Reflections: How dealing with my own anxiety helped me recognize it in my son.

I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression my entire life, but it wasn’t until I began seeing a therapist that I realized this. During my intake assessment, she asked me how long I’d been dealing with anxiety. I nonchalantly told her the last few months. “No, think back over your life,” she added. I began to think about the way my anxiety effects me now, and I was flooded with childhood memories of nervousness, constant worry, and secret anxiety attacks. The type of nostalgia you don’t want.

In that moment, I was baffled, mind blown. I’d been walking around for 27 years, struggling with mental illness; suddenly, everything made sense! I wasn’t a weirdo, or a worry wart, or a scaredy cat (all of the things I’d been called when I was dealing with bouts of anxiety). How did I navigate that alone as a child? How did all of the adults around me miss the signs? I can think of a couple of answers to those questions, but only because I’m now a mother dealing with my own issues. The truth of the matter is sometimes you just don’t know. Not only that, but when the topic isn’t welcomed in your culture, you hardly ever think mental illness could be an issue when you’re trying to determine what’s wrong with your child.

Looking at my son is like looking at a reflection of myself, not my actual face though, I’m speaking of his personality. We’re almost the same person, it drives me nuts! Malik recently turned four. He’s handsome, intelligent, artistic, funny, a show off, naturally athletic (he did not inherit this from me), and has an insane amount of energy. How can I forget his smart mouth (he definitely got this from me)? Malik is also a perfectionist, he’s cautious, has night terrors, gets upset very quickly when he can’t complete a task he’s been adamantly working on, and he likes things a certain way. He’s a little OCD. What my son and I also have in common is that we deal with anxiety.

I began to worry about Malik a couple of months ago when his dad picked him up, turn him upside down, and hung him in the air. His sister lives for those thrills. Malik on the other hand, his heart was pounding and his hands started to sweat. I thought he was going to have a real-life heart attack. I know, you’re thinking “or maybe he was just scared”, but he’s been this way his entire life. When he was 11 months old, he slowly approached a drum set I’d bought him for Christmas and jumped back with the speed of light when it began to wobble. When I get him out of his car seat, he holds on to me for dear life and says, “don’t drop me, mommy”. I chalked it up to him being cautious. Before coming to the realization that he was anxious, I often called him high maintenance and catering his little quirks became an annoyance. I was talking to my dad one day about something funny Malik had done and he said, “I hear he’s an anxious, little hard headed kid.” It’s like a light bulb went off in my head!

Later that night, I googled “anxious toddlers”. The first thing that popped up read “Ten Signs You Have an Anxious Toddler”. The signs were:

1. Fears and Phobias

2. Rigidity in Routine

3. Sensitivity to Noises

4. Sensitivity to Clothes

5. Doesn’t Like to Get Hands Dirty

6. Has Many Rituals

7. Picky Eater

8. Follows Parent from Room to Room

9. Slow to Warm up to New People

10. Sleep Issues

My son displays nine of these signs. As I read over the list, my eyes began to water. Not because he was anxious, but because I hadn’t nurtured him through it. I’d waved him off and told him he had nothing to be afraid of. I yelled when he didn’t want to eat dinner or go to sleep. I’d mindlessly cut tags out of clothes and turned down loud music. I became annoyed when he wanted specific colored cups and followed me around the house. I cried because I was able to empathize with how afraid he must have felt in this big, scary world.

All of a sudden I was thirteen again, in the mall with my grandma, freaking out in my head because I wanted to wear a black ensemble to a funeral versus the pink blouse she’d picked out for me. I hadn’t been to many funerals, but in the movies everyone wore black and there she was handing me a pink blouse! I worried all week about that stupid pink shirt. I just knew I was going to be the only person in that church with a colored shirt and I thought that was just disrespectful to the dead! The amount of relief that I felt when I arrived at that funeral and saw people in spring colors was ridiculous! I cried because I realized that’s how my son felt when none of his clothes matched on mix ‘n’ match day. When we arrived at his daycare and he saw the other kiddos running around looking silly, he was much more at ease. But before? Lord Jesus, I didn’t think we were going to make it out of the house!

You’ll never believe me, but I recently thanked God for my anxiety. Because I deal with it and have dealt with it for so long, I’m not only able to empathize with my son, but I can help him work through his own anxiety. It’s the reason I’m the best mother for Malik. I can make sure he never feels like a weirdo, or a worry wart, or a scaredy cat. I can help him recognize triggers and prevent panic attacks. I can let him know that the world is scary, but home is his safe place. I can let him know that he’s not alone. On our bad days, we’re two anxious people yelling at each other and giving in to our nervous ticks; he fidgets with his fingers and I play with my hair. On our good days, he calmly communicates that I yell too much, to which I respond by asking him if he thinks he’s been a good listener lately. He’s actually sitting next to me right now, even though I told him that I’d be in the living room in a minute; refer to sign number eight. We’re working it out though.

With the realization of any generational issue, a decision has to be made. Will I let this continue or will I do things a different way for a better outcome? I have made the decision to break the cycle of completely ignoring and never discussing mental health in my household, which requires intentionality.

As I make every effort to deal with my own mental health, I must do the same for my son. In doing so, I accomplish two things. The first, is ensuring that my child is not only physically healthy, but mentally as well. The second, is letting an African American young man know that it’s okay to have and proactively deal with mental illness. That’s big, and will effect the African American community as a whole in the long run. In our community, any talk of mental illness is taboo, considered a weakness, and encouraged to be prayed away. Equipping my son with practical tools to manage his anxiety provides him with something intangible he can share with his family and friends for generations to come.

At the end of the day, discussions around mental health saves lives. Suicide is one thing, but to walk around for years with an undiagnosed, untreated mental illness? That kills a person’s livelihood. Walking around in shame of having a mental illness because your community negatively stigmatizes it? That kills a person’s livelihood, too. It’s very common to deal with mental illness during childhood. According to the Child Mind Institute, over 17 million children in America have or have had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. In addition to that, a study done with teens aged 13-18 found that about 50 percent of children in the US will have a diagnosable mental illness before they even turn 18. Whew! Imagine how many of our babies are dealing with that alone.

I’m challenging us all. If you have any inkling that your child is struggling with their mental health, talk to them, and then talk to a doctor. If they aren’t old enough to verbally communicate (as all kids develop at their own pace) what they’re experiencing, google what you must, call a therapist for a consult. No excuses! You’d be surprised at the rates of childhood mental illness and how they’re handled in America. Let’s give our children power in taking care of their mental health instead of giving them a complex about it. We as adults and parents are models for our children, so we must take care of ourselves as well! My hope is that my son, nor any other child walk around for a quarter of a century questioning themselves because of something that a simple conversation could have helped. We’re all in this together, let’s change the conversation.

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