25 Apr Assisting parents with managing overly anxious children – Part Three
Dr Anthony Costandius, Counseling Psychologist, Durbanville, South Africa
“I want my child back!!”
For most parents, a child is a precious person, a special event, a vehicle by which parents can fulfil their own hopes and fantasies about being excellent parents and raising an excellent, healthy, well-balanced and happy child.
Conversely, it is highly unlikely that parents, grandparents and other family members would hope, pray and prepare for a physically, intellectually or emotionally challenged child.
When confronted with the latter, the parents experience a sense of incongruency – there is a significant difference between what they thought their child would be like and the way he really is. The parents’ knee-jerk reaction is to try to change the child back to who they think he should be.
Failure to achieve this via the usual parental strategies generates ongoing grief and loss: everytime the child refuses to let go of his mother in front of all the other parents at the preschool, everytime the child cannot go to sleep if all his toys are not aligned in the proper way, everytime the child hides under the table and does not “look grandpa in the eyes” or has a total meltdown because things are not going his way, the parents are reminded that their child is not like other children. This recurrent loss and the pressure of managing the child’s emotional state, generates a lot of stress.
The nature of grief
Grief does not necessarily follow a predetermined cycle, as outlined in the iconic work of Ms Kubler Ross and her colleagues (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). Although there are generally recognised elements, the grief of the parent of a child with a Mood Disorder (like Anxiety) is ongoing and shifts over time as the child and parent moves through their respective developmental stages.
The diagnosis of a Mood Disorder in a child holds the potential for loss of existing roles. Parents may struggle to adapt to these new roles they are required to assume.
A diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder may forewarn the parent that future episodes of excessive anxiety may occur in the child. They already worry about the impact these episodes may have and mourn the reality that these episodes may be extremely uncomfortable for the child. Afterall, most parents want their child “be happy” and see it as their responsibility to achieve this state in their child.
Grieving for the “perfect child”
The parent not only grieves for the real child, who is not as anticipated, but also for the fantasy child, the ”perfect child”, who was envisaged before the birth or diagnosis. The possibility of fulfilling these fantasies and entering into a meaningful relationship is compromised by the diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder – especially where the child may be stubborn, controlling, overly rigid, argumentative and aggressive. By grieving, parents can separate from a significant lost dream.
Grieving for the loss of a valued object
The pre-diagnosed child represents a valued object, which has already received the investment of parental love, care, hopes and dreams. Accordingly, the diagnosis of a Mood disorder could result in grief that is comparable to the grief reaction when a child dies.
Contradiction, ambivalence and societal insensitivity
The parent’s grief is fraught with contradiction and ambivalence. As their child’s Anxiety Disorder does not resolve, they do not receive the temporary respite normally granted to bereaved persons, but are required to assume a multitude of new roles and strenuous tasks.
A lack of validation, insensitive social attitudes, previously unresolved grief and cultural scripting can rapidly affect the parent’s psychological and physical well-being. As a result, parents may desperately seek relief by accepting simple and immediate answers of well-meaning teachers, friends or medical professionals to problems that mostly have long-term and complex solutions
As the child fails to achieve the emotional stability of its peers, the parent may experience an ongoing and cyclic grief process, known as “chronic sorrow”. This type of grief is a normal reaction which can be a strengthening, rather than a debilitating experience for the parent.
Society, discounting chronic sorrow, may exacerbate parental stress by expecting parents to cease grieving once the diagnosis has been made and treatment commenced.
Resolution of grieving tasks
The parents of excessively anxious children are confronted with new psychological challenges, the resolution of which may contribute to their psychological well-being.
- Disillusionment vs Hope: For them to stay positive, parents need to reassess and possibly redefine their values, establish new priorities, engage in constructive problem-solving and strive to maintain equilibrium.
- Aloneness vs Intimacy: Parents may feel isolated. Once they learn that their feelings of isolation and loneliness do not reflect anything about themselves, but are more indicative of other people’s inability to cope with their child’s condition, these feelings are resolved.
- Fear of Vulnerability vs. Acceptance of Vulnerability: If Parents can accept their vulnerability, they can assess problem areas and make major decisions without fear.
- Fear of Inequity vs. Acceptance of Inequity: Once parents learn not to view the child’s condition as catastrophic and accept the inequities of life, they can develop a positive attitude about the child.
- Insignificance vs. Purpose: When a child presents with an Anxiety Disorder, it prompts parents to reassess their own significance and that of the child. They question the meaning of life, but should strive to accept that not everything in life is fair or explicable. Ultimately, parents need to find some meaning in having an overly anxious child. In the very first article of this series, the point was made that anxiety, as such, is not a bad thing. In fact it is a tool in the toolbox for success – it is only a problem when anxiety becomes excessive and elicits irrational responses and behaviours
- Past Orientation vs. Optimistic Present and Future Orientation: Parents may have fears of what will become of their over-anxious child. Realistic preparation, a present-oriented and problem-solving approach relieves some of these fears.
Accepting that a child has an Anxiety Disorder is one of many hopes and dreams that a parent may have to relinquish with regard to their child. This is an essential and liberating process which leaves the parent feeling in control even if the child’s anxiety spikes to the point that it elicits irrational thinking and challenging behaviour.
One can only deal with the child you have once you’ve given up the child you don’t.