The first time my daughter had a full panic attack I had one along with her. We were at the same gymnastics studio we’d been attending twice a week for three years. Her favorite coach and friends were already on the mat, but she was so terrified she couldn’t walk through the door. She gripped my arm, wailing and sobbing while her little body trembled. I did a poor job of calming her; I was shaking myself.
Then she threw up on me, and we both cried. We cried as we made our way to the car to clean up. We cried as we drove home. We cried as we showered. We cried as we snuggled in her bed. We cried until, exhausted, she whispered: “Mommy I’m so glad we have each other.” While she slept I continued to cry.
I Blamed Myself
As I held her that night, I thought about every time I’d lost patience with her. I re-lived shouting “What’s wrong with you?!” at the height of impatience one day. I heard myself snap at her any time she was moving too slowly, being too loud or making a mess. I dwelled on the night I exhaustedly let her cry for more than five minutes at three am in the hopes she would fall asleep on her own. Just once.
I spent most of the night awake, disappointed in myself and sad for her. My darling girl, who had my eyes and smile had also inherited my tendency to worry. My joyful child could look at the clouds and see a frog dressed like a jester or a pirate skull poised to attack. Now she’d lost her joy for gymnastics, a place she’d always felt safe and welcome, and would suffer similar losses in the future. My heart hurt for her lost potential, and I carried the blame for it. I was positive that not only had I failed her as a mother, but I had also caused every ounce of anxiety she carried.
We’ve both grown since. Time and therapy have delivered both of us a set of tools to better manage these situations. I’m more aware of my own anxiety, more honest with her when I conquer it, and more transparent when I don’t. I’m thoughtful about the words I choose to correct her. I’m more compassionate towards myself.
We named her worry monster Mya. I haven’t named mine yet. If I hear the playfulness in her voice being edged out by shrillness I take my own calming breaths, steel my spine, then meet her eyes. We talk about silly Mya. We ground ourselves by discussing things we can see, feel, touch, hear and taste. We practice the tools we’ve learned to make us stronger. We hold hands and face her panic together with calm compassion.
The last time Mya got the best of her it went better. Mostly. I still held her a long time that night, but only one of us was crying. There was the same sadness, less despair. Her words before she fell asleep this time were different.
“Mama … what if I’m always like this?” she asked me. She’s too young to ask that question. I want to romanticize that moment and say I gave her the perfect, honest answer.
Instead, it brought me back to that first night we cried together, to all the mistakes I’ve made, and will make again, as a parent. I was still ashamed yet grateful she could see that I make mistakes and come back from them. I reminded myself that I don’t have to be a perfect mother. I just have to be a present one. I hugged her as hard as she would let me.
“I don’t know Hon,” I finally told her, “I’m just so glad we have each other.”
Sharing Our Story
According to the ADAA, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. My daughter is one of them. So we discuss it often: how far she’s come, and how much work it took. Then we talk about sharing our story so that, if other Moms and their children have a worry monster, they know they aren’t alone.
With my daughter’s permission and input, over my next few posts I will share the best (and worst) of what we learned. I’ll discuss, from a Mother’s perspective, what anxiety attacks can look like, how we’ve dug ourselves out of them, and some resources we’ve found invaluable. Finally, we will talk about our road forward and how we manage anxiety before it becomes crippling. Our hope is that, by sharing our journey, we can aid you on yours.