As a parent with anxiety, I have to face the fact that my children struggle with it too. I have tried to hide it from them. I have tried to act like everything was fine. And I have certainly done everything within my power to calm my nervous system through various trauma recovery practices. But I know my kids have picked up on my anxiety through my words, body language and energy, even if they have never witnessed a full panic attack.
I have tried to dismiss the anxious behavior by telling myself that my children have not experienced the trauma that I experienced. They have not been physically, sexually or emotionally abused like I was. They have had a great childhood compared to my experiences. That said, I would be irresponsible to ignore reality. Children can become anxious for many reasons. And many of those reasons might seem benign. Many of those reasons might not have a major impact on an adult. But to a child, it is significant.
And in reality, my children have suffered abandonment. They lost their father to suicide when they were very young. His own abuse was too intense for him to handle a typical family life, and even though he was running from his pain, he just could not escape it. They lost their extended family after I remembered my own abuse. I instantly removed my abusers from my children's lives to keep them safe. But the resulting loss only added to their previous abandonment. And while the disappearance of my extended family may have provided relief for me, it did not feel the same for them. To them, my extended family took them to parks, visited on holidays, and gave them gifts. And honestly, I am grateful they never knew the dark side of my family. But to them, the loss was real.
And then, they were left with a broken mother. I was devastated by the memories and the sudden isolation, and I did struggle to be the emotionally available mother we all want to be. And to add to the stress, my children were toddlers and they were testing the very boundaries I was just learning to set. While I never spanked, I sure could yell. And I am sure they had no idea what to do with me at times.
While the overused phrase, "children are resilient" is somewhat accurate, it isn't true in the way we think. They are resilient because they have access to defense mechanisms, but those mechanisms can become debilitating if they continue in to adulthood. So we must face up to the fact that children are traumatized by many things adults might not consider trauma. And we have to be aware of the signs that they are struggling to understand their scary world. One of those signs is anxiety.
But anxiety doesn't show up like we think. In children, they may have panic attacks, but they may experience more subtle responses. Here are some examples of reactions I have seen in my own children:
1) Dissociation: The problem with dissociation is spotting it. We have developed many other diagnoses for the symptoms of dissociation that can cause us to lose sight of what is really happening. For example, dissociation can often be diagnosed as ADHD because it evokes the same inattentive, spastic and spacey behavior. Dissociation can also be diagnosed as a mood disorder because it may cause emotional outbursts or swings when emotions are repressed from a traumatic experience.
2) Gastrointestinal challenges: I have noticed that my anxiety has been largely held in my abdominal area, and as I have released my trauma, those organs work much better. In my children, I notice a tendency toward constipation and stomach aches. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens enough to let me know there is worry and concern on their part.
3) Obsessive seeking of reassurance: I see this behavior mostly in my daughter. She is struggling to express herself confidently and will look to see if others, including me, like what she has created. While it is getting better, her need to please others is something I am constantly working to counter as she gets older.
So open your eyes to how your children may be exhibiting anxiety. If you can be aware that a life experience has created anxiety in their lives, you can bring attention to it and help them cope with that anxiety. You can even evaluate your child's anxiety level with online psychological testing, you can take a free child anxiety test here.
With your increased awareness, you can respond differently to your child when they exhibit symptoms of anxiety. You can validate their response to their fears. You can encourage them to discuss their fears with you which will develop a habit of openness that could last a lifetime.
You can help them to understand that you are there to help them and protect them as best you can. And you can potentially mitigate the long-term effects of childhood traumatic experiences. And while you may never understand the full affect of your increased awareness, it will mean everything to the child struggling to understand the world around them.