What Anxiety Looks Like

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.22.23 PMDespite a fantastic first day of his afternoon Montessori class, my older son, age four, grew quieter the morning of the second day of class. He dawdled through lunch and, tears appeared each day as the time to leave approached. I’d reassured him, reminding of him how happy he came out each day, a day he’d walked in with confidence, eyes dry. I asked what was wrong.

Eyes full, face tight with emotion, he confessed: “I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” I probed.

“I’m worried that I’m going to get worried while I’m there,” came his reply.

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, this must be meta-anxiety. We talked and continued our daily treks to school, where his teacher reassured me that his anxious expression faded within the first half hour each day, at which point he fell into the rhythm of the prepared environment and stimulation of the Montessori classroom.  That was vaguely reassuring, although I couldn’t shake the sting I felt when looking on his anxious face every day for three weeks, at which point, it seems, worrying about worrying wasn’t necessary.

Twelve years later, that expression is still all too familiar in our house. As an intermittently anxious mom who parents two anxious kids, I’ve watched anxiety in all forms. Too often anxious feelings go unspoken. They can get lost in the frustration feeling tied by one’s emotion.  It can come out upside down, inside out, and sideways, presentations that require a mental contortionist with a sharp eye to recognize.  It can cry and scream and hide and even vomit. It never fails to break my heart.

Anxiety looks like physical illness. It can be the recurring stomach ache or headache that drives a child to bed due to severity. It can look like an approaching cold or flu or case of food poisoning, and separating out what is what can press a mom’s skills of detection. This is not feigned illness. The headache of anxiety is as painful as one from sinus pressure or severe muscle tension. The stomach distress can keep one tied to a bathroom much like the aftereffects of an aged burrito from a street vendor. The chest pain and palpitations drive many an adult, certain death is imminent, to the emergency room. Anxiety and its sibling, panic attacks are as debilitating as the organic diseases they mimic. Classes are missed. Play dates are cancelled. Sleep is lost. More confusing yet, the symptoms can begin after the bout of anxiety ends. Adrenaline may help us outrun the saber tooth tiger, but we pay a price for its untimely release that so often occurs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks like resistance and noncompliance. Anxious children can be avoidant children. Avoiding what is causing anxiety — a difficult piano piece or a math assignment that just might be challenging — doesn’t help, of course. The dreaded assignment reaches gargantuan proportions with avoidance, and delay generally means the work, when finally done, is done under pressure of time, thus producing more anxiety. The piano piece never practiced because it might be too hard causes anxiety at each practice, anxiety that builds as the next lesson approaches. Quiet avoiders may fly under the radar until the next lesson or the day of a test, when anxiety then flairs. More overt avoiders may find themselves in constant (anxiety-provoking) conflict with a parent or instructor.

Anxiety looks like anger. Anxious children can tantrum — screaming, crying, arguing, and even physically lashing out when faced with the powerless feeling that anxiety can bring. Being loud and mad can bring a semblance of control that is, of course, not control at all but often complete lack of it. With the focus moved from the source of anxiety to the misdeeds of all those around the child : mom, who said I had to do it, my brother, who just happens to be in the way, him or self, because being angry seems better than being scared. The wake of the anger can become the focus for all involved, with consequences meted out to children without control of their flood of emotions.

Anxiety looks like sadness. Anxiety can walk with depression. It’s hard to be anxious all the time. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety can take a child away from new experiences, because anxious children will avoid what might be fun if the risk appears too great. When anxiety about a new experience – joining a club, attending a sleepover, riding the roller coaster – pride and confidence may develop. But for some anxious children, brave attempts to try something new are met with anxiety that makes enjoyment impossible. It’s easy to feel like a failure, and that can lead to sadness.

And sometimes, anxiety look like anxiety. The keyed-up child who keeps asking if he is safe during each thunderstorm, checking forecasts and windows. The child who, before vaccinations, asks for weeks what day the dreaded shot is, losing sleep the nights before and breaking down in hysterical tears before the actual event. The preschooler who cries each morning before preschool starts, because he saw someone else cry on the first day, so there must be something to worry about.  And sometimes, kids can give it voice.

“I’m feeling anxious, Mom.”

Those words bring me hope and relief. Not for the anxiety itself. I’m sorry my kids worry about what worrying won’t help, and I’m sorry anxiety keeps them from doing all they’d like to do. But that they can express it — identify it and share it — makes me hopeful that they’re learning to cope with what for each of them has been at times a debilitating condition.  And that makes me just a bit less anxious about them.

For more posts about life with twice exceptional (2e) kids, visit this month’s Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum Blog Hop list.