The early years. They matter.
I just read a heartfelt article written by a mom of a child with a special way of seeing the world (and hearing it since he also had some hearing loss). In her words, preschool was a magical time for him and then BAM, shit hit the fan in kindergarten. Apparently kindergarten was homework, no play breaks, no naps, lots of math and reading and her son just couldn't process all of that.
Wait, kindergarten? Like at 5 freaking years old? What the actual hell.
And that got Megan and I talking about her years in elementary school. When she remembers the anxiety first rearing its nasty little head. She remembers feeling stressed all the time. In her mind, she thought everyone felt this way. And it was confusing to her why everyone else handled it so much better.
She was functioning well on the outside. We didn't know...or maybe more likely we just didn't understand what anxiety looked like in a 5 year old. She was happy, made friends easily and was extraordinarily smart for her age.
But, some things were flags we could easily identify now. Not back then - and here are a few of the things I would do differently now that I know.
1. She made friends easily. But only one or two at a time. More was overwhelming. Her teachers would tell me she would sneak a book on the playground so she could read alone. I say sneak because we had forbidden a book during "social time". Back then we thought we should force her interactions with kids. All it did was add to her stress because she couldn't take a much needed break from the world. (In 5th grade she met her best friend Madeline. Madeline sneaked a book to the playground too... they've been besties for close to 10 years now)
2. Playing at friends houses was so stressful for her. She would do anything to get out of going
anywhere but the safety of home.
3. Friends at our house? Great. But not more than one (maybe two). If you measure extroverts on a 10 point scale, I'm a 12. So I always overstepped her need for quiet and invited ALL the kids. The more the merrier, right? Nope. More anxiety.
4. I've been through the whole school cycle now and let me tell you Moms of young ones a secret: HOMEWORK IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IS RIDICULOUS. Actually any rigorous academics in elementary school is not only unnecessary, it is very detrimental to an anxious kid. Push back and make sure teachers know where you stand with homework - they won't fail and no one will look at their elementary school grades EVER. This way you teach your kids the value of taking mental health breaks early in life. They will need that self control in high school when the shit gets real.
5. Let's talk about birthday parties. You know those ridiculous moms who throw lavish over the top parties and invite all the kids. Annoying right? Yeah. Me. I wish I could say I did it for my kids, but I've read Brene Brown and had enough therapy to get real with myself. So here's the truth - I did it for the glory. My parties were over the top, themed, magic and petting zoos and bounce house fun.
Except they were an anxious nightmare for my daughter. Looking back, I think she would have preferred a picnic with her family (in her own backyard) and maybe one gift to open.
6. So I didn't do everything wrong with my little anxious elementary school kid. One thing both my kids still talk about (and they are now in college) are the free mental health days. Each kid got 5 a school year and they could be cashed in at any time (even in the car on the way to school). They were free days where you could cry uncle and say life's not happening for me today. Instead you could stay in your pjs all day or we could go out to breakfast or we could do nothing but read. No questions asked, no excuses given. Free day. (Note: I recognize how difficult this could be for working parents. I see you working hard for your family, and you rock.)
Reflection is so important. Not to beat yourself up about what you didn't do but to pass on what you learned to others. Reflection should remind yourself that you are still learning and growing. And I am for sure still doing that daily!