Parenting while battling anxiety is hard. Places that bring joy to your children (the park, bouncy castles, the ice rink) can strike a fear into the heart of an anxious parent that is too intense to be described.
A while ago I was at the park. My three-year-old climbed up a ladder onto a huge wooden pirate ship that was too high for me to reach. My husband followed her up and had complete control of the situation but, I was frozen with fear. While my little girl was celebrating her epic climb with her daddy, I was stood visualising all the terrible things that could go wrong, all the awful and quite irrational things that could happen to my baby.
The terror was clearly written all over my face, as my husband quickly noticed and said, "Dan, she's got this, I'm with her. If she sees that you're anxious, she'll be anxious too".
Though the comment came from a place of love, it really struck a cord and I found myself questioning it for days after. Should anxiety be kept always hidden from our children? Does pretending to be brave and confident at all times really constitute good parenting?
Anxiety is a form of mental illness. A mental illness that is very real, that is experienced by many people and that my own children may one day experience themselves. Therefore, I have decided to be honest about my anxiety, in a way that is positive as possible.
Use something they love as a metaphor
I use a lot of metaphors when explaining things to my children. They make connections with their own experiences so quickly that it is usually the best way to help them access more complex conversations.
When discussing my anxiety, I started referring to Elsa and Anna, from Disney's Frozen. Anxiety, like Elsa's power, is something I was born with. Just like Elsa's powers, it can be seen as a gift or a curse. It gets stronger the more frightened and stressed I feel and can freeze me and stop me in my tracks. It can also make me want to freeze everyone else to the spot, or even shut them out altogether, just to keep them safe.
I explain to my girls that like Elsa discovers in the film, shutting people out, not talking about your problems and keeping everything bottled up is not the solution. Just like Elsa, when I accept that my anxiety is part of who I am, I stop it from controlling me and then everyone else can more easily understand how I am feeling and help. Just like Elsa's power, when my anxiety is understood and used gently it can be a good thing, something that keeps us all safe.
Create an accessible language
I have found that using the Frozen metaphor as a way of clearly explaining my anxiety has helped my children to discuss it openly and even feel like they can help. With support, my girls have decided that anxiety is like a protective force field whose job it is to keep everyone from getting hurt. Like Elsa's power though, if it works a little too well it can become more like a prison dome that stops everyone from having fun and learning. When this happens, my eldest has learnt to say, "mummy, can you let the force field down a little". In saying this, what she is really expressing is her need for my trust and support and in giving her a way to communicate this I am becoming more able to recognise when I need to relax a little and place my faith in her confidence.
Being honest gives them positive self awareness
Making mental health and the issues surrounding it accessible, has helped my eldest to consider her own feelings and emotions on a much deeper level. She has learnt for example, feeling fear and anxiety in certain situations is something that we all experience. That it is an instinct we all are given in order to keep us alive. She is beginning to independently identify when her own force field is acting up a bit and whether she needs to listen to it and back away from a situation or continue but with caution. She is learning to trust her instincts.
Tackling the big issues now while they are so young is a hugely important example to set. Not only are we helping the girls to face the world in an informed and prepared way, our honesty also shows that we respect and trust them.
Maintaining this culture of honesty in our household while they are this young should hopefully make it much easier for my children to articulate their feelings and worries when they reach adolescence. At a time when those emotions are much more heightened and potentially damaging, this tool will be vital.
A toolbox to help them face the world
Anxiety, like other forms of mental illness, is not something that should be kept hidden from children. They are perceptive and they worry themselves and the more we try to hide our issues, the more unnecessarily concerned our children become. Instead we simply need to give children a well-stocked toolkit, something to help them face, understand and engage with the world around them.
Mental illness doesn't need to be frightening, but if it isn't addressed, if it is left as an unexplained then that is what it can become. Not being honest with our children about anxiety and mental illness is like sending an army of soldiers to war without any weapons or information about the enemy the will indefinitely face.
All images Author's own.