Recently, my husband had a day off, so I wanted to do something special. I had it all figured out in my mind: I would take the mattress off the futon and lay that mattress down on the living room floor. Then, I would bring in pillows and blankets. Finally, I would set out a handful of movies for him to choose from, and the boys and I would make homemade popcorn with real butter and salt. Family movie night on the living room floor! The only thing standing in the way was the inevitable meltdown that I knew would happen if I tried to make this special event happen. The reality is that one of our boys has moderate anxiety and struggles when even simple things in his environment are out of order. He is not diagnosed with any “special” disorder; however, he does struggle with anxiety.
The expected meltdown did happen as soon as I took the futon mattress off the futon…a firm, “Put it back, Mama!” followed by tears and sobs and a fit.
As I laid the mattress in the living room and continued to set up our fun movie day, I also had to continue to console, “Wait, you’ll see, this is going to be so much fun!”
Only to be responded to by a screaming, “NOOOOOOO!”
Before having my son, I would have thought such a scenario was need for quick discipline and for the parent to express her authority in the situation. I know, now, though that my son’s issue (at least in moments of anxiety) is rarely with my authority, but with either his environment or the order of things (or a change thereof). Early on, I just thought my son was sensitive…sensitive to noise, strangers, environments, etc. As time passes though, and I get to know him better, I think it is more than just sensitivity.
Not only do I realize now that his sensitivities cause or are coupled with anxiety, I am also becoming increasingly aware that my son is intelligent for his age, and that his intelligence also contributes to his anxiety. From what I’ve been able to observe, his intellectual development and environmental awareness is often beyond his (average) emotional development. What that means is that he is smarter than what his emotions can handle. So, for example, when we walk into a new environment, he is busy taking in every single detail and cataloguing every person and every noise. Busy, noisy, and/or crowded environments have often struck him with such intense anxiety that we’ve had to leave events simply because it was too much for him.
Not ever having had a child of my own before him, I at first had no idea that our little guy fell outside the norm for anxious behavior. It wasn’t until we had to start explaining to family members how our little guy was wired differently than his peers, that I began to realize he struggled with a fair (more than normal) amount of anxiety. I had been trying so hard to take good care of him, to make his world routine, to not put him in situations that led to meltdowns…thinking this was a common experience of parenthood. However, as I had to explain more and more to family and friends how much he needed high order and much environmental peace to just be okay, I began to realize that he was a little different than his peers. As I heard other parents share about things they were able to do with their little guys, I realized how far away from the norm we actually were in our experience of parenting.
We couldn’t let him “cry it out” as a baby because his “crying time” never lessened like everyone said it would. We couldn’t just adjust bedtimes for a night out (unless we wanted to be up for nights in a row afterwards). We couldn’t just leave our little man in childcare (unless we planned for the workers to come get us twenty minutes later with the little guy a complete heaving, sobbing mess). We couldn’t just hang out in crowds (until recently) without expecting a meltdown at any given point. We couldn’t just be in a crowded, busy living room without expecting a sobbing fit from our twenty month old begging to “take a break.”
It’s been a steep learning curve (one without a handbook) as we’ve worked to understand our little man, make his world as secure as possible, and explain to those watching what we’re doing.
Because of the little person we were entrusted with, my husband and I have had to make choices about our priorities. We’ve had to make the choice to not leave him in childcare at church or other events. This has made some of our life rather tricky, since we want to be in spiritual communities and continue to lead retreats. We’ve opted to have one of his grandmas stay with him when we do leave town to lead retreats. We’ve come to expect to have difficult nights after any period of time when we’ve been gone from him or when we travel as a family. We’ve developed the attitude that if we need to “call it” at any event, outing, or family gathering, then we communicate with each other and get up and leave. Our participation in most things is, at this point, with the condition being that if it is not good for our little man, we step out.
This has been an incredibly humbling (and often limiting) reality for me. I have had to come face to face with what my priorities in life actually are and often choose my little man over things that I would have been fiercely committed to in the past. I have had to adjust how I minister to others, knowing that those in my family (i.e. my son) are my primary focus of ministry. And I have had to own the reality that my son struggles with anxiety. Instead of making up excuses for our family or trying to push him to be like his peers, I’ve chosen to accept and communicate that he struggles with anxiety. This has been a growing step for me: to say that we struggle as a family, to admit that this is hard for my son and that we have to work with him on many things. But it has also been a freeing step. It frees me to live in our reality and not try to keep up with the reality of others. It frees me to focus on who I’ve been given to mother, not focus on how this whole parenting/kids/mom thing is “supposed” to look. I am learning more all the time. And the good news is that our little man is, too. As he gets older (and develops more and more emotionally and socially), we see him releasing levels of anxiety. This brings hope that he and we will continue to develop in our understanding of managing anxiety.