1 in 10 adults deals with an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illness in Canada, according to anxietybc.com.
It’s normal to have anxiety about certain things. It’s part of our natural fight-or-flight response. However, when you have an anxiety disorder, those feelings of fear and apprehension are intense and persistent.
People with these disorders fear anything from snakes, to leaving their house, and often times these fears debilitate their lives. Some will get intrusive thoughts, while some will experience the physical symptoms of a panic attack: shortness of breath, heart racing, dizziness, nausea, and others. The symptoms vary from person to person, but it’s not an easy condition to live with, and it’s especially not easy to parent when you have anxiety.
I would know.
I’ve always had anxiety.
I used to be able to deal with it effectively, but now that I’m a mother I find it more difficult than ever before.
How to parent when you have anxiety
Where once I was able to focus entirely on my well-being and ensuring that I would conquer the next challenge, those days are no longer. I now have to fight my own battles while I fight battles with my 3-year-old. No longer can I meditate whenever I choose to or exert my extra energy with a mid-day run. My day is planned around ensuring that I get that time to take care of my mind. If that doesn’t happen I’m left to suffer the consequences.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I was pregnant with my third daughter. I would become so panicked about small “what if” things that I would spend hours in my bedroom hyperventilating and sobbing in my bed while my children watched movies. It’s become increasingly worse for me over the years. Recently I’ve begun to feel the burden of panic attacks, and now wear the load of the accompanying physical symptoms of that on a daily basis.
I kept this from my kids for a long time. I’m not embarrassed (obviously, as I’m sharing it all in a blog post…), but felt that these were adult problems that my children didn’t necessarily need to be informed of. That changed when I had an abrupt, intense panic attack that left my children wondering what was wrong with their Mom.
Throughout the course of my time dealing with how to parent when you have anxiety I’ve learned that one of the most important components of being able to parent while dealing with a mental health issue is to take care of ME first. This seems contrary to what we normally do as parents; to prioritize ourselves, however, it truly is the most important thing. You can’t take care of your children the way you want to and the way you’re capable of when you’re battling demons of your own.
I learned that making self care a priority was not selfish. It took me a while. Like, 4 kids and 12 years of parenting a while…but it’s helped immensely. I no longer feel bad when I head out for coffee with a friend, go for a hike, or plunk the kids in front of a movie so I can do some writing. Ultimately, my act of self-care will make me a better parent which will benefit my kids. Guilt=gone.
How to talk to your kids about your anxiety*
*I am not a trained medical professional. These suggestions are not based on medical evidence or fact; they are solely based on my experience as a mother on how to parent when you have anxiety.
Be open and honest
Your kids will be able to relate to what you’re going through. Remember a few nights ago when they were panicking about the monster under their bed? Use that as a parallel example for what you’re dealing with. Explain to them that adults get scared feelings about things, too. Let them know that it’s normal to have these feelings. Anxiety and most mental illnesses have a stigma surrounding them. Teaching your children that anxiety is not abnormal will contribute to that stigma hopefully being extinguished in future generations.
Explain what they may see
Let your kids know what anxiety looks like. Maybe you start to breathe a little heavier or fidget with your fingers. Perhaps they’ll hear you talking yourself down, or see you crying. Fill them in on your cues so that when they start seeing your shift in behaviour they understand what’s happening. When your kids see you acting unusually it’s scary for them. Remind them of the “scared feelings” you previously discussed. Reassure them that everything is fine.
Your kids will want to help. If you’re feeling particularly anxious and can’t escape your children to get your bearings, involve them. They would love to do some deep breathing (2 seconds in, hold for 2 seconds, 2 seconds out) or muscle relaxation. It will benefit you and your child, and may even serve as a distraction for you to help get you through your difficult moment.
Give yourself space
No matter how old your kids are you can make some space for yourself. Explain that Mommy is going for a “time out” (they’ll get a kick out of this, trust me). Give them a safe activity to do for a few minutes while you go to a room and breathe.
Give yourself emotional space, too. It can be guilt provoking when you’re spending time trying to deal with your mental health rather than spending time with your kids. Try not to let it be. Spending this time to focus on your mental health will ultimately make you a better parent when you’re feeling well enough. This is a process.
Being a parent when you have anxiety is extremely challenging. This website has many resources available to help you through, however, if you feel your anxiety is getting to a point where it’s beyond your control I urge you to consult with your doctor or naturopath. There are also some online resources for mental health in this post.
There’s no judgement. You need to make sure that you are your best you! If you’re finding that you just can’t keep dealing with your anxiety and need immediate help get your phone and call this number if you’re Canadian: 1-833-456-4566, and this number if you’re American: 1-800-273-8255. Those are crisis lines. If you’re feeling like you’re at the end of your rope you MUST get yourself some help. If you feel you are a danger to yourself or others please call 9-1-1. Don’t take chances, Mom. You’re worth getting yourself the help you need. Stop reading this and call right now. Please.
Taking care of yourself IS taking care of your children!