substitute teachers or leaders have always bothered him, as have new babysitters. But we were nowhere near prepared for the physical manifestations that began exhibiting themselves, seemingly out of nowhere.

We (more me) reacted poorly at first. I freely admit, in an effort to help some of you, that I yelled and threatened. I knew deep down that my behavior wasn’t helping, but the avoidance behavior, the stomachaches, the sensitivity, the panicked looks, the hyperventilating – this behavior confused and baffled me. I had no conception of what was going on. It wasn’t until my wife and I began noticing patterns to the behavior that we took more proactive action. We asked friends, who recommended other friends; we read books (this one), where we read about other books to read (this one); and we experimented with how to help him manage his anxiety, which led to more experimentation. Two things in particular have helped us turn the corner.

First, we realized there are others like Will and they are ready to help. During a particularly challenging Sunday soon after the anxiety began exhibiting itself, I sat in a room with our son, frustrated because he couldn’t get himself to go to class. When his sunday school teacher walked by with the rest of the class, I caught his eye and gave him a "help me" look. He instructed the class to go on without him and sat patiently listening to me describe what was going on. I will never forget the look on his face – it was one of understanding and love! He turned to Will, and to my surprise started telling him about his own struggles with anxiety as a kid and as an adult. When he finished, he asked Will if he’d feel more comfortable coming to class each week if there was a seating chart (structure and predictability are comforting to Will, and he was bothered by the unpredictable behavior of another boy in the class). I could almost see the bond develop right before my eyes as my son nodded yes.

Second, a friend suggested we try exercise therapy to treat the anxiety. It sounded silly at first – sending Will on a run every time his anxiety manifested itself – but it was highly effective. Something to do with the release of feel-good brain chemicals and a higher body temperature having calming effects. Whatever the medical reasons, all I know is it works. I clearly remember Will’s fourth baseball game this past season. He had missed the first three games because of a vacation, and was seeing a higher level of pitching for the first time. The opposing pitcher started warming up and he was throwing heat! I looked at Will and saw a look of panic, so pulled him aside and asked him what was wrong. Worse case scenarios – he’s too fast, he’s too wild, I’ll get hit by the ball, etc. – were paralyzing him. I pointed to a tree all the way down the foul line and said, “Start running…touch that tree and come back.” It took him one minute, but when he returned the look was gone. He took his at bat, and promptly got hit in the head with some high heat. Just kidding ... he did great.

These two helps, and many more, all led to this particular Sunday and his talk. Will isn’t out of the woods yet, but life isn’t as “touchy” anymore. If you’re in the midst of a similar challenge, I hope this post will give you hope and help you realize it will get better with time and effort.

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