My eight-year-old is TERRIFIED I will leave and never come back. By terrified, I mean, we spent an unmentionable amount of money on OCD therapy to help her with this fear. It’s REAL to her. It’s intense. It’s mind-blowing to see. And yes, it is absolutely HEART-BREAKING.
WHAT DOES ANXIETY LOOK LIKE?
My youngest’s biggest fear is hardest for her to deal with at bedtime. It has been several years since this fear took hold. I can’t remember when it started. But I know it’s here now. We unknowingly developed routines and patterns for bedtime that have actually confirmed to her brain that there really is something to be afraid of. Curtains closed. Light off. Night lights (there are three) on. White noise on. Closet door closed. Read a book. Cuddle. Hug and kiss. Second hug and kiss. Hall light on. Door closed (except when her anxiety is really bad and then it’s Door cracked open.) If one piece is missing all Hell breaks loose and there is crying, sometimes screaming, and yelling, until that last piece is completed. It’s rough. Oh, and I forgot. All this must be done by me, Mom. If Dad, or sibling helps her to bed, all those routines are done amid tears.
So, yeah, we had a problem. Hence, therapy. Not just talk therapy, but Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Therapy. We discovered that all the routines, rituals, and accommodations were actually making it worse or at least keeping it really bad. Her therapist recommended small steps in exposures (something called Middle Path) to help her gradually build up tolerance to face her fears. Here’s what it looks like:
- Take out some part of the routine/ritual at bedtime. Don’t close curtains or leave closet door open.
- Have Dad help with bedtime. Leave Mom out of the routine.
We’ve been practicing Middle Path for months. Sometimes it goes smoothly sometimes its pretty rough. But no matter what we try to stay consistent…even if its through tears on both sides. Her tolerance had increased. So we’ve stepped up the game. Now it looks like the above with these additions:
- Put yourself to bed 3 nights a week. No parent.
It’s working. It still is hard sometimes. I’ve learned with all my people that anxiety doesn’t ever go away. It quiets down for a bit sometimes, but it’s always there, waiting. And that’s why facing your fears EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.is so important. Consistent, compassionate, mindful work brings lasting peace. It’s a work in progress. It’s a daily battle. But it’s so much better. My daughter has learned that her fear is her Worry Monster keeping her in The Worry Loop. She now knows that she has control of how she responds to her worry. She will always have worry, but she can still choose to do the things she wants and needs to do.
Here's a visual of what is going on in our brains during an anxious moment: