When your child is young and it is time for bed, you walk into the room ahead of them, and turn on the nightlight. You might find the special blanket or lovie, you might even turn on the closet light and open the closet door…
You do these things because you love your child.
You do them because you know how to make your child feel safe and secure. You know what makes your child feel anxious or afraid, and you take steps to make sure your child never has to feel that way. You flip on the light switch and make sure your small child doesn’t have to be alone in a dark room.
I am a parent of a child with anxiety. The things that my child fears don’t always make sense to me or to others. Unlike a common fear like the dark, children with anxiety often struggle with irrational fears. These fears cannot usually be reasoned away.
The anxiety at our house is the result of severe food allergies. My daughter knows that she is deathly allergic to certain foods, and to help herself feel safe, she asks about foods, who has touched what foods, who will touch the things she is going to touch and if they have previously touched certain foods. These are the walls that she places around herself to protect herself.
In her mind, the world is full of danger. A simple door knob or restaurant table, a hug from a friend at school, a park slide or the monkey bars… all life-threatening encounters in the mind of my little girl.
Now, as adults, we can reason that it is unlikely that she would have an allergic reaction as a result of playing on the monkey bars, even though it’s not impossible. A child technically could have eaten a peanut butter sandwich and then run off to play, contaminating the playground equipment. My daughter constantly surveys her environment. She is constantly searching out all possible threats, continually assessing the world around her.
And most of the time, the world around her feels dangerous.
As her mom, I do my best to help her. We all want our children to feel safe and unafraid. But previously, most of my help came in the form of trying to tell her that she was okay. I would try to tell her all of the ways everything would be okay. Like calming a child after a bad dream, I would explain that she was safe. If you’ve ever had a loved one struggle with anxiety, you know that telling them not to be afraid is pointless.
The feelings of fear are real to them. The possibilities, real. The dangers, real. The uncertainty and worry, real…. even if we don’t see the world the same way.
But I have come to realize that I cannot calm my daughter’s fears by convincing her that she is okay. It is not my job to convince her that the room isn’t dark. It’s my job to find a light switch and help bring revelation to her feelings. What my daughter needs from me right now… in this season… is for me to be able to see the world from her perspective and do my best to turn on a light.
That’s what it feels like to parent a child with anxiety. It feels like trying to see the world through the eyes of your child and turning on the lights even when you don’t see the world as dark. It looks like finding what will help your child in that moment even if your solution won’t make sense to another living soul.
Turning on the lights might look different for each of us.
For some of us, it might actually mean turning on the actual lights. For others of us it might look like bringing hand wipes to the park (to pass out the other children). It might look like a conversation with your child’s friends about not wanting to play a certain way today. It might look like a placemat from home at the restaurant table, or not wanting to go to sleep alone. It might look like driving your child to school even though they could take the bus.
But we do these things… We walk into the room ahead of our children and turn on the light… even when we don’t see the world as dark…
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