To The Parents Of Anxious Children, From A Former Anxious Child

13/03/2016 6:19 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Jacqueline Veissid via Getty Images
Three year old girl clinging to mother's leg

To parents of anxious children,

Hi, I'm Cayla -- a relatively well-rounded adult. When I was little, though, I was anxious. So anxious I ended up in sick bays and doctors' surgeries with an eventual diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. But there was nothing wrong with my belly.

I find it hard to articulate why, but activities I genuinely loved -- such as going to school or swimming class -- filled me with such nightmarish dread that my stomach felt like it was bloating with pure fear.

I remember sitting in Year 1 class with my friends, feeling as though I'd just slugged back a litre of milk, trying to concentrate as the pressure in my stomach threatened to burst.

Back to sick bay again with complaints of a tummy ache. The nurse, pointy faced spinster, asked me whether I'd ever heard of the word 'hypochondria'. I hadn't, but when I asked Mum that night, my cheeks reddened when I discovered the meaning.

You might be wondering what to do for your anxious child, and my parents were initially at a loss to explain me. At first, my Mum thought I was eating too much bran, then the IBS diagnosis sounded plausible because, when these little bouts of anxiety cleared, I was a completely normal six year old. I had buddies, I loved giving new activities a go and was a resilient little scamp thanks to tagging along on my big brother's various adventures.

And my parents put absolutely zero pressure on me. They were so sensitive about my precious little sense of self that when my brother won an award, Dad would be careful to say: "You kids are amazing," so we'd both feel included.

When I was trying out for the softball team, Mum's only advice was "as long as you're having fun, that's all that matters".

In fact, when I got myself together later in life and started doing well at chosen pursuits, my parents were a little dumbfounded. Proud, but dumbfounded. Like, where did that come from?

But that was still years off.

The anxiety would especially grip me at the end of the school day. If Mum was coming to pick me up at 3.30 pm, at 3.25 pm I'd feel hot tears welling as my mind raced with every possible thing that could go wrong. I'd sometimes cry in front of my friends and they'd ask me why. When I feebly replied that "Mum's not here yet" they'd say, "yeah, none of our Mums are here yet".

Does any of this sound familiar to you, parents? And what can you do?

I never had any professional intervention, and looking back, I'm so glad I didn't. All I needed was to be loved unconditionally, and to be reassured day after day that, yes, Mum would pick me up from school and, yes, life would go on.

One afternoon, the epiphany struck me -- every breakfast I felt apocalyptic dread about the coming day, and every afternoon it turned out to be okay. Perhaps I didn't need to be so concerned. Perhaps life was actually really great.

My daily stomach aches lifted just like that.

My garden-variety anxiety really came down to my own struggle to accept the parts of life that I wasn't equipped to deal with just yet -- If Mum didn't come to get me, I had no idea how to get home. If something upset me at swimming class, I didn't have the power to leave.

So, parents of anxious children, everyone is different and anxiety can be a signal to more serious conditions, but if your kid's a bundle of nerves for no reason, it can't hurt to tell them you love them. Every single day.

They'll grow up carrying that love like a salve, so when anxiety kicks them like a horse's hoof to the guts, they can dwell on the knowledge that everything is actually going to be alright.

Because life is actually really great.

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