I wish we had clued in to our daughter’s generalized anxiety disorder a lot earlier then we did. It’s not for a lack of information available, it’s just that you don’t research it when you believe your child simply hates school. I mean our generation struggled with complicated friendships, PE class, and strict teachers too. Even our great-grandmothers had to survive the “mean girls”. So, our children will make it through, too, right?
The problem is sometimes it’s more than just struggling to fit in; it’s a debilitating anxiety that leaves them feeling like they are treading in water over their head while everyone around them splashes through life in ankle-deep puddles.
Looking back there were multiple red flags for our daughter, yet because they didn’t all show up in the same year, it wasn’t easy to connect the dots. Hindsight connects them all.
1. Tummy aches. Sounds obvious, right? But what if there are no apparent problems at school? No bullies? No failing grades? I know stomach pain is common and I don’t recommend running to a doctor for every ache, but if sickness becomes a regular thing—take note.
2. Social skills change. When your child is enduring group activities and not engaging like they used to, find out why. Our child signed up for lunch time monitoring in a younger classroom so that they never ate lunch with their own class—for an entire year. They also went out of their way to volunteer for anything that kept them in at lunch break, instead of joining peers on the playground. As they moved into older grades, they carried a book and at any non-instructional time they shut out friends with a paper wall.
3. Teachers comment. Teachers see our kids in stressful social environments that don’t exist at home. One teacher spoke to us about how our child was beginning to “shut down and put up a wall” during class. Sometimes, teachers see a problem before we can and if you are lucky they will communicate these social changes. It was yet another teacher that first used the term “anxiety”. This was the first time we had a name for our child’s hatred of school.
4. Irritability. When their anxiety is on high for six hours straight, they are bound to fall apart when they walk in the front door. We now realize how incredibly exhausting it is to battle anxiety for a full day, and how normal it is to reach a breaking point by dinner. The brain is just done. There is no more emotional control. I am not saying you should endure disrespect because their brains are exploding, but try to see past the anger to the root of the problem.
5. Trouble sleeping. Everyone has a different amount of sleep he needs to be at his best, and our daughter had always done well with less sleep than her siblings, but she began to get less and less sleep. Sometimes lying awake in the wee hours of the morning (no, she wasn’t using a device or having a lot of screen time). She just quit sleeping well and ran on only a few hours some days.
6. Not enjoying things they used to. Our child is blessed with an adventurous spirit, yet one summer she began to say “no” to trying new things or going new places. This change in her personality confused us.
7. Strangely cold. It sounds odd, but our daughter has ice-cold hands during large social events. We later learned from her counselor that this is caused by the blood leaving the limbs and rushing to protect the vital organs as flight or fight response to stress. Her body was saving her vital organs from the perceived stress in the room! Maybe your child doesn’t get icy hands, but does she choose a hoodie when everyone else is in spaghetti straps? Does his heart race while sitting in a crowded room?
8. Freaking out over sudden changes. To cope with anxiety, most people need to know exactly what is happening and who will be there. Any drastic changes to the plan starts a chain reaction that ends in panic!
This is not a complete list of anxiety symptoms nor a diagnostic tool; this is simply our story. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, please seek professional, medical advice. If your child does struggle with more than just nerves, please educate yourself on anxiety and seek counseling. The good news is that with therapy and supportive family members, it is possible to face life with confidence again.
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