Riley has always been a sensitive sort of kid. Doesn’t like loud noises, seems particularly overwhelmed by pain, is picky about food to the point where it’s really not even remotely funny and/or something I can just make him deal with.

He gets anxious about things, too. Not, say, the looming specter of death, which you’d think would be a creepy thing for a five-year-old to think about yet he’s the one who’s reminded me on more than one occasion that while I like to think our cat just ran away to a Cat Spa of some kind, SHE PROBABLY GOTS DEAD, MOM.

No, he tends to get spun up about potentially negative scenarios, and can’t let them go. Like, he hates balloons because they’re just floating there…full of the the horrible potential to pop. When will it pop, in a loud and startling fashion? No one knows. It might not, after all. But it might.

With very few exceptions, he can’t watch movies all the way through. If the music starts getting dramatic and it seems something even mildly scary is going to happen—I’m talking rated-G scary—he has to leave the room. He can’t stand the suspense.

There are plenty of examples, but essentially, I feel like I can picture what is happening in his mind: the idea of a bad outcome is lodged there, and he can’t find his way around it. It takes over until it’s nearly all he can think about. The foreign food item I’ve placed on his plate is so overwhelming with the probability that it tastes bad, he not only can’t bring himself to try it, he can’t even handle it sitting there.

I imagine he’ll eventually grow out of some of these quirks in the same way he eventually stopped referring to his thumb as a “shum” (oh! I miss the shum!), but of course I have moments when I am worried he will not. I worry (ironically!) that he will spend too much time worrying. That instead of being open to new experiences, he will be mired in What Ifs.

I read a book called Freeing Your Child from Anxiety that had a decent metaphor for anxiety, and I talked with Riley about it. “Can you imagine a dog,” I told him, “That’s living in a house and when someone knocks at the door it just goes crazy, it barks and barks and barks because it’s all freaked out?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like that dog across the street.” (He’s terrified of that dog.) (It’s a nasty little Chihuahua that I would dearly love to drop kick.)

“Yeah. And the dog is scared because it thinks there’s a bad guy at the door. But guess who’s really there? It’s just a nice mailman, and he’s bringing the mail.”

“Is there a present in the mail?”

“Uh. Well sure. Maybe. Anyway, so you know how you sometimes get worried about stuff, even when Mommy and Daddy say you don’t need to worry? That’s your brain being like that dog. Barking because it’s imagining something bad happening.”

We talked more about the dog and how he could try telling his own dog (his anxiety dog, oh god, I know, you’re like where is this going) to sit when he starts getting spun up.

And you know, it actually sort of works sometimes. Once when we were watching a kids’ show and the music got all dun dun DUNNNN I saw him get up and pace the room a bit, murmuring sit, dog, sit! under his breath.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t, and he can’t deal, and instead of being patient or even understanding, I snap at him. My own dog is a snarly asshole who thinks shameful things like don’t be such a chicken and goddamn it why don’t you trust me when I tell you there’s nothing to be scared of.

I want to help him to not be held back by fears, but it’s true I also secretly want him to be brave and adventurous and willing to confront that which intimidates him. It can be very difficult to pick apart where that line is between helping a child overcome a challenge, and wanting to…I don’t know, push them into a different personality, like you’re trying to put them into an ill-sized coat.

It seems to me that some of the most difficult things to help your child with are the things you dislike about yourself. Because raising a kid shouldn’t be about getting another chance at your own life, but sometimes, down deep in the unlit areas, it can feel that way.

We want our kids to be happy and we want to help them not have broken places and we ourselves are broken and not always happy and it feels like an impossibly enormous responsibility, this task of shepherding a child into the person they will grow to be. I am not qualified, my dog barks. I am so fucking bad at this! Sit, I say, with no conviction.

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Nancy
Nancy
11 years ago

My oldest daughter and Riley are almost the same age–I am so relieved to hear that other kids can’t even handle the (not)scary parts in G movies! I mean, Barbie’s Mermaid movie, WTH? You put it perfectly. Again!

Deb
Deb
11 years ago

Yes, exactly.

Alyssa
Alyssa
11 years ago

You said it perfectly. It is so hard to see things you don’t like about yourself in your child. I have to remind myself often that “he’s not me”. By boy is so sensitive and, duh, so am I. And yet I get angry sometimes even though I know how he feels.

Rach
11 years ago

You are so right on about the tension between wanting all good for our kids and wanting them to not carry on our brokenness. Why do you not have a book contract?

My son was a fierce worrier – to the point we took him for therapy, which was really helpful. We didn’t even keep on with the therapy for all that long, but it gave me and my husband a lot of tools for helping our son. One thing that really helped was to remind him that it was OUR job, as the grownups, to keep him safe and to do the worrying – we had it covered. I am still amazed (two years later) when he will try a new food, or go to a friend’s house for the first time, or…. you get the idea.

Erica
11 years ago

I love this. I am going to tell my dog to calm down too. It’s only the mailman.

kylydia
11 years ago

I’m not a parent but had to comment that I think you are a wonderful parent. This was also incredibly well-written. Thank you for that.

Kris
Kris
11 years ago

Wow. You said that perfectly. I feel the same way with my son but never in a million years could have articulated it that well.

Christine B
11 years ago

Wow. That was….perfect in a way I needed right this minute. Thank you for saying what I couldn’t, haven’t been able to find words to say.

Brooke
Brooke
11 years ago

I love this. You’re wonderful.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

Seriously – I felt like I was reading about my kid – thanks for sharing this. I’m going to have to check out that book.

Amanda
11 years ago

I was very much like Riley as a child, I still am a little bit. Mostly I’ve outgrown it. I think a little bit of fear keeps you out of trouble :)

My brother, on the other hand, feared nothing. There was no danger he would not attempt to concur. He is now a drug addict that lives in my mother’s attic. He’s 35yo.

Fear and worry aren’t all terrible.

Erika
Erika
11 years ago

Oh my hell! My daughter is seven and she CONSTANTLY makes up scenarios in which BAD THINGS HAPPEN. I have tried a million ways to get her to stop doing that. She says things like, “Mom, what if a plane falls on our house while we are asleep?” I worry about things that have already happened and she worries about things that probably won’t happen.

She also cried so loudly during Diary of a Wimpy Kid when the bullies forced the boy to eat the nasty cheese that I had put her in my lap and let her cry into my chest so that the other people in the theater could hear the movie.

marilyn
11 years ago

Gah. I love it when you just come out of nowhere with something so powerful it brings tears to my eyes.

I was also a bit of a coward about a lot of things (the dark, being by myself) a little longer than I should’ve been. Maybe until about eleven or twelve? I remember having a book about virtues, and I felt good about my capacity for nailing all of them until it got to a page for bravery, showing a kid in a scared in a big bed, in a dark room, and I remember thinking– “That’s different, I can’t help that.”

One thing that I bet will help a lot with showing Riley how cool it is to be brave is the fact that you and JB are both so capable of trying new things, and fun outdoorsy things that he can be proud of joining you guys in doing. He obviously loves going camping, even though that was once something new and uncertain too.

Hang in there. Hoping Riley will give you a big hug and calm that crazy dog up for a sec.

Lauren
Lauren
11 years ago

I’m not a mother either, but I love this. I myself struggle with anxiety. My entire life, in fact. I didn’t realize what I felt had a name until I was 25. I don’t know–I guess I thought everyone laid in bed at night contemplating getting sucked into a black hole.

I don’t have any advice, and it sounds like you are doing your research, but there is one NYT article that I read with several “aha” moments. So much so that I immediately sent it to everyone who has watched me struggle. Parents, best friends, fiance, and wrote, “this. this is what I feel everyday, and this is why.” It was freeing for me and those who watched me growing up, or even now, and wanted to say, “why do you do this to yourself?” Now, they understand my brain is just wired differently. The letters in response also have interesting insight, and most of all, hope. My life is certainly impacted by anxiety, and usually negatively, but I’ve been able to push through, and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at now.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/magazine/04anxiety-t.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/magazine/18letters-t-001.html

jonniker
11 years ago

Oh. Oh, I love this. I don’t even know what else to say.

sal
sal
11 years ago

Really, really lovely post. Thank you for such candid writing.

KKF
KKF
11 years ago

I too, was a worrier and still carry lots of irrational fear in me. Still hate loud noises and balloons BUT totally blend in to society too… in my own little way.
He’ll be fine. He’ll grow out of it.

Maybe you could let him pop half-inflated balloons outside with lots of background noise going on? Like, give him control over when the balloons pop and have the radio on NPR or something so that his brain has lots of things to listen to. Just three or four balloons a day, each more inflated than the last. Let him do it as a treat for his brother who will (no doubt) LOVE the thrill of popping balloons and LOVE that his brother can make them do it on cue (One! Two! Three!)

As a rule though, he’ll get through it. You’re doing beautifully. So is he.

Anna
11 years ago

Again, your words are perfect. Thank you, thank you for this post.

My 4yo is that anxious, terrified kid and it breaks my heart and drives me up the wall all at the same time. She gets so, so worked up about the smallest most ridiculous (to me!) things and sometimes it’s all I can do not to bark “just suck it up!” at her. And yet… my heart shatters when she gets so anxious that it starts to manifest itself physically. The “goddamn it why don’t you trust me when I tell you there’s nothing to be scared of”, rings so true with me.

There are have been so, so many instances in these past 4.5 short years since she was born that I’ve felt ill equipped to help this little girl (and her brother and sister) grow to be confident, happy… and yet she is so, so forgiving.

Coleen
Coleen
11 years ago

I am an adult who is like this. I read the ending to a book if it’s getting too intense. I have to watch a thunderstorm so that I can anticipate the thunder. I jump at popping balloons. I overreact to my husband jumping out from the room that I know he’s in. I have never been able to watch a movie with any suspense in it from start to finish (the Movie Spoiler site is my Bible). Tell Riley that grownups have that barking dog, too, but if he tells it to sit and calm down, I will tell mine to sit and calm down as well.

Michelle
Michelle
11 years ago

Oh, you have such a wonderful way with words. My son has just turned six and this year has been such an amazing transformation for him. He is an anxious little guy and it breaks my heart to see him so worried about things. Mostly his fears revolve around failing. I have watched him have an actual panic attack over a game that was new to him at a birthday party. Anything that is new and unknown he automatically thinks he will fail or embarass himself and I hate seeing how low his confidence can be. Especially since we work so hard to build him up. This year though, we pushed him to do and try new things. We started with tball, which he was great at and we also pushed him into Karate and that has been the biggest confidence builder yet. Slowly but surely he is becoming more confident in himself and it is wonderful to see. The picky eating is still an issue but he is trying new things weekly. He will probably always be sensitive but I think sensitive boys grow to be wonderful, caring men. You are a wonderful mom and Riley is lucky to have you in his corner.

Elizabeth
11 years ago

I’ve been trying to articulate this for four years now, since my son was born. Because shouldn’t I be better at parenting someone who is JUST LIKE ME? Instead I feel horrible and unprepared for it. And you nailed it perfectly, how it feels. Thank you for making me feel less alone. It helps to know that I’m not the only one.

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

“It seems to me that some of the most difficult things to help your child with are the things you dislike about yourself. Because raising a kid shouldn’t be about getting another chance at your own life, but sometimes, down deep in the unlit areas, it can feel that way.”

– So true. I amazed each time I read your site and you have expressed the exact feelings I have about the ups and downs of raising my children (but could never convey through writing). Thank you for your beautiful words.

Amy

Lawyerish
11 years ago

Phenomenal post, Linda.

Christina
11 years ago

Thumbs up on this one.

Do you wonder if fear in children is like wisdom teeth? Like something to do with evolution and the saber tooth tiger only there are no more saber tooth tigers (that we know of!) so they have to redirect their fears to things that we see every day and seem very unscary but this fear that bubbles up in them is unstoppable because of the evolutionary process.

Or I am just weird! Either way I hear ya sister and I feel same way on all counts (both about myself and my kids and their fears!)

Anne
Anne
11 years ago

I agree with Amanda, about how being a fearful child maybe is the early sign of a sensible adult. I was just like Riley, and maybe then some. As an adult I’m risk-averse. I’m not afraid of new experiences or people or places, but I also have a very strong sense of when something is just a BAD IDEA. I’m very stable, emotionally, financially, as a result, I think. I also have a brother who was far more brazen as a child. He’s not a drug addict, but he has struggled with impulse control and has had some truly scary life experiences.

I think your trick of having Riley try to control is fear is great, but even without it, he’ll be fine.

telegirl
telegirl
11 years ago

That was so beautifully written. You are an amazing mother…

kirida
11 years ago

That’s really great that you can frame his anxiety in terms that he can understand. We do that for our son when he’s bouncing off the freaking walls. We need a ready engine, not a high engine, not a low engine, a ready one.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

Oh hey. I have a very anxious 5 year old kid, too. It’s a different type of anxiety than you’re describing here, I think. Less of the startle/physical fears with a great deal of overthinking and worst case scenario stuff. “What if this, then what if that, then what if . . . ” etc. He’s also the most skeptical & stubborn kid you’ll ever meet. A book that’s helped us tremendously is called “What to do when you worry too much.” It’s kind of workbook-ish, and for slightly older kids, but I just read it to my son, and he seems intrigued by it. I have to admit I’ve found it helpful myself.

Clueless But Hopeful Mama

Wow.

This post really hits home for me, as mother to a sensitive, anxious 4 year old. I read that same book (and a bunch of others) but my girl is a little too young to understand and apply most of the cognitive behavior techniques.

We avoid things that really scare her and approach the smaller ones slowly and carefully. We talk a lot about her “worry brain” and how she can talk back to her worry brain and tell it she’s in charge. We do deep breathing exercises together, which are good for me, too.

And I lie awake at night, worrying about her worrying. I can’t imagine where she gets it from.

Nell
11 years ago

I come from a long line of worriers and I just love how you articulated this situation. You are a great parent. Keep it up

Liesel
Liesel
11 years ago

Hi there. I first want to say that I think you’re an amazing mom. Truly.

Also, I rarely comment but wanted to say that I’ve been pondering this sort of thing recently. Well, most specifically the part where you describe a tendency to snap at times and lose patience. I recently read a blog post on Honey Rock Dawn in which she describes wondering about why she is so patient with animals and not so much when it comes to humans. She stated it perfectly when she pointed out that in order to work with animanls, particularly anxiety ridden or fearful ones, you have to drop your own ego because animals have no ego. Working with an animal in that state is not about you, not at all. And often, when one finds themself getting frustrated, it is becuase the interaction or whatever happening means something about them, personally. Ex: why doesn’t this dog like me? I believe the same happens with humans.

Maybe this doesn’t make sense, and I certainly hope it isn’t offensive. But I wonder, and you sort of touch on it at the end there, if your lack of patience (only sometimes, I know) is more about your need for Riley to be doing or responding differently. I’m thinking particularly of the trust comment. I wonder if it would be different, or your reaction would be different, if you could focus on him and remind your own dog that the guy at the door isn’t knocking for you at all.

This is rambly and I’m not sure if it makes sense at all. But truly, Linda, you’re an amazing mom. I love your candor and your writing. Best to you all.

Rachel
11 years ago

I have the another-chance-at-my-own-life issue with my daughter, who is very much my mini-me, including in many of the ways that caused me to be shunned by my peers. And since I look at that part of my own life with so much pain, and spent SO MANY YEARS thinking about what I wished I had done differently, it’s the most natural thing in the world to try to cajole my daughter into being normal in the way I wish I had been normal. And that is so wrong, in so many ways.

Regarding the anxiety… I have a boy who was (and is, to a degree) the same kind of overthinker. If there was a possible bad outcome to a scenario he was facing, he would focus on it to the exclusion of all else. It was difficult. He was eight years old before he went to a friend’s house and stayed without me there… for ONE HOUR. He could not enjoy any event if it happened in a crowd of people. At eleven he would completely fall apart if he had to call someone on the phone. He *still* (he will be 15 this month) has to have a detailed plan of if-this-then-that any time I am going to leave him to his own devices in the house for two hours while I’m on the way to school and his dad is on his way home from work. But as hard as it is to work through all this stuff, as he’s grown up and (we’ve all) learned to handle and direct this kind of thinking, it’s turned out to be an asset. If you want something figured out, he is your guy. If you want a project completed exactly the way it needs to be, ditto. As he’s matured he’s learned to channel that fierce ability to see all possible ends of a situation and use it to his advantage (in ways that make him so completely different from his happy-go-lucky-hey-whatever mother that it’s hard to believe he’s my child).

So… there’s hope. You’re absolutely not terrible at this or unqualified. You’re just learning as you go like all the rest of us. Sit, dog. Sit.

Katherine
11 years ago

As a parent of a timid child, this post resonated with me so much. I always wonder if it’s something I’ve done, some huge parental failure I’ve made along the way. But it’s just how he is. And while I think it makes him sensitive and at times, closer to me, I’m like you. I want him to be brave and enjoy all the things children are supposed to enjoy. Thanks for the reminder (and advice) to be more patient.

Tammy
Tammy
11 years ago

I haven’t even read any of the other comments. I literally raced to the end of this so I could tell you how awesome you are for 1) recognizing it and 2) finding out more about it and 3) Trying to fix it.

I was Riley when I was a little girl. At night I would wait until everyone was asleep and go around the house unplugging everything because I was terrified there would be a fire.

I was so scared my younger sister would choke that at night when she was asleep I would stick my finger in her mouth to make sure she wasn’t chewing gum. I wouldn’t even let her sleep on her hands because I though she would get a blood clot and die.

While those stories are hysterical now, at the time, it was horrible. My mom just tried to reassure me that she was in control and nothing would ever happen.

Once we were under a tornado warning and I turned to my Mom and said ‘Mom is it going to get us?’ and she said ‘Tammy, it wouldn’t dare’. My mom AKA ‘tornado slayer’..lol.

All of this to say, I grew up with excessive anxiety and am only just now trying to deal with it.

I think the Dog analogy is absolutely brilliant. And speaking as someone who went through this, I think it will work. If he can learn to disconnect the experience/disaster connection now, he won’t have to deal with worrying excessively later.

melissa
11 years ago

I am just so relieved. My oldest (8) is afraid of weather of any kind. If its windy she has to sleep in our room (on the floor, stay outta my bed), and she’s even afraid of weather lessons at school, on perfectly sunny days. The possibility of weather is enough to send her into a panic. Gusts of wind = tornado, pouring rain = hail..she jumps to conclusions immediately. I’ve finally figured out that I need to just accept her irrational fear right now. She’s not the only one that has them, and in time, she’ll out grow them (or trade them for a more adult version). I’m glad it’s not just me.

Kristina
11 years ago

This is such a great post. Parenting can be such a landmine and trying to make sure your own hang ups aren’t pushed upon your kids is one of the things I find the most difficult.

-Jen
-Jen
11 years ago

Linda, I love you. Thank you for this post.

My school psychologist friend recognized that I needed help with my anxiety issues and recommended a book she uses with elementary kids. It helped me (a woman in my 30’s) a lot, so I thought I’d pass along the title in case it could help your family.

It is called “What to do when you worry too much” the author’s last name is Huebner.

Life of a Doctor's Wife

Oh how I love this. From the idea of an anxiety dog to the balloon filled with the potential to pop to the desire to shove someone into another personality… Oh this is wonderfully put and resonates so deeply with so many aspects of my life.

Liz
Liz
11 years ago

Love this, truly.

MRW
MRW
11 years ago

This hits home for me (particularly the feelings of frustration) because my son is so bold in areas that I sucked at as a kid (socially he is so extroverted I wonder where in the hell he came from) and so conservative in areas I was bold in (he would NOT put his head under water in the pool until he was 5 and refuses to try skiing etc). I feel myself getting so frustrated with him for not being physically adventurous and then I hate that I’m not able to be ok with that facet of his personality sometimes. On the other hand, I’m also saddened by the fact that now that he’s in second grade, I can almost see him learning to camoflage (sp?) himself among his peers and pretend he’s physically bold because that’s what they expect. The result is things like he refused to go to a good friend’s birthday party this year because it was a rock climbing party and he just won’t even try that. I have no point here other than I totally get the frustration you talk about with both my son and myself. Ugh.

Penne
11 years ago

When my older son was 3 he developed a huge and all-consuming fear of escalators…right before I had to negotiate a trip to Florida with him and his (heavy) 8 month old brother. Alone, with two lay-overs. No escalators. No moving sidewalks. Just me gritting my teeth and begging him to please don’t make mommy walk or carry them both through the entirety of the Dallas airport. ONE WEEK LATER, when Daddy made the return trip with us, he was magically cured. However, he’s almost 14 and he still won’t let me near him with a band-aid. Weirdness prevails.

Ms. HalfEmpty
11 years ago

Things like this are another reason I don’t want kids. However, it’s fascinating to read about other people’s kids. Thanks for sharing your story.

Lynnette
11 years ago

I only have a 20-month-old, but we’re now dealing with the issue of her not being afraid of anything, which is its own level of anxiety for me. She is liable to hold anyone’s hand at the park, walk off in a crowd, or lick whatever piece of garbage off the public bathroom floor. In many ways, this is awesome. However, she’s just like me in that she doesn’t see how it is any business of her mother’s what she is doing at any given time. Maddening when she’ll be an adult, but terrifying as she is only a toddler.

On the other hand, I already use her as my own Sit, Dog. If I bark commands at her, she usually is startled into obeying without thinking first. Keeps her out of traffic.

Your trials in parenthood always remind me that the issues my friends and I are going through are the more simple ones. Parenting anxiety issues, bullying, sexuality, or even existential conundrums are still pretty far for most of us with just one young toddler. Perspective is nice when I’m being given the stink-eye for giving my child a non-organic cheese stick.

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

Oh, yes. Exactly.

My heart aches thinking about him taming an anxiety dog. It’s so rotten not being able to just insist that it’s ALL OK DAMMIT. It’s so crazy talking a kid into trying cake. Like shouldn’t I be trying to stop you from eating this? Why does cake have to be a Teaching Moment?

One piece of assvice: it couldn’t hurt to take him to a psycologist. If it’s a normal phase you can get more info from a pro on how to help Riley. If Riley is anxious enough that he’s missing out on good stuff, he can learn extra coping skills to help him deal. Better to go and not need it than to wait and be kicking yourself later for not having gotten help early.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

Linda-
I loved your honesty… but I have to tell you… I have a 7 1/2 year old with very similar qualities (sensitive to pain and loud noise, VERY picky eater, etc…). When he was 2, I took him to an occupational therapist who diagnosed him with a (mild) sensory deficit disorder. So, it wasn’t just anxiety. There is a lot of info online and also a few books about it… my son still has some sensory issues to this day but mostly he has worked through them. He is a total normal kid! But, it was good for me to learn about sensory issues just so I could understand him better. Now, when he complains about the tag in his shirt bothering him, I know he isn’t just being a huge wimp or pain in the ass… I know it feels different to him than it does to me. We are still working on the picky eating… I don’t give him excuses or let him get away with anything his younger brother wouldn’t get away with. I hope this is helpful to you!! Love your blog!

Em
Em
11 years ago

I have a sensitive one too. I always feel so bad when I tell her to get a grip, it’s no big deal. I suppose I just don’t want her to deal with the anxiety I deal with. To be free of the barking dog.

ste
ste
11 years ago

My sister is wanting to figure out some ways to help my niece with anxiety. Do you recommend the book you read?

Christine
Christine
11 years ago

Lovely and amazing, and as always, so beautifully well written that I get a lump in my throat.

“trying to put them in an ill-sized coat.” Yes. I struggle with trying to guide them through the challenges and knowing when to back down and let them be their own person, quirks and all.

heidi
heidi
11 years ago

Well said. Although my little one is just a toddler, I already see the areas in which I’m trying to keep her from being broken in the same places as me. It’s so, so hard to navigate those areas and let her be herself. But I think you’re doing a wonderful job.

Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

Ill-fitting coat is right. It’s something I struggle with too as a mother. My son has several of my least enjoyable quirks and I struggle, as my mom did while raising me, to help him get past them without losing my mind. The only thing that keeps me sane is that I remember exactly what it was like to be in his shoes and it helps me figure out what I would have wanted. When I had trouble sleeping as a kid, I wanted someone to comfort me, let me sleep with them, etc. So when son wakes up and needs me, I go.

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