Behind the Smile

Back to School has come and gone.  Social media feeds were filled with photos of happy, well-dressed kids. Parents and kids alike were proud and excited, about new beginnings, fresh starts– it was breathtaking and beautiful.

It can also be bittersweet if your child suffers from childhood anxiety.

This year, we were the lucky ones: excited, smiling, and carefree. Last year, other years– they were different.

Both of my children have struggled with anxiety, triggered by diagnosed autoimmune illnesses. The word ‘diagnosed’ is important because anxiety can be hard to see, hard to explain– just hard.

Tears, stress, no appetite, no laughter. Children with anxiety can seem like they are regressing, acting out, being difficult. To see a previously happy child become hollow is devastating, and confusing.

Living with anxiety can feel heavy, and unrelenting.  In our house, it once presented as an unending, active loop: pacing the floors all night (fighting nausea), stepping outside to gasp for fresh air, then hovering over the toilet (waiting to vomit)– becoming fragile, struggling to do basic tasks that were easy and attainable at the age of five. It was pervasive– no one in our family went unscathed.

The good news: Things can get better.

We’ve tested a few anxiety-managing strategies over the years. Therapy and even medication have helped us through the worst– but on manageable days, self-awareness is key.

When anxiety sneaks up these questions are where we start:

What are you feeling?
Are you able to express what makes you feel this way?
Share what it’s like when you’re at your best.
What are some things that can help make you feel that way?
What are ways you’re already safe?
How have you moved through this before?

Behind the smile

As a parent, there’s a fine balance between showing your child that you understand that they are struggling while also helping them to keep moving forward. It’s a tug at your heart, but gently guiding them to keep moving and trying new things each day is the key to moving back towards ‘normal.’ And when we succeed, we celebrate the small victories and are reminded of how good ‘normal’ feels, and what our steps were to get there…for next time.

My daughter brought home her first middle school homework assignment of the year– a self-awareness project that would, in turn, help the teachers learn a bit about each child.

‘What is a challenge for you?’ was the prompt. ‘I have trouble focusing when I’m around my friends. I have anxiety.’

My breath caught in my throat, as I watched her struggle to refine her thoughts. Self-awareness, critical to her health– and far from typical for most eleven-year-olds.

‘I have anxiety.’ She puts pencil to paper and continues.

“It happens most in the morning in homeroom when I’m unsure of how the day will go.” “Once I’m there I often feel better.” “When I’m anxious and need you I will tell you.”

When I suffered through childhood anxiety I didn’t know that’s what it was–and I certainly wasn’t willing to talk about it.

But her? Simple, powerful and clear. She’s amazing.

Both of my kids are healthy right now, but childhood anxiety can and does show up at any time, unwanted and unbidden. Seeing both the struggle of living with it, and the ease of being without it, grants us the gift of perspective and appreciation for what ‘normal’ feels like.

As the school year settled in, my daughter has since had chats with the school nurse, taken walks with the school’s therapy dog, and taken advantage of meditation apps that were made available to her.

I’m grateful for the first day smiles that became a fab photo-opp–but I’m most appreciative of her ability to see herself, behind the smile, and to be clear about her anxiety needs.

She’s got this.

behind the smile

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42 thoughts on “Behind the Smile

  1. Love this!! I have 1 out of 3 that suffers from severe anxiety. It’s so true that it presents so different outwardly to others. It looks like a knock down, drag out tantrum. Sometimes I loose my cool. Sometimes I cry with her. But most days I can now see it bubbling beneath the surface and I can get ahead of it and help this poor sweet soul. She’s loving, kind and so incredibly smart. I never want to escalate her anxiety, I always want to just give her a big hug and ride the wave with her until she’s ready to move on. It’s so hard when it’s not your only child, and sometimes life can’t just come to a screeching halt. We all need to take a little extra time (even if that means being late for something) to just breathe and be present.

    Thank you for sharing!! So happy to hear there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a happy well adjusted teen can be in our future. Good job Mom, you gave your kids the right tools and the confidence to use them correctly.

    1. Thank you for this Nicole! ❤️
      Keep doing what you’re doing! Best wishes. 💪🏼

  2. I love that you shared this! I too suffered from anxiety in my twenties. I worked in Boston and took the T to work. It came over me like a bag of bricks hitting me. I had to get off the T pretty much every stop to BREATH! It was insane! I felt so scared and didn’t know how to handle it. Didn’t want to take meds or anything in that direction. I researched and found a psychologist that taught a class at Lahey Clinic on how to handle anxiety. I loved it and learned so much on how to deal with it before it even happens. Since then I have had it under control. I am glad to hear that your kids have it under control and self-awareness is key! There are lots of great techniques out there (especially breathing) that can help naturally. ❤️ Thanks for bringing awareness to this!

    1. Thank you for your candid response! Sadly, the only reason why I’m so compassionate about anxiety is because I’ve had it myself, many, many times over the years. It’s tough, yet it can be manageable if you have the tools to work with. So glad you were able to move through it! ❤️

  3. Great article Elease, so glad that you’re helping to normalize the conversation about living with and coping with anxiety.

  4. Really powerful blog, Elease. I particularly like your starter questions – thanks for sharing

  5. Thank you for sharing! Dealing with anxiety can definitely be manageable and I love your article.

  6. Great article. I think we sometimes forget what little ones are going through.

  7. So glad you had the experience of feeling first day smiles that became a fab photo-op.

  8. This is beautifully written. Anyone suffering from any form of anxiety can appreciate these honest words! As parents we always worry about our children’s well-being and it’s heart-breaking to see them suffer like this! Thank you!

  9. Your daughter is more reflective on her needs for her anxiety than I am. I love that she is aware enough to say I get anxious but then it usually ends up okay. So she is aware it is the anxiety making her feel that way, not something that actually needs to be feared. And that she can tell when the line is crossed to too much and will ask for help. Inspiring!

    1. Lauren, she’s pretty great. I’m so thankful that she can recognize her needs and is willing to talk about it.

  10. I love the idea of self-awareness being something that can bring us out of anxiety. Such a powerful tool 💚

  11. Andrew McKoscielecky January 18, 2019 — 5:24 pm

    I love it that you shared this! Good point of view about the conversation!

  12. This is amazing and I just learnt how to deal with anxiety and also help people around me who goes through this.Thank you so much, you are such a darling..

  13. It’s amazing of them speaking up about anxiety..letting them know someone cares and understand will somehow lessen the load.. I think it’s one way of dealing with it to cope up and eventually lead to health….. Had they chose to keep it…. It will be doubly hard……

  14. I can relate to this so much. That balance between giving them the space they need to grow, whilst make them aware it’s ok to ask for help and know you are there for them is a difficult one.

  15. This was such an important post. I feel like childhood anxiety is so commonly overlooked, and as someone who struggles with anxiety in adulthood who has a younger brother dealing with anxiety, affirming their feelings and correctly handling anxiety is so important.

  16. Neil Alvin Nicerio January 20, 2019 — 3:21 pm

    Childhood anxiety is a big word for new parents like me. It sounds like something I never wanty child to ever face in her life. Thank you for this informative article. 🙂

  17. You are a strong mom! Look at their smiles – it surely melts my heart. You are doing great. I’ve had anxiety, but didn’t occur to me that children could experience this too. I will have to watch out for signs so I can also guide my kids when that time comes.

  18. Really important article to raise an incredibly important issue. I think many people brush anxiety under the carpet as its not a physical issue. And this had led people to forget that taking care of ourselves is just as important as school, our jobs, money etc!

  19. This is one of the best posts I have read so far! Full of helpful information that may aid parents and kids who have the same struggles. Your kids are lucky to have you as their parents!

  20. Thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing

  21. Awesome! First of all, I would want to send my virtual hugs being a mom is indeed a tough job, you are basically helping and shaping your kids life. Supporting them in their down days. And YES you are right, things are going to be okay!

  22. I appreciate your decisions to write on a subject that plagues so many and that yet, we don’t get to hear about it from more families who struggle every day. Your sensitivity and compassion shows and you/your kids will continue to find effective ways to manage anxiety.

  23. Thank you for sharing something so personal. I never suffered majorly with anxiety until I got sick myself, but my anxiety surrounded my illness and my lack of diagnosis.
    I still don’t have a diagnosis, but after 5 years, I’m so close to getting one that the anxiety is barely there anymore. I still have issues with anxiety, now focused on my future, but after so long and trying so many techniques, I know how to handle it and it seems that your daughter has also learned how to handle her own anxiety, and that’s amazing.

  24. I’m in the middle of an autoimmune diagnosis. May I ask what the autoimmune disease is you face? I love the questions, these are great to remember for my kids.

    1. Sure thing! I’m happy to email you at this address if that okay with you.

  25. A beautiful piece. I have a child with anxiety too and it can be so hard.

  26. My kids don’t suffer from anxiety, but it’s always good to know how to support them and make them feel like they have a good support system and a safe home.

  27. What a wonderful post!! As an adult with anxiety, I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a child. I LOVE that she knows coping mechanisms at such a young age! She’s a rockstar!!!

  28. This is beautiful. My 5-year old daughter has anxiety and I don’t, so I often struggle to understand and empathize with her. It’s something I’m actively working on and seeing failures and successes as she gets older. Thanks for sharing this story <3

  29. So true anxiety can hit you anytime and can be very hard.

  30. I face the symptoms of nausea when I’m anxious. I hate every second of it. I wouldn’t wish it on my kids! Thanks for the article.

  31. It’s tough being that age. Good job, mama.

  32. Thank you for this. My daughter was diagnosed with anxiety at 8 years old after literally pulling chunks of hair off of her head. Learning how to manage and reminding her what she needs was a real struggle that year. She’s older now and like your own recognizes what she needs and how to get there. No prouder moment than that. They got this!

  33. thislovefilledlife February 21, 2019 — 6:21 pm

    This was such a great post. Suffering from anxiety as an adult is one thing, having it during those young adult years is tough! Having been through it yourself you can connect with her and what she is going through which I imagine is a great help for her.

  34. Elease, Thank you for sharing this. As always, I love reading your posts. I have 4/7, well let’s get real, all seven of my children have at some point struggled with anxiety. I have learned so much from a good friend who is a naturopathic Dr and she has led a down a ‘gut’ healing path.
    Trish

  35. This is so hard I see it in my classroom everyday and i can imagine as a parent it’s so hard.

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