I had the best teacher in the first grade. Her name was Mrs. Banks and she had the sweetest voice, the gentlest demeanor, and the most awesome brown perm that cascaded down her back (this was the eighties, after all). She made learning fun, she was engaging, and I had a bunch of friends in my class.
But I absolutely dreaded going to school.
I cried every single day my Mom walked me to the door of my classroom. Bless her heart.
When asked what was wrong, the best answer I could come up with was that I was simply “worried”. Worried about what? I didn’t know. I couldn’t articulate why my stomach tied in knots every morning, why my little hands started to shake as we got closer to the classroom. I was worried. I just was. I loved my school, I was usually okay leaving my mom, but for whatever reason, that first grade year was shrouded in this constant sense of dread. First grade dread. Second grade was a significantly more challenging year, and yet I was fine. No worries at all. The knot in my stomach was gone. I couldn’t explain why, I was just better. And life moved forward.
I think it’s safe to say that when bending towards either depression or anxiety, my personality would snuggle in best with anxiety. It shows itself every once in a while and is very much situational, but, when it pops up, it’s frustrating. I know now how to navigate it and what to look for when that feeling begins to creep up, but there’s nothing more helpless than not being able to explain why you feel the way you do, as I felt when I was a kid.
Enter, my daughter.
After a great few months at the beginning of the year, she suddenly developed these “tummy aches”. Granted, her stomach has been known to have issues, but I noticed that these tummy aches almost always preceded some sort of change, whether it be a trip, an event, or simply a change in schedule. Ahhh. And this is a kid who was fine going to the nursery as a baby, fine staying at Grandma’s, and, until this point, fine being dropped off at school. But, the tummy aches caught my attention. And when we would ask what was wrong, this child, who is usually able to articulate quite well, couldn’t explain it. And she would get frustrated. And I suddenly saw myself as a child, blonde hair in braids, Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper tucked under my arm, grasping my Mom’s hand in fear, afraid to face the day …. for really no reason at all. I knew with our little one, this would take some intentionality and technique. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “You’re fine”, or “It’s going to be okay”, but, anyone who has faced anxiety even in the smallest way knows that those responses are pretty worthless. Well-intended, but they fall flat.
I knew I needed to acknowledge her feelings, rather than minimize them. I wanted her to be able to take ownership of her fear, rather than allow the fear to own her and steal her joy. Her tummy aches almost always pop up the night before, so now when that little blonde head peeks around the door frame of my bedroom and I see the familiar look of worry on her face, I pull her onto my lap and we simply begin to talk about the next day. We start with waking up, and then eating breakfast. And I’ll ask, “Hmmm, so do you eat breakfast and then go to school?” And she’ll laugh and say something like, “No, I need to brush my teeth!” or “No, I need to get dressed!” And then we’ll talk about the drive to school, and I’ll ask her what she will do when she walks into her classroom. “I”ll hang up my backpack!” Oh that’s fun, I say. And then I ask her whether she has P.E. or library, if she wants to be hot or cold lunch, and we essentially walk through the whole day, from wake to sleep. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, ours usually takes five minutes. I continue to ask questions for her to fill in the gaps, and by the end of our talk, her tummy ache is much smaller and she goes right back to bed. Talking through the day prevents her from being afraid of it.
Here’s the deal: I don’t always explain the events of the day to my kids. There’s nothing worse than piling in the car, only to be serenaded by a chorus of “Where are we going?” “What are we doing?” “Why are we leaving?” “What time will we be back?” “How does gravity work?” (For reals, guys.) Sometimes they don’t have to know. You’re along for the ride, I’m the Mom, trust me, where’s the coffee. Done and done. And even with my talks with my little one, I leave room for flexibility. I don’t know the exact time I am picking you up, but I will pick you up. I don’t know what’s for dinner, but we’ll figure it out (hopefully, ha). There will always be unknowns in our day. But taking ownership of the “knowns” helps her to feel empowered to face them.
Honestly, I don’t know why my anxiety suddenly stopped as a kid. Maybe I just grew out of it. But maybe my first grade year would have been way more tolerable (especially for my teacher, poor woman) if I, too, had taken ownership of my fear. Who knows. But what I do know is that in this moment, it’s helping my kiddo. And for all of the parenting fails that I blunder through on a daily basis, I’ll take this “W”.
For now. :)
Have a lovely day, my friends.