How Can Parents Unlock the Ugly Cage of the Anxiety Monster?
You probably would not expect this kind of title describing a family outing or a fun day at Busch Gardens. Our photos on social media absolutely don’t give you an idea what it really takes to enjoy a day at the park or any other place with our special-needs child. A visit to the dentist, zoo or a friend’s house can pose to her an insurmountable challenge.
The picture we finally post actual represents the incredible moment we were working towards for days and sometimes weeks.
Parents of kids with anxiety would move mountains to ease their pain. It hurts to watch your child worry over situations that, frankly, don’t seem that scary. It is a huge challenge to open up their world and to help them to discover something new.
Our daughter is trapped in a sensory processing disorder cage that disables her curiosity and paralyzes her joy of learning. New situations, smell and noises can overwhelm her nervous system and her brain cannot process this overload of information. In her mind, these situations are genuinely threatening. Even perceived threats can create a real nervous system response. In that moment her brain switches to an emergency code and the Anxiety Monster attacks.
It took us years to get a good understanding on what triggers this reaction and how to help her to cope with it. We learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety. We found lots of techniques that help people cope with anxiety. Sadly, we also realized that some of them are just not feasible for a young girl with speech and cognitive challenges.
GETTING STUCK IN NEGATIVE THINKING
The biggest breakthrough came for me, when I recognized how stuck my perception of her abilities to do things was. Past negative experiences from crazy meltdowns at an event or trip completely paralyzed my brain and left no room for dreams and possibility of opening these huge gates.
Philippians 4:6 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.” When I surrendered her fears that had become mine over the years this scripture became one of my favorites. After getting unstuck in my thinking, I was able to present my desires for her in prayers to the Lord. This changed my heart and attitude which impacted her more than I could ever imagine.
THE KEYS TO UNLOCK HER PRISON
I needed to find the keys to unlock these massive wooden gates and allow our family and her to peek to the other side of possibilities. Today, I want to share with you a few ideas that might help you and your family to prepare your child for an event or trip. You will find a plethora of great research-based techniques on the internet. I will share with you a few ideas that help us to unlock our gate and that you can try right away:
1. Talk in advance about the upcoming event with your child: Who will be there? What will we do?
2. Make a social story for example “Going to the Doctor’s Office”.
3. Read age appropriate books that have pictures that illustrate what you will be doing.
4. Listen to the music of the show or movie you will go to. Watch the trailer.
5. If your child struggles with loud music or noise from clapping or cheering, watch something where he or she will be exposed to these noises to slowly desensitize her.
6. Talk about what you will do when you get to your destination. Most of the time they like a predictable outcome. Who doesn’t like that??
7. Organize the outing around their best time of the day if possible. When we fly overseas to visit family, we always take a flight that leaves at the evening and we arrive in the morning the next day. That way, she has her normal routine and sleep during the flight. It certainly will be a short night and we will still need two to three days to cope with the time change but the traveling goes smooth for her and for us.
8. Keep an outing short and sweet! Five to eight hours in a park is probably too much. You need to tailor it to their needs and ensure the visit is a positive experience.
9. Try to see the world through their eyes! Consider every little progress a huge success! Think about what could trigger their anxiety and approach the situation prepared with a possible Plan B.
10. Have a short list of external motivators ready that can motivate them to step out of their comfort zone. Combining something challenging with something they love and are familiar with is the key!
11. Stop reassuring your child. It won’t work when your child worries. They cannot listen to us during a period of anxiety. Their brain simply won’t let them.
12. During an anxiety: Stop, Drop and Empathize. I taught our daughter to take a deep breath and give her a long big hug. She needs to know that I get her! After that, we try to figure out a possible solution. Running away is not always the right response and teaches them to avoid anything uncomfortable.
13. Set mini goals to get closer to the main goal. Three years ago, our daughter was totally overwhelmed by the thought of visiting Busch Gardens in Tampa where we live. The very first time we went my goal was to create a brief positive experience. After we walked in, we sat down on the first bench in front of the Moroccan Palace and watched the people for a short time and left again. It was so difficult for her and her anxiety level was skyrocket high. Three years later, we are able to walk through the park and even watch her brother performing in the ice show ‘Turn it up’.
I am praying that these ‘keys’ will help you to unlock your child’s world and open up new possibilities. One of the greatest treasures in life are the memories we create with the people we love and share our life with. Remember that all things are possible with God who knows your deepest desires in your heart for you and your child. (Matthew 19:26) Toward the goal of a healthier life for your whole family realize that you are not alone, and you’re are not to blame. Your child is a champion! Be brave and help them to be brave!